Country strikes angry chord during awards show

He once sang of dropping heavy munitions on the Taliban, but Toby Keith came armed with an arsenal of F-bombs of his own at the 44th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards on Sunday at the MGM Grand.

Enraged by a recent Rolling Stone profile on Kris Kristofferson by actor Ethan Hawke that intimated that Keith and Kristofferson exchanged heated words at Willie Nelson’s 70th birthday concert, Keith vented on a Nashville reporter who ran a story on the alleged spat.

"I’m not (expletive) OK. You ran something really (expletive). It was a fictitious (expletive) lie," Keith boomed backstage.

"I don’t ever get to take my shot at you, but you all get to take your shots at me," he fumed, glaring at the reporter in question. "It’s really difficult for me to be here with you right now."

And the tough talk didn’t end there.

If journalists are to be wary of the hot-blooded man-mountain that is Toby Keith, then those "lazy ass" Wall Street execs had better be prepared for just as much ire from John Rich, one half of the country duo Big & Rich, who performed his latest solo single, "Shuttin’ Down Detroit," with all of the warmth of a knee to the groin.

"Now I see all these big shots whinin’ on my evening news, about how they’re losin’ billions and how it’s up to me and you to come running to the rescue," Rich snarled, his guitar emblazoned with a "Made in the U.S." sticker.

Suffice it to say, dude’s not throwing on his track shoes anytime soon.

In a way, the slightly hardened tone suited the ACMs this year. Nashville has long prided itself on serving as a megaphone of sorts for the voice of the working class, a mirror to reflect the countenance of the blue-collar rank and file.

Well, with the populace increasingly surly and discontent these days over the imperiled state of the economy, the country music powers that be have followed suit, in a way.

But it wasn’t all curled lips and confrontation at this year’s ACMs. In a nutshell, it was a night of long winning streaks coming to an end and some new ones beginning.

The perpetually spunky Sugarland broke Brooks & Dunn’s streak of 13 consecutive wins for top vocal duo. Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles also won a Crystal Milestone Award for her songwriting.

Alabama’s record of six straight top vocal group awards fell to Rascal Flatts, who took home their seventh in a row.

And in perhaps the biggest shock of the night, Carrie Underwood ended Kenny Chesney’s run of five straight entertainer of the year awards.

Underwood became only the seventh female to earn the honor in the 39-year history of the ACMs.

"It’s indescribable, to be quite honest," Underwood gushed after her big win. "I can’t wait until the day when having females in the category is no big deal whatsoever."

Underwood was also named top female vocalist.

On the flip side, Brad Paisley picked up his third straight trophy for top male vocalist.

Taylor Swift earned album of the year honors for her smash disc "Fearless" as well as a Crystal Milestone Award. Trace Adkins scored the single record of the year for "You’re Gonna Miss This."

Other winners included Julianne Hough for top new artist and top new female artist; Jake Owen for top new male artist; and the Zac Brown Band for best new vocal group.

Longhaired country throwback Jamey Johnson — who, with his dark, brooding features and thick, scraggy beard, could pass for Rob Zombie’s stunt double — beat out big names like George Strait and Brad Paisley to earn song of the year for his hit single "In Color," a spare, lump-in-the-throat kind of tune about a man reflecting on his life through the family scrapbook.

Johnson took to the stage and performed the song shortly after he won, sitting on a stool by himself, surrounded by a mess of Polaroids, his deep, resonant voice channeling heartache, longing and just a smidge of Waylon Jennings.

"It’s as country as Merle Haggard wished it ever could have been," awards presenter Darius Rucker marveled of the song afterwards.

Rucker’s presence at the ceremonies did provide actor and singer Jamie Foxx ample opportunity to riff on the changing face of Nashville, and, by extension, America itself.

"African-Americans singing country? Things are changing," Foxx marveled before introducing a performance by George Strait. "What’s next? White people are going to go to Tyler Perry movies?"

From one left-field celebrity appearance to the next, David Copperfield showed up in a cowboy hat, looking about as comfortable as Larry the Cable Guy in a shirt with actual sleeves.

Copperfield was there to make Taylor Swift "magically" appear from an empty elevator that descended from the rafters.

Later on, Swift’s fellow blond spark plug Miranda Lambert gave fiery voice to her new song "Dead Flowers," which she premiered at the event.

Flanked by a guitarist who rocked what had to have been the largest mohawk ever seen at the ACMs, Lambert sang with her arms high in the air, gesticulating hard, like the world’s comeliest traffic cop.

But keeping with the modestly more solemn feel of the night, perhaps the evening’s most memorable moment was Adkins performing his war memorial "Til the Last Shot’s Fired," backed by the West Point Glee Club Choir.

"Say a prayer for peace," he sang in that deep, 10,000-leagues-beneath-the-sea voice of his.

And one can only hope Mr. Keith was listening.

Contact Jason Bracelin at 383-0476 or e-mail him at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com.

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