It’s time for my annual ponder about the state of country music, based on the snapshot offered by the CMA Awards. This time around, I’ve been unable to catch the whole telecast, but I’m relying on the paltry 60 minute edit offered by BBC4. The problem with this cut-down format is that the broadcasters tend to select the top acts, major awards, household names (yeah, right, I know) rather than the up-and-coming and merely-nominated names. It used to be my main means of discovering new things, but I’m unlikely to find anything new this way. The Beeb did show us the winner of the “New Artist” award, but I had already downloaded Jon Pardi’s 2016 album California Sunrise from
To tell the truth, I really miss the days of the CMA Awards being presented by Vince Gill, which ages me considerably, because I just found a news story about how he wouldn’t be hosting the 2004 awards after his 12-year stint. 🤭
Anyway, there was something off for me about most of the performances on the telecast, and I was left feeling that the show’s format was suffering from an excess of control and that what it was really missing was the sense that something could happen. I mean, it is literally only two years since Timberlake and Stapleton burned the room down, with a performance that you just could not bottle or rehearse into oblivion. This is the thing about music: you can destroy it when you try to bottle it, which is why Bob Dylan has spent his entire career trying to keep it live and spontaneous.
Anyway, something’s gone on. The performers, many of whom are wildly successful and seasoned live performers, seem to find this format intimidating and nerve-wracking. Maybe the show’s producers are to blame, or maybe it’s the record labels, piling on the pressure by pointing out how their Xmas album sales depend on this single performance.
The fact that this is one of the few music shows people actually watch means there’s been a tendency for the labels to sploodge a non-country artist into the mix in an attempt to cross promote. This year it was P!nk, performing solo; last year it was Beyoncé, performing with the Dixie Chicks in an attempt to capture some of that Stapleton/Timberlake magic. But here’s the thing. What worked with Justin Timberlake and his tight, talented band, is not necessarily going to work for artists who are more used to performing tightly timed and well rehearsed shows in a more programmed way.
Which is not to say I’m accusing P!nk (or Beyoncé) of miming (they call it lip synching now, but we always used to call it miming when we watched Top of the Pops and judged people for it). Which is exactly what fucking Garth Brooks was doing when he came on to perform his latest single (and later collect the Entertainer of the Year award). I mean, Garth, you’re in front of an audience of your peers and you do that off to the side of the mic move, and your voice miraculously doesn’t lose any bottom end when you go off-axis from an SM58?
Couple of things about Garth. Slick record production, back in the 90s, and the pick of the best songs, and some pretty spectacular live shows, with you know, fire and rain, and wire work. But he was never much of a singer, and – especially live – he couldn’t really project his voice. And he has never deigned to put his stuff – any of it – on iTunes, so he’s running his current tour on pure nostalgia and niche album sales through his own service, which who can be bothered with that? Worst of all, he’s dragged his more talented wife, Trisha Yearwood into this doomed enterprise, so she’s vanished from the public’s consciousness.
So there was him, but then the actual live performers all sounded tight and nervous and a little bit off-pitch. It was as if they were all singing with a gun pointing at them from the wings. Perhaps memories of the Las Vegas shooting? What happens when a bunch of country fans gather in one place?
So Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris, Kelsea Ballerini (with Reba) all sounded off key. And then Little Big Town, whose big selling point is their incredible harmony singing, did a lacklustre version of (shit song) ‘Wichita Lineman’ with Karen Fairchild wearing possibly the most ill-judged pair of boots in television history. I mean, just look at them.
Keith Urban’s performance was his new, Instant-Karma type single ‘Female’ was pretty decent, and Tim McGraw and Faith Hill put in a tight, on-key and touching performance of the title song of their new album The Rest of My Life. She’s another one who disappeared off the face of the earth, having last released an album in 2005. But at least this record is available on
The Bros were less in evidence than recent years. Possibly because the BBC didn’t include them, but also because the shockwaves created by Chris Stapleton’s success have made record labels realise that songs about beer, trucks and blue jeans have a limited shelf life.
Apart from Stapleton’s turn with “Broken Halos”, probably the highlight of the broadcast was young Mr Alan Jackson being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and performing two oldies from his back catalogue. In the right key, and without miming. The love and respect for him in the room was clear, with almost every current male singer in the audience singing along with all the words. Apart from Garth Brooks, Jackson’s contemporary, who didn’t seem to know them.
Which sums it up really: stagnation. Chris Stapleton’s stripped back, back-to-basics music hasn’t filtered through too much, although he still scooped key awards. Tim McGraw can still bring it. Alan Jackson, at 59, still does the New Traditionalist thing better than anyone. Garth Brooks won Entertainer of the Year, just as he did in 1991, 1992, 1997, 1998, and 2016. And everyone else is too nervous to produce their best.