The Academy of Country Music Awards are usually all about the annual Toby Keith-versus-Alan Jackson contest. At this year's ceremony, held May 26 at Las Vegas' Mandalay Bay arena, it was Keith who walked away with four awards to Jackson's two, despite Jackson going in with a leading eight nominations. But like most music awards shows these days, it's not about who wins but who plays. Over three hours, the Academy presented a mere 11 statuettes (just one in the first 45 minutes), but the Dick Clark-produced showcase featured 20 live performances. In this contest, the winner was clear: the Musik Mafia.
Haven't heard the name? That's because it's an umbrella moniker given to a movement in Nashville that's something between a loose weekly jam night and a formal musicians' collective. Its primary stalwarts happen to be the two hottest freshmen in the genre: ''Redneck Woman'' Gretchen Wilson, who just registered the highest-charting debut for a country album ever -- her ''Here for the Party'' entered the Billboard chart at No. 2 -- and her pals Big & Rich, who have a rowdy single called ''Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy.'' Their back-to-back performances injected a blast of rock & roll energy in a show that needed a little shaking up.
Time for EW.com to hand out a few of our own awards:
MOST SURPRISING ELVIS HOMAGE Belting out ''How Far'' in a glittery pantsuit, Martina McBride may have been the first performer to pull off an all-white outfit in Las Vegas since a corpulent King ruled the Strip in the '70s. Giving her some competition was Tim McGraw, who premiered his new single, ''Live Like You're Dying,'' wearing a white shirt against a white backdrop (call it Afterlife Elvis). Even Loretta Lynn reached back into here 1970s closet for a fancy, high-collared white dress. You heard it here first: Elvis is the new black!
BEST STAB AT CREDIBILITY Rascal Flatts and Lonestar, two pop-leaning acts who lack critical love, attempted to keep it real by performing all-acoustic numbers. Did it work? Uh, no. These two bands could go back in time and team up with the Carter Family and still seem like pre-fab city slickers, but it was a nice try. Runner-up: LeAnn Rimes -- still stinging from the commercial flop of her R&B-riddled last album -- signaled that she's really, really sorry and wants to return to Nashville by having Dan Tyminski of bluegrass band Union Station accompany her on a song from her upcoming album.
MOST CANDID ACCEPTANCE SPEECH After giving the requisite thanks to God, Best New Artist Dierks Bently added: ''I'm gonna ask Him for forgiveness in advance because I'm gonna raise a little hell tonight.''