05/11/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
Country music has always been about the basics: big hats, big boots, big hair and big heartache. You can still count on that last one—but judging from the wall-to-wall glamor at the 33rd Annual Academy of Country Music Awards, held April 22 at L.A.'s Universal Amphitheatre, the industry's finest are trading excess for up-to-the-minute elegance. Take onetime sequin queen Barbara Mandrell, whose Holly Harp gown was, as she put it, "a very simple pastel dress." Or Top Female Vocalist nominee Martina McBride, a head-turner in a crimson Richard Tyler sheath. Newcomer Sara Evans oozed élan in her red Oscar de la Renta ("I feel like Scarlett O'Hara," she said), while Chely Wright's clingy Helen Wang sent the night's chic-meter soaring. "In country music's history, when it comes to fashion, there's a few years we'd rather forget," joked Marty Stuart. "But everybody's looking really cool these days."
Not that traditionalists fell out of favor during the ceremony, which was broadcast live to over 17 million viewers on CBS. Tim McGraw
, with pregnant wife Faith Hill
, wore a jacket and jeans to nab four statuettes for the pair's duet "It's Your Love." Cowboy hats topped Garth Brooks (in black Wranglers) and Dwight Yoakam, while Pam Tillis chose her spangled Mon Atelier slip dress "as a throwback, my own personal tribute to Tammy Wynette."
Whatever their statement, many of the nearly 6,000 attendees—unlike their Hollywood counterparts—took pains to appear down-home. "I'm normally a no-makeup, sweatpants-wearing single mom," said New Female Vocalist winner Lee Ann Womack, in a spaghetti-strap dress by Carla Westcott. But the award for aw-shucks humility went to Travis Tritt, who came in Levi's and a suede shirt by Gossamer Wings. "I just wear what I feel comfortable in," he said. "I've tried to have style—but I've never actually been in it."
Steven Cojocaru and Julie Jordan in Los Angeles