Underwood top winner at American Country Awards

The tone for the evening was set early by a telephone-pole-tall cowboy with an attitude every bit as outsized as his inseam.

Trace Adkins was the host for the inaugural American Country Awards at the MGM Grand on Monday, and he seemed just as likely to crack a skull as a smile.

"The producers wanted me to do a monologue, but I told 'em I wasn't going to do a damn monologue," Adkins rumbled like an agitated fault line. "It's a live show. They can't fire me right here."

And with that, Adkins introduced the first performer of the evening, Blake Shelton, a front-porch sittin', guitar pickin', moonshine sippin', 'backer juice spittin' country boy from the woods, who kept the diffidence coming via his hit "Kiss My Country Ass."

"Don't wear no fancy clothes, no ties or three-piece suits," he howled over a bed of growling guitars. "If that don't fit your social class, you can kiss my country ass."

Thus, the mood for the show was established with middle finger firmly extended and the emphasis on sass and bucking tradition.

There are several competing awards events of this nature: the Country Music Awards, which recently celebrated its 44th installment last month in Nashville, where it's held every year; the CMT Awards, also in Nashville, in June; and the Academy of Country Music Awards, which took place in Las Vegas in April.

So what makes the American Country Awards different? Well, show organizers tout the fact that the winners are based solely on fan voting.

"It takes all the bitching out of it," Video Visionary Award winner Toby Keith said of the fans getting to pick the winners. "You can't bitch when the fans vote and you lose. At least they're trying to do the right thing here."

There were other differences.

Instead of trophies, winners were presented with Fender guitars, though really, the focus was on live performances more than awards anyway, with Adkins promising "more music per minute than any other awards show" and more than a dozen acts playing.

Said artists tended to eschew the larger production values common to awards ceremonies in favor of punchier, to-the-point numbers.

Eason Corbin, winner for Artist of the Year: Breakthrough Artist, Single of the Year: Breakthrough Artist and Music Video: Breakthrough Artist, turned in an electric "A Little Bit More Country Than That," complete with moaning lap steel; spitfire duo Steel Magnolia dressed as John Travolta and Olivia Newton John's characters from "Grease" during their time on stage; the deep-voiced Josh Turner, who won for Single of the Year: Male, had the arena clapping along passionately to his old-school hit "Why Don't We Just Dance" while more established acts such as Rascal Flatts, Decade Award winners, and Alan Jackson, who earned the Greatest Hits Award, played well-received medleys of fan favorites.

Carrie Underwood was the biggest winner of the evening, earning Artist of the Year, Artist of the Year: Female, Album of the Year, Single of the Year, Touring Headline Package of the Year and Music Video: Female honors.

Brad Paisley was named Artist of the Year: Male; Lady Antebellum won for Artist of the Year: Duo or Group, Single of the Year, Single of the Year: Duo or Group and Music Video: Duo or Group.

This being the American Country Awards' first year, there were the expected growing pains.

The red carpet before the show was so desolate, you half expected to see tumbleweeds roll down the aisle. Tickets to the event were being offered at two-for-one discounts shortly before the show, and there wasn't much of a media presence at the event.

One member of the Nashville media ranks estimated that two dozen reporters come from Music City to Sin City to cover the Academy of Country Music Awards each spring.

For this show, there were fewer than five, the individual said.

Still, the evening benefited from a sense of humor about it all, a winking self-awareness, with ventriloquist Jeff Dunham goofing on the changing face of country with puppet Bubba J.

"I like country music because it's music for the whole family," Bubba said, listing a slew of salacious hits such as "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off."

One of the funniest moments came right during a return from a commercial break, when Adkins needed to quell a noisy crowd to keep the show on schedule.

"We're running over," Adkins thundered. "Shut up!"

Something tells us that last sentiment could be directed at any critics of this love-it-or-leave-it production as well.

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@review journal.com or 702-383-0476.