Usual suspects vie for CMA titles

Wednesday, October 4th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Musician category filled with industry's foundation

By Mario Tarradell / The Dallas Morning News

As if Nashville doesn't congratulate itself enough – every time there's a No. 1 country single, there's a party – the Country Music Association Awards are the ultimate pat on the back. The annual shindig gets glitzier each year, and without fail, audiences tune in religiously to watch stars pick up those crystal trophies.

The 2000 installment, the 34th Annual CMA Awards, is no exception. Airing Wednesday, the show promises to deliver the usual country glamour as it honors performers in a dozen categories.

Record sales, always a sure indicator of industry recognition, played a major part in the final nominations. Faith Hill, enjoying triple-platinum numbers with her very-pop Breathe album, is up for six awards, including the prestigious entertainer of the year.

And then there's Brad Paisley. Mr. Paisley's 1999 debut album, Who Needs Pictures, garnered critical acclaim as well as gold-status sales for its traditional country. The record helped him score six nods, including Horizon Award, song and album of the year.

Ms. Hill and Mr. Paisley lead the pack, trailed by Lee Ann Womack, Dixie Chicks, Alan Jackson, Tim McGraw, Chely Wright, Toby Keith, Lonestar and George Strait. There's not a mainstream country fan out there that doesn't know these CMA contenders.

However, there is one category that remains unheralded because of its lack of star power. And yet, the musician-of-the-year award always recognizes a player at the top of the game.

They are superstars of the studio, session musicians with flair and finesse. They are the backbone, the muscle, of most albums recorded in Nashville.

Since its inception in 1967, the musician-of-the-year category has honored such greats as Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, Roy Clark, Charlie Daniels, Johnny Gimble and Mark O'Connor, who took home the prize six consecutive times.

Here's a look at the current crop of players vying for the musician-of-the-year trophy:

Paul Franklin – The man who makes the steel guitar weep and the dobro chuckle. Mr. Franklin has played for country artists such as George Jones, Mark Chesnutt, Reba McEntire, Keith Whitley, Mr. Jackson, Mr. Strait and Ms. Hill. He's also picked for pop and rock acts such as Dire Straits, Sting, Elton John and Barbra Streisand. On the road, he's toured with Barbara Mandrell, Lynn Anderson, Mel Tillis and Mark Knopfler. Mr. Franklin has been nominated before but has never won.

Dann Huff – He's a guitarist, but Mr. Huff is probably best known as co-producer of Ms. Hill's Faith and Breathe albums and Lonestar's double-platinum Lonely Grill. For the curious, Mr. Huff has performed with everybody from John Anderson to Billy Joel, Julio Iglesias to Wynonna Judd, Martina McBride to Melissa Manchester. As a songwriter, he's had cuts recorded by Jaci Velasquez, Michael W. Smith and Shane Minor. This is Mr. Huff's first nomination in this category.

Brent Mason – The most successful musician of the batch, Mr. Mason has recorded his own album, 1997's Hot Wired, on Mercury Nashville, and won this award in 1997 and 1998. His list of credits is also impressive. He's worked his electric guitar for Trace Adkins, Alabama, Neil Diamond, Waylon Jennings, Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, Randy Travis, Trisha Yearwood and many others. His songs have been recorded by country legends Charley Pride and Conway Twitty.

Hargus "Pig" Robbins – The veteran of the group. Mr. Robbins has been playing piano and keyboards since the 1960s. He's recorded seven albums, including 1963's A Bit of Country Piano and 1978's A Pig in a Poke. In 1976, he walked away with this award. He's played for Bill Anderson, Joan Baez, Gordon Lightfoot, Ronnie Milsap, Willie Nelson, the Statler Brothers and Tanya Tucker.

Brent Rowan – If you judged Mr. Rowan by the tracks on his solo debut CD, Bare Essentials (available only at, you'd think he was a quiet, calm kind of guitar player. The album is filled with melodic, mostly acoustic instrumental tracks. But you'd be wrong: He's picked for everybody from Southern rockers Charlie Daniels Band and honky-tonk country stalwart Mr. Chesnutt to pop-country queen Shania Twain and rowdy country-rocker Hank Williams Jr. Mr. Rowan has been nominated in this category before but has never won.