The country music industry has never been shy about patting itself on the back. This is a business that throws a party seemingly every time a song hits Number One. But those affairs pale in comparison to the four blowouts that garner plum prime-time real estate: the flagship CMA and ACM Awards, the wildly unpredictable CMT Awards (which air tonight) and the just plain wild ACAs. Here’s what sets each apart.
The Oscars of Country: The Country Music Association Awards (CMAs)
The Gist: The CMAs trademarked “Country Music’s Biggest Night” for a reason: This is the award that everyone wants to win and the show no one misses.
Atmosphere: Black tie meets black hat.
When & Where: November in Nashville, on ABC
Host: Following a lengthy run by Vince Gill, a three-year stint by Brooks & Dunn and a head-scratching multi-host affair in 2007, perfect pair Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood have steered the ship — and brought the laughs — since 2008.
Signature Moment: Miranda Lambert’s blazing performance of “Kerosene” at the 2005 CMAs — the year the show headed north to New York City — announced her arrival as a major talent, but presenter Charlie Rich lit it up in equally dramatic style in 1975, setting the Entertainer of the Year envelope on fire to protest John Denver’s big win.
Insider’s Take: “Winning a CMA or an ACM can be a huge game-changer,” says Nick Hartley, who manages Randy Houser. William Morris’s Rob Beckham, agent to A-listers like Blake Shelton and Reba McEntire, takes it one step further. “Because the CMA Awards are in Nashville there is the idea that it’s the hometown awards show, so the artists feel it’s really important to win,” he says.
The Popularity Contest: The Academy of Country Music Awards (ACMs)
The Gist: Stellar musical performances trump the trophies at the loose ACMs. At this year’s show, nearly an hour went by until the first award was handed out.
Atmosphere: Coolest. Prom. Ever.
When & Where: April in Las Vegas, on CBS, but next year’s 50th ACMs is set for AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas
Host: Reba McEntire was synonymous with the ACMs emcee gig, hosting the gala 14 times. In 2011, she co-hosted with Blake Shelton, before ceding the stage to current tag team Blake and Luke Bryan, the unfortunately christened “Bluke.”
Signature Moment: The entire 2011 broadcast. Occasionally in the CMAs’ shadow, the ACMs raised the bar at their 46th show, producing a spectacle full of genre-crossing guest spots from Rihanna, James Taylor and Steven Tyler, who goaded the bad girl out of Carrie Underwood on Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.”
Insider’s Take: According to Beckham, the ACMs are a precursor to the CMAs. “The ACMs get the ball rolling, like the guild awards do for the Oscars,” he says, noting one key difference: The ACMs allows fans to vote for the winner in the New Artist and Entertainer categories. Still, an appearance on either show can be huge. “It’s a big part of industry and consumer perception,” says Hartley. “It also adds another dimension, the visual element, to an artist they hear on the radio all the time.”
The Pop Culture Melting Pot: The CMT Music Awards (CMTs)
The Gist: Country’s answer to MTV’s Video Music Awards are the genre’s watercooler-worthy show, thanks to fish-out-of-water appearances by Justin Bieber, Paula Deen, Snooki and others.
Atmosphere: The hipness of the VMAs, but with more buckles than bling.
When & Where: June in Nashville, on CMT
Host: Everyone from Dolly Parton and Kid Rock to a pre-tongue-wagging Miley Cyrus with dad Billy Ray has hosted the CMTs. Most recently, Frozen actress Kristen Bell has been the unconventional face of the show.
Signature Moment: Luke Bryan’s awards-show performance debut in 2011. With a single song — “Country Girl (Shake It for Me)” — and more than a few hip shakes, the Georgia good ol’ boy became the grinning ambassador of new country. But Bell’s opening montage at last year’s show was comedic country gold.
Insider’s Take: The fan-voted CMT Awards honor the best in country music videos. “And not every artist makes a video for every song,” says Beckham, pointing out the sometimes narrow field. “But it’s a fun show because you never know what’s going to happen. The CMT Awards create great moments.”
The Excuse to Party: The American Country Awards (ACAs)
The Gist: The awards are secondary at best for this newest kid on the block.
Atmosphere: Like the kegger in the farmer’s field, but televised.
When & Where: December in Las Vegas, on Fox
Host: Trace Adkins has hosted this dizzying production since its inception in 2010, sharing the stage twice with Kristin Chenoweth and, in 2013, with NASCAR’s Danica Patrick.
Signature Moment: LeAnn Rimes’ salute to Patsy Cline at last year’s show, which earned her a standing O and gave the shaky ACAs — which perpetually feel as if they might be airing their very last broadcast — a dose of musical cred.
Insider’s Take: “I think Fox wanted to be in on the country music awards, so they created an awards show,” Beckham says of these entirely fan-voted awards, which with upwards of 20 categories can often feel overwhelming, if not altogether confusing. “It’s still so early in the infancy of what the awards are,” Beckham says, “that the criteria is often debated.”