Monday, April 7, 2014

49th Annual American Country Music Awards (Dick Clark Productions/CBS, 4/6/14)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Academy of Country Music award show was billed as the 49th annual one, and it was held in that well-known hotbed of country music … Las Vegas, alternating like a ping-pong ball between two venues, the MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay. (Can’t the government of Myanmar, née Burma, repatriate the name “Mandalay” already?) I had wondered about that when I saw the CBS promos for this show, but it turned out this is a West Coast country show, not to be confused with the Country Music Awards that are based where you’d expect them to be: Nashville, Tennessee. It’s also a production of Dick Clark Productions (the man is dead but his production company lives on — though given how embarrassingly Clark the person was resuscitated for his New Year’s Eve shows the last three years he was, to borrow Benny Green’s phrase about Bunk Johnson, “alive, at least in the biological sense,” it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find that Clark’s head was being kept artificially animated in a super-secret lab in the basement of his building in preparation for the future technology that will permit his staff scientists to re-attach it to a young live body), which means it has an element of audience participation. People with cell phones with text capabilities were permitted to vote for the award winners among the five nominees in two categories, Entertainer of the Year and Best New Artist. At least you were permitted to vote if you lived on the East Coast, since as usual the West Coast showing was three hours later — the East Coast media moguls never let us forget that we suck hind tit out here — and the voting had long since closed by the time we got to see it. (There was probably a Web site through which we could have voted in advance, though.) The producers made a mistake of opening their show with the best act, The Band Perry, which consists of lead singer Kimberly Perry and her brothers, Reid and Neil, playing guitars and singing backup, plus a couple of other musicians on bass and drums. I first saw The Band Perry on an Academy of Country Music special in May 2013, hosted by Tim McGraw (who showed up for one song last night with his wife, Faith Hill, making a surprise appearance on stage — perhaps to scotch the tabloid reports that she’s divorcing him because she caught him hosting Bisexual orgies at their home), and I was utterly blown away by the sheer power, emotion, soul and command of Kimberly Perry’s voice (the other Perrys are as irrelevant to their appeal as the other Jacksons were). The Band Perry kicked off the evening with a new song called “Chainsaw,” one of the angry anti-love anthems Kimberly likes to sing about boyfriends she’s dumping (she’s really the successor to 1990’s angry-young-woman artists like Alanis Morrissette and Meredith Brooks), and the visceral power of their music and particularly of Kimberly’s searing vocal was bound to make the rest of the evening an anticlimax.

There were a few attempts at what have come to be called “Grammy moments,” odd pairings of singers with each other whether they have anything to say to each other musically or not — like Lady Antebellum with Stevie Nicks, who long since lost most of whatever voice she had (as I’ve noted before, she and Bonnie Tyler are the principal victims of the myth that Black soul singers had “untrained” voices — the great Black soul singers’ voices were trained by the choir directors in the African-American churches where they started out, but Nicks and Tyler didn’t realize that and thought all you had to do to sing soul was stand in front of a band and scream). One of the songs they did last night was “Rhiannon” from the mega-hit Fleetwood Mac album Rumours — which in 1977 was powered to hit status largely via the visceral thrill of Nicks’ high notes. By the Fleetwood Mac reunion of 1997 she’d lost those amazing notes and had to rewrite the song to duck them — and last night the high notes were there, all right, but only because Lady Antebellum’s female singer, Hillary Scott, was there to sing them. Aside from that, the evening was entertaining enough — the sight of all those hunky guys in tight jeans was reason enough for an old queen like me to watch this show whether I liked the music or not — and I do like the music, even though a lot of it starts to sound the same after a while. Brad Paisley’s song “Laughing All the Way to the Riverbank” starts out with so exact a quote of the instrumental “hook” to the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” at first I thought he was going to cover the Stones’ song. I also found it grimly amusing that there seemed to be as many love songs to trucks as there were to people — the Song of the Year award even went to something called “I Drive Your Truck” by someone named Lee Brice! The only African-American on stage was Darius Rucker, ex-Hootie and the Blowfish (who had their 15 minutes with the 1995 album Cracked Rear View and were one of those bands that were neither as good as their hype suggested nor as bad as the critics reacting to the hype had it), doing a hit he had with Lady Antebellum (who seem to be everybody’s default backup band) called “Wagon Wheel,” a song co-written by Bob Dylan (and frankly, despite all the nasty cracks that have been made about Dylan’s voice lo these many years, I’d rather have heard him sing it!). It reminded me of the story I’ve heard that when Charley Pride became the first African-American country star in the 1960’s, there was still so much racism among the country-music audience that it wasn’t until Pride’s fourth album that his record label, RCA Victor, dared put his photo on the album cover. I’ve noted before that much of what passes for “country music” today really sounds more like what in the 1970’s we used to call “Southern rock” — the music of the Allman Brothers and especially Lynyrd Skynyrd — than like the music of Jimmie Rodgers (I), Hank Williams or Johnny Cash, and virtually everything played at the Academy of Country Music awards was of that type.

