- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 16, 2005

NEW YORK

Big hair. Big Apple. Big ratings.

The 39th annual Country Music Association Awards, held for the first time in New York, drew impressive numbers for CBS, putting the Tiffany network over the top in the Tuesday night ratings by a comfortable margin.

The network’s live three-hour telecast (8 to 11 p.m.) of the ceremony averaged 17.6 million viewers and a 5.4 rating/13 share in the adults 18-to-49 demographic, according to the Hollywood Reporter, which cited preliminary estimates from Nielsen Media Research.

CBS won every half-hour of the night except the last one, when NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU” (15.6 million viewers) pulled ahead of the CMAs by a nose in the 18-to-49 demographic, though not in viewers. The atypical competition from country music’s finest also seemed to put a dent in the turnout at 9 p.m. for NBC’s “My Name Is Earl” (11.5 million), which slipped to the low end of its ratings range so far this season, Hollywood Reporter noted.

For Big & Rich, the CMA gala in New York was more than unusual — it was out of this world.

John Rich brought three dates with him — each with purple hair, raccoon eye makeup, silver bathing suits and green glitter painted over their skin.

“We’ve been traveling around the galaxy here lately and made a few friends, invited them to the show and sent a spaceship to pick them up,” Mr. Rich told Associated Press Television. “They traveled 10 light-years to be here tonight.”

Mr. Rich’s partner, Big Kenny Alphin, tried to explain the trio’s presence.

“What we are trying to get across is how big country music is,” Mr. Alphin said. “It’s huge. It’s interplanetary. It’s galactic, off the hook. It’s hot, hot, hot. It’s on fire. It’s revolutionary. Can I get an amen?”

Big & Rich had three nominations between the two of them but failed to bring home an award. Lee Ann Womack was the evening’s big winner, with three awards, and Aussie Keith Urban was a dual winner, winning Entertainer of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year.

Long Island native Billy Joel played veritable host to the CMAs.

“I think this has been a long time coming,” the Piano Man said. “It’s about time.”

Mr. Joel, known for piano ballads, says he has been a country fan for decades and hopes New York City gets a country music station —it’s lacking one now. He also thinks the generally accepted definitions of country music are too narrow.

“I first heard country music when I heard Ray Charles sing,” Mr. Joel said. “Elvis Presley was considered country, and he started rock ‘n’ roll.”

Mr. Joel, who presented the Entertainer of the Year award with Shania Twain, also said that several of his songs are country songs, among them “Last of the Big Time Spenders.”

He wasn’t the only pop star to make the country crossover Tuesday night. Elton John performed with Dolly Parton, and Paul Simon played with Willie Nelson and Norah Jones.

Country music often has been aligned with conservative politics, and two of the country’s most prominent Republicans were in attendance Tuesday.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg briefly appeared onstage to welcome the CMAs to his city, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist,Tennessee Republican, enjoyed the show with his wife, Karyn.

The event at Madison Square Garden reminded Mr. Frist of last summer’s Republican National Convention — another fish-out-of-water, MSG-hosted event — which he said similarly had “opened people’s eyes.”

Still, Mr. Frist said he thought the CMAs deserved to be back in his home state in the future.

“It should just be temporary,” he said of this year’s move of the awards show from Nashville to New York.

Robyn-Denise Yourse contributed to this report.

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