If you ever wanted to see a real-life example of grace under pressure, all you had to do was watch Reba McEntire on the 29th annual Academy of Country Music (ACM) Awards last night.
There she stood, as charming and poised as ever, watching co-host Alan Jackson win award after award -- Record of the Year for "Chattahoochie," Album of the Year for "A Lot About Livin' (And a Little 'Bout Love)" -- while she just lost, lost, lost.
She lost the Video of the Year award to Garth Brooks, whose relentlessly uplifting "We Shall All Be Free" clip beat out McEntire's soap-operatic duet with Linda Davis, "Does He Love You." Brooks, though, wasn't on hand to accept, as he was at home awaiting the birth of his new daughter, August Anna.
The Top Female Vocalist award went to Wynonna Judd, who also wasn't there. Her mom, Naomi, accepted in her stead.
"I tell you, the real-life adventures of the Judds are stranger than anything I could make up," said Naomi. "Here I am, standing here in full remission, and Wynonna's in bed under doctor's orders, suffering from a bad back."
But when Top Vocal Duet -- a category in which McEntire had not one but two nominations -- went to Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn, even the winners seemed stunned, telling the crowd that after seeing the audience reaction to McEntire's songs while opening for her last year, they figured they didn't have a chance.
Meanwhile, her co-host was cleaning up. Not only did he win the evening's first award, Record of the Year, but he kept right on winning.
By the time Jay Leno came out to name the Entertainer of the Year -- the evening's most important award and one that put Jackson in direct competition with his co-host -- you could have cut the tension with a knife.
Fortunately, Garth Brooks won, saving them both embarrassment.
John Michael Montgomery didn't win quite as many awards as Jackson did, but he came close. He took Top New Male Vocalist honors and was sharing the stage when his hit, "I Love the Way You Love Me," written by Victoria Shaw and Chuck Cannon, was named Song of the Year.
Vince Gill was Top Male Vocalist, Faith Hill was Top New Female Vocalist, and the Gibson/Miller Band walked off with the Top New Vocal Group trophy.
Of course, the evening's big question was one those on screen never addressed.
To wit: Why are there so many country music awards anyway? You have your Academy of Country Music Awards, your Country Music Association Awards, your TNN/Music City Awards -- what's the difference?
Well, as far as the ACM Awards go, the difference is Dick Clark. As producer of the ACM Awards show, Clark brought the same values he brings to all his TV award shows: An emphasis on fluff over content, performances over award-giving, and star-gazing over all else.
Consequently, there were plenty of shots of celebrities in the audience (most unexpected: Hillary Rodham Clinton), plenty of special moments (most touching: Vince Gill's tribute to Conway Twitty) and a host of gratuitous plugs for Universal Studios amusement parks (most ridiculous: Boy Howdy lip-syncing on something called the "Miami Vice Pier").
But there were also plenty of performances, and those were by far the best part of the program.
Billy Ray Cyrus went against type to perform "Talk Some" in hair, hat and clothes that looked like they were on loan from Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Lorrie Morgan delivered "If You Came Back from Heaven" with the kind of emotional intensity that left even her on the verge of tears.
And Travis Tritt sang a new song called "Foolish Pride" with uncommon passion and tenderness.