Oddly, the “Entertainer of the Year” award — one of the two that was voted on by viewers — went not to one of the young hunks in tight jeans (or one of the young babes in loose-fitting blouses and, you guessed it, tight jeans) but to 61-year-old George Strait, who’d just been featured in a 77th-birthday tribute to Merle Haggard in which he and Miranda Lambert (whom I like, even though she’s married to the show’s co-host, hulking, bear-like Blake Shelton, and I couldn’t help but joke, “Beauty and the Beast”) did “I’m a Hunted Fugitive” and “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” (the latter a song familiar to me from Elvis Costello’s cover). One would have thought a tribute to Haggard would have included what is by far his most famous song, “Okie from Muskogee” (the song the late Phil Ochs heard and of which he said that finally the American Right had a songwriter equal to himself, Bob Dylan and the other folk heroes on the American Left), but aside from the fact that Haggard’s politics aren’t now what they were then (in the early 2000’s he startled his longtime fans with a safer-sex song and then a song attacking the Bush II administration for having lied us into a war in Iraq — one could imagine some of his long-time fans thinking, “Et tu, Merle?”), “Okie” is probably too much of a flash point for a show like this; even Toby Keith, famous for his angry-white-guy anthems supporting the Bush administration and the “war on terror,” did something safely non-political (“Get In, Sit Down, Shut Up and Hold On” — another motor-vehicle song!), though he showed a depth of emotional commitment beyond most of the almost interchangeable male hunks that dominated this program. Though the guest list was overwhelmingly male (Kacey Musgraves won Album of the Year but was not invited to perform; the only really major female voices showcased were Kimberly Perry and Miranda Lambert), Charles was impressed at how important women are in country music and how they aren’t shunted off to subsidiary roles they way they’ve traditionally been in jazz and (especially) rock — and I pointed out that country’s first supergroup, the Carter Family, was two women and one man, all of whom played instruments as well as singing.

Next to that awesome opening song by The Band Perry, the piece that stood out the most (at least for me) was newcomer Eric Church’s plaintive “My Home, Too.” There was also a quite good song by Hunter Hayes, “Invisible,” which I genuinely liked even though it seemed a bit too precious, too calculated a plea for acceptance of people who are “different” — Charles and I had heard it before on the Grammy Awards, where in the context of a show so relentlessly Queer-positive they even married same-sex couples on the air it certainly sounded like a coming-out song even though I have no idea whether Hunter Hayes is really Gay or just an androgynous one-man boy band (the industry seems to be positioning him to be the next Justin Bieber once the current one completes his self-immolation) with a high voice, a choirboy face and an ambiguous song pleading for acceptance of people who are “different” without getting too dangerously specific as to just what sort of “difference” he’s talking about. Indeed, on this awards show “Invisible” was presented as a song to help a relatively noncontroversial cause, child hunger (though, come to think of it, child hunger isn’t really that noncontroversial — not with idiots in public office like Paul Ryan saying that if children are hungry it’s the fault of their irresponsible parents). Apparently Hayes’ organization has hooked up with ConAgra Foods (which gives me chills right there) to raise money to feed hungry children by donating a portion of the purchase price of any food package of a ConAgra product containing a special push-pin stuck to its side to a fund to provide meals, and also iTunes is donating a portion of any money spent on a download of “Invisible” to the cause (though the announcement was ambiguous enough that the donations may have stopped by now) — the sort of corporate “greenwashing” campaign that usually gives me the chills.