Politics & Policy

You Give Country a Bad Name

The CMAs take Manhattan.

It’s been my contention for years now that most of mainstream country music is simply guitar-based pop/adult-contemporary/middle-of-the-road background music for people who live in red states and counties, and Tuesday night’s 39th annual Country Music Association Awards broadcast live from Madison Square Garden by CBS–though not bad at all compared to other TV awards shows–did little to disprove my theory.

Hosts Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn, who also snared their twelfth vocal-duo award, kept the always-awful awards show banter to a minimum, and the show’s producers wisely opted for much more music than talk–by my count there were 23 performances and nine awards presentations.

However, the content of those performances, as well as the decision to have the CMAs in New York for the first time, highlighted the continuing shift from substance to style in what used to be the most tradition-based segment of the American music industry. Indeed, if it weren’t for the cowboy hats and the (occasional) lyric delivered with a twangy accent, you’d be hard-pressed to make the case that all but a handful of the show’s performances should be classified in the same musical genre as the work the likes of Loretta Lynn and George Jones.

Lee Ann Womack, who netted three awards, including single and album of the year, and Keith Urban, named entertainer and male vocalist of the year, were the night’s big winners. Urban, an Aussie with movie-star good looks, is a charismatic performer and an excellent guitar player, but he’s about as country as Bon Jovi, the New Jersey schlock rockers who performed with Horizon-award nominees Sugarland on one of the night’s many clunkers.

Womack, on the other hand, won for what passes for traditional country these days. Her album There’s More Where That Came From and its gorgeous hit single “I May Hate Myself in the Morning” are fine examples of the countrypolitan sound of the 1960s, and her performance of “Twenty Years and Two Husbands Ago” was one of the show’s best moments.

Other highlights included Vince Gill’s classy Country Music Hall of Fame inductions of Glen Campbell, Alabama and old-time harmonica player DeFord Bailey, George Strait’s Texas swing “High Tone Woman,” and Alan Jackson covering Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight”–with twin fiddles and steel guitar recreating Slowhand’s clean guitar lines.

Alison Krauss + Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas tore their way through “Poor Old Heart” and were the show’s only bluegrassers, despite the subgenre’s steadily increasing visibility within country music. Douglas, the world’s best Dobro player, was named musician of the year.

Ultimately, the lowlights were far too frequent to make the three-hour broadcast worthwhile. In addition to the aforementioned Bon Jovi/Sugarland disaster, the ridiculous duo Big & Rich pranced their way through another of their hillbilly hip-hop numbers, Sara Evans and Martina McBride each screeched their way through a ballad, and the husband-and-diva duo of Tim McGraw and Faith Hill belted out something that sounded like it came from Broadway, not Music Row.

And it got worse. Garth Brooks, the man most responsible for the mess country is now in, stepped out of semi-retirement for a typically grandiose and vapid stage romp from Times Square. But even that wasn’t as bad as the show’s horrible climax. Elton John and Dolly Parton, after a tremendous take on Elton’s “Turn the Lights Out When You Leave,” lurched into a saccharine arrangement of John Lennon’s already insipid “Imagine,” which went over like the proverbial lead balloon.

To cleanse the palate, I’m popping in Blame the Vain, the latest great album from Dwight Yoakam, who, in a just world, would have many more CMA awards than Keith Urban.

Aaron Keith Harris writes for Country Music Today and Bluegrass Unlimited and is the author of the blog Listen to the Lion.


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