Perhaps no one was more shocked than Blake Shelton when he received the entertainer of the year award from presenters Reba McEntire and Tim Allen during the 46th annual Country Music Assn. Awards on Nov. 1. He hadn't imagined the digits were in his favor.
Music Row executives like to consider numbers as they sort through the nominees for the CMA's biggest prize every year. The number of albums sold or singles downloaded made Taylor Swift or Jason Aldean the presumptive winner for most analysts. Kenny Chesney, by piling up more stadium sellouts than any other country artist in history, could have been a pick by that same measure.
Shelton figured the sales numbers meant an easy victory for Swift. "This is pretty dumb that there's anybody else nominated," he said backstage.
But Shelton and the analysts overlooked one set of numbers: Nielsen ratings. Even in the Internet age, TV rankings have a major influence on America's cultural consciousness, and Shelton -- through his role as a coach on NBC's "The Voice" -- has used the exposure to millions of American households to lift his profile, in effect rising from a midlevel country act to a bona fide country star.
Several of the artists who walked the red carpet or performed on the CMA show -- co-host Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Scotty McCreery, Lauren Alaina, Kellie Pickler and Shelton's wife, Miranda Lambert -- tread a similar path by using the TV music competitions "American Idol" or "Nashville Star" to get their start. A bevy of actors also suddenly became relevant to Country Music Week proceedings through the new TV series "Nashville," appearing at a minimum of three events during the week.
There's an enormous amount of pressure in delivering great performances on TV, and the role Shelton has taken on as a mentor is particularly difficult. Modern arena-sized concerts are typically scripted and performed each night on the road with little variance, as are the sitcoms that McEntire has engaged in -- the CW's defunct "Reba" and ABC's "Malibu Country," which debuted Nov. 2. Singing on "Idol" makes a singer vulnerable, though the show is more about drama and vocal performances than personality.
In that way, Shelton puts more at risk on "The Voice," offering his expertise and reacting on the fly to contestants in a manner that relies heavily on his insight, his wit and his candor. He proves weekly that he's genuinely funny, and he demonstrated as a writer of "Over You," which won song of the year for him and co-writer Lambert at the CMAs, that he can go deep, too.
"One year I was nominated for entertainer of the year and I didn't feel like I deserved it," Lambert told journalists backstage, "so I started to research what I thought entertainer of the year meant. And I realized that it meant not only touring numbers, not only ticket sales or how much production that you had, but the way that you represented country music within a year -- the media that you do, and the work that you do and the TV shows that you're on, and how you represent yourself and how much you speak out about country music. When you think of it that way, Blake Shelton deserved to win that trophy."
In fact, Shelton's victory is a modern spin on the CMA entertainer legacy. When Eddy Arnold won the first entertainer trophy in 1967, he was a regular prime-time guest on then-popular variety shows, and he was one of several rotating hosts of NBC's "Kraft Music Hall." Glen Campbell had just hosted a replacement series, "The Summer Brothers Smothers Show," on CBS when he won entertainer in 1968, and "The Johnny Cash Show" was in its first season on ABC when Cash swiped the trophy in 1969. Roy Clark picked up the honor in 1973 while mixing music and comedy as a co-host of the syndicated "Hee Haw," and the second of Barbara Mandrell's two entertainer wins came in the midst of her run on NBC's "Barbara Mandrell & the Mandrell Sisters."
The CMA show itself is an important part of country's TV tradition. A performance on the special ranked No. 8 on Billboard's Maximum Exposure list of the 100 most influential platforms for selling music. Thus, all of the night's performances -- including ones by double-winners Little Big Town, album of the year victor Eric Church, Eli Young Band, Luke Bryan and CMA co-host Brad Paisley, to name but a few -- likely made a positive impact on their careers.
Shelton simply illustrated best -- for that night, anyway -- how the mix of music, personality and the into-your-living-room delivery system of TV remains a real winner for country.