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November 8, 2012 12:10 am


Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton: Country's finest.

EVERY YEAR, THE Country Music Association awards show opens a window on the identity crisis in Nashville. Every year, it gets harder to distinguish country from pop. The laser shows have become Pink Floydian, the guitar solos have lost their steel and baseball hats have started to overtake Stetsons. The line separating Carrie Underwood and Ke$ha has never been thinner.

Enter Willie Nelson, who received the first-ever Lifetime Achievement CMA award during last week's broadcast. Sure, he's a legend and one of the few legitimate musical geniuses in the Nashville pantheon. But he might have been the perfect choice for the current confused state of country--a known toker who hasn't had a solo radio hit since 1989, but has recorded a reggae album and a song with Snoop Dogg. There's no school like the old school, I guess.

So maybe that didn't shore up country's case for being country. The CMAs decided to try plan B: Blake Shelton, who won the top prize of the night, Entertainer of the Year. He also won Male Vocalist of the Year. Kudos to Shelton, who is, at best, an inoffensive singer.

But he has a great television personality, seems intelligent and comes off as genuinely funny. He's a big, burly farm kid from Oklahoma who doesn't shove those facts down your throat during every chorus. Compared to the arena-rock stylings of fellow nominees Luke Bryan and Keith Urban, Shelton was as conservative as George Strait. Even though Eric Church was probably more musically deserving of the vocalist award, Shelton won the traditionalist vote.

But I have another theory on why Shelton has been getting so many accolades over the past couple of years. Shelton is married to the greatest thing to happen to country music in a decade: Miranda Lambert.

There's no mistaking which side of the pop/country line she's on. Lambert might fully embrace the blazing-guitar rock that most Nashville artists look uncomfortable flirting with, but she can also play a convincing traditionalist, putting mandolin, dobro, harmonica and dueling pedal steel guitars front and center in some tunes.

She combines those sounds with the sort of gritty self-empowerment feminism that Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline had to temper 40 years ago. Like those legends before her, her music plays with bigger ideas than most country music dares, and she does it with honesty rather than sanctimony.

She also does it with a voice that is sippin' whiskey smooth, but burns like moonshine when it has to. There aren't any vocal gymnastics, and the twang level hits the authentic mark without sounding contrived (I'm looking at you, Jennifer Nettles).

She can pen a good song, as evidenced by the CMA song of the year "Over You," which she co-wrote with her hubby. But she also knows how to get good help. Her latest album, "Four the Record," features songs by Gillian Welch, Brandi Carlisle and Alison Moorer, and instrumental help from Randy Scruggs and Steve Winwood.

So good on the CMAs for giving her the female vocalist of the year award for the third year in a row. But if there were any justice, Lambert would have her husband's entertainer of the year award. No offense to Shelton, but he's just kind of ho-hum compared to the firecracker he married.

If that fire worked against her, that's too bad. She might not fit the traditionalist's definition, but she sure as hell isn't anything but country.

Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036

JONAS' IN-TOWN PICK: Check out some superior blues-rock from the Neil Tibert Band with Waverly Milor at 909 Saloon. Friday at 9 p.m. OUT-OF-TOWN PICK: Gary Clark Jr. at the 9:30 Club in Washington. The next big thing in the guitar world. He is a must-see. Friday night at 8 p.m. LISTENING TO: "Just as Long as We're in Love" by Terry Callier. Although he died last month, his unique jazz-folk-soul legacy will live on.

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