I came late to the CMA awards because there was no live broadcast in the UK – as usual – and only an edited highlights package on BBC4. Which, given the state of recent shows, is no bad thing.
This year, perhaps promted by the underlying rumblings over the lack of representation of women on country radio, perhaps by the Ken Burns documentary (which has also just dropped on BBC4), the CMA decided to do a show that was a celebration of women in country. Ken Burns has (unavoidably, because the truth has a feminist bias) demonstrated how integral women have been to the genre, going all the way back to the Carter Family, and so the CMA put women front and centre.
Some of it was good, some of it was bad, some of it was ugly.
It was so great to see so many of my favourite artists performing on the stage. The opening featured the likes of Jennifer Nettles, the right half of Little Big Town, The Highwomen, Martina McBride, Sara Evans, and Gretchen Wilson, as well as hosts Carrie Underwood, Dolly Parton, and Reba McEntire. Later on in the show, Maren Morris performed the title track of her album Girl, and both Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert got a solo slot. There was also another medley by up and coming women artists (performing the Little Big Town hit “Girl Crush”), and Kacey Musgraves appeared with her pal Willie Nelson. Even Sheryl Crow turned up, performing a spirited “Me and Bobby McGee” with Dierks Bentley. All in all, the representation of women artists was high, much higher than in previous years, and of Bro Country there was very little evidence.
Here’s the thing (and I’m not the first nor the only person to point this out). Martina McBride’s most recent (non-Christmas) album was Reckless, released in 2016, and reaching #2 in the Country album chart. Its title track is an absolute corker. But the snippet of a song she got to perform in her opening medley was “Independence Day”, from 1994. That hit dates from the days when women could still get airplay on Country radio, and is probably still in rotation on some stations that don’t play much new stuff – especially by women. Similarly, Sara Evans performed a snippet of her hit “Born to Fly” from 2000, while her most recent album, Words, came out in 2017 and peaked at #4 on the Country album chart. In other words, while the men in the show mostly get to perform current or recent hits, the vast majority of the women were wheeled out to do 20+ year old material.
Luke Combs, for example, who was prominent last year as well as this, got to perform “Beer Never Broke My Heart”, which is fairly typical of the kind of fare that gets automatically added to Country radio playlists without needing to be “requested” or “liked” a million times on Facebook, which is one of the excuses given for not playing female artists. The best I can say about Combs is that at least he didn’t have a dixie cup glued to his hand this year (as last) and also only wore his fucking bro country signifying baseball cap on stage. Is he any good? Honestly, it’s all right, but he’s one of those vocalists – like Blake Shelton – who sings like he’s also trying to do a shit, and once you allow that thought to enter your head, you can’t listen any more.
But perhaps the starkest indicator of how women are still having to “backwards, in heels” their way to the top was the contrast between Carrie Underwood’s elaborate staging and immaculate costuming as she performed her showstopper — immediately followed by the overweight and scruffy looking Combs who performed in black jeans, black shirt and a baseball cap. Can you imagine the conversation if Carrie underwood turned up one year sporting an untucked shirt and a beer belly?
Finally, the show, which at least started with a stage crowded with women, descended into god-bothering religious mawkishness – as first cheatin’ Blake Shelton performed some pious crap about “God’s Country” and then Dolly Parton performed something like fifteen hours of gospel songs. There’s always been a certain amount of religionism in the genre, comes with the package, but this felt like some weird counterweight to all the unruly women we’d seen earlier. You’ve had your fun, girls, the CMAs seemed to be saying, now get back on your knees.