LWGENDS IN THEIR OWN RHYMECOUNTRY MUSIC'S STARS ARE RISING HARD AND FALLING FAST

In country music, the term "legend" once was mighty precious. Legends paid their honky-tonk dues, suffered for their art and strived to earn the everlasting affection of the hundred thousand or so devoted Americans who bought country albums. Merle Haggard's a legend. Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn are legends. Porter Waggoner, Conway Twitty and Jerry Lee Lewis are legends.

But last Wednesday's Country Music Association awards show reflected the dramatic and tragic changes in country music, as the new continues to show the old the back door in swift fashion. Unlike the warm, rambling, heavily corn-pone hootenannies of awards shows past, where rhinestone-studded nominees with backwoods grammar ruled the roost, today's gatherings increasingly resemble Young Republican conventions. The term "legend" is distributed like good grades from an easy teacher--have a hit single, shake your fanny just right and, hey, you're a legend.

But there's a catch. In the not-so-old days, country artists, particularly legends, could bank on a long if not particularly lucrative spell in the limelight. But being a legend has lost its staying power. Although they may briefly earn a British royal's pay, today's successful country acts have the career expectancy of an NFL linebacker.

The 26th edition of the CMA awards turned out to be little more than a device by the pabulum-producing polyester suits behind the Pine Curtain to keep the lucrative crossover phenomenon phenomenal. Whereas in the past, frequent forays onto the stage by the old-timers were common, the award presentations and performances on this show featured mostly middlin' new acts and middlin' new music. Here are the highlights:

ùPerhaps Reba McEntire's contrived vocal acrobatics are beginning to wear on CMA's voters. Perhaps her hits of 92--God-awful covers of the God-awful "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" and "Fancy--just couldn't save the day. Perhaps all are just plain tuckered out with her kiss-my-ring throne-hogging. Whatever the reason, her grip slipped as Mary-Chapin Carpenter snagged Best Female Vocalist honors in what was easily the upset of the evening.

ùLocal hopes were dashed when McBride and the Ride--with lead guitarist Ray Herndon of Scottsdale's Handlebar-J--watched as the multifaceted Diamond Rio snared Group of the Year honors. The sextet of superb musicians and harmonizers--who properly boast of having the only full-time mandolin player this side of bluegrass--was certainly a worthy choice. ùValley country-music mavens can still be proud, however, as KNIX personality W. Steven Martin did claim a statue as large-market Deejay of the Year. Martin did not appear live, but was shown via videotape accepting his award.

ùWynonna Judd, clearly the best woman artist in the country business, gave a stiff and self-conscious rendition of "No One Else on Earth." Perhaps after years of ceding stage attention to "retired" mom Naomi (who, like a stubborn rash, just refuses to go away), Wynonna has yet to figure out what to do with the spotlight.

ùThe Billy Ray Cyrus juggernaut rolled on as expected. The song won Single of the Year, and tight-jeaned Billy Ray set the girls to screaming with a live performance of it. Travis Tritt--whose criticisms of Cyrus' goofy gyrations created a rare stir in Is-everybody-happy? Nashville--wasn't in attendance and thus received no personalized hip-schwang from "Johnny One Note" Cyrus. ùSteve Wariner was joined in performing his "Crash Course in the Blues" by an all-star pickup band featuring Delbert McClinton on harmonica and CMA Musician of the Year Mark O'Connor on fiddle. It proved to be a welcome change from the rhyme-rhyme-hook, rhyme-rhyme-hook approach that dominated the show and that has contributed to country music's entropy. It's growing harder and harder to remember that country music was once the province of superior musicianship, and this mini-pickfest returned us--oh, so briefly--to those days.

ùVince Gill, winner of the Male Vocalist of the Year award, proved with his performance of "I Still Believe in You" that amid the stunning mediocrity besieging the Nashville music scene, his rich, angelic tenor is the rare real thing.

ùPreshow talks by the Nashville Network brain trust Crook and Chase with George Jones, Johnny Cash and wife June Carter were sad to watch. All remarked about the "glut of young talent" and how swell that was, but Carter revealed the truth. "Man," she said, "I used to be somebody here." She laughed, but no one else did.

ùIn the most sorrowful sight of the night, a pale, withered George Jones fairly pleaded for his professional life with a new song called "I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair." Although flanked by a harmonizing assortment of that "fresh young talent" he claims he so admires, Jones--who still can sing circles around most--was nonetheless effectively sent packing with his induction into the CMA Hall of Fame. Not so long ago, such an honor would serve to foment further success. Now it seems to be little more than gaudy retirement papers.

ùThe CMA's grand prize is Entertainer of the Year, won for the second year running by a tearful Garth Brooks. The usually upbeat Brooks had been grim-faced the entire evening, as if he were harboring a sad secret. Perhaps he is. Recently, Brooks has strongly hinted that he may retire. Not just semiretire, but total gone-fishin'. He's said that the pull of his new daughter Taylor might be strong enough to wrest him away from recording studios and big arenas.

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