Monday, April 20, 2015

50th Anniversary American Country Music Awards (Dick Clark Productions/CBS, April 19, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s CBS telecast of the 50th anniversary American Country Music Awards was the typically lumbering sort of show so-called “awards” programs have turned into. Aside from the Oscars, virtually all “awards” shows these days are far more about featured performers than actual awardees — and what seemed strangest about the ACM’s (as they were referred to for short throughout the program) is how the awards seem to go to the same people over and over again, to the point where the winners of the so-called “Milestone Awards” (the ACM’s equivalent of the Academy’s “Lifetime Achievement Awards”) seem to have chosen for the honor because they’d won so many previous ACM’s. The other main message I got from the ACM’s is just a reaffirmation of how what’s called “country music” today is really the sort of sound associated with what in the 1970’s was called “Southern rock” — the music of the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd. During all of last night’s program, only two artists, George Strait and Garth Brooks, used steel guitars and solo violins — these once-paradigmatic country instruments have been relegated to history and most of the songs last night were powered by heavily fuzz-toned electric guitars played by people who’ve learned shredding and most of the other rock tricks. There was also a tight incestuousness about the awards; the Entertainer of the Year (voted by fans via call-ins — at least if you live on the East Coast; as usual they were showing us the program on time-delay three hours later, after all the call-in votes had been received and tallied) was Luke Bryan, who was co-hosting the show; and the biggest winner all night was Miranda Lambert, whose husband Blake Shelton was the other host.

I like Miranda Lambert but her determined perkiness is getting to be too much to take; with her halter tops, heavy lipstick and pursuit of a car-hop’s version of female sexiness, and with songs like “Little Red Wagon” (a nice novelty but hardly a patch on the old blues song of the same title) she seems to be going after the title of “the country Madonna” at a time when even Madonna herself has grown beyond this act. The show began with Eric Clark and Keith Urban doing a tribute to Merle Haggard featuring a medley of Haggard songs I didn’t recognize (no “Working Man’s Blues,” no “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down,” not even “Okie from Muskogee,” which is not only Haggard’s biggest hit of all time but, despite its rancid politics, the greatest song he ever wrote) because Haggard had won Best New Artist the very first year the ACM’s were given, 1967 (with Glen Campbell, not surprisingly, getting voted the Entertainer of the Year). Next up was George Strait, one of the few people out there who looked like an old-style country singer, with his basic black outfit embroidered with traditional Nudie Cohen adornments, singing a medley of “All My Exes Live in Texas” (our friend Garry remembered the original record better than I did and said Strait actually sang it faster than he did when he made the original) and “Let It Go” (a considerably better, though less well-known, song), and as I noted above his embrace of the pedal steel guitar and the fiddle-style solo violin gave his song an authentic “country” feel missing from most of the material last night — however good it sounded as Southern rock.

The next song was “Sipped on Fire” by the group Florida Georgia Line (and Garry, a Southerner by birth, said there really is a very evocative difference in the scenery and the overall “feel” of the landscape when you cross the border between Georgia and Florida, after which this band named itself), a decent enough song for which they ramped up the pyrotechnics: they literally sang the song in the middle of a ring of fire on stage, and goodness knows how they coped with the heat and the lack of oxygen. (The concert took place in Dallas, Texas, in the giant football stadium where the Cowboys, “America’s Team,” plays.) After that Lee Brice warbled a bit of the 1985 hit “Forever and Ever” to launch a tribute to its composer, Randy Travis, and then one of the Best New Artist nominees, Sam Hunt, took the stage for “Take Your Time” — it wasn’t much of a song but Hunt, rail-thin, slightly built and drop-dead gorgeous in tightly fitted red jeans, was the hottest guy on all night (formerly moisture-inducing jeans-clad guys like Brad Paisley and Kenny Chesney are getting a bit, shall we say, long in the tooth to elicit that reaction), and just to make sure we got the message he walked around the runway at the circumference of the theatre-in-the-round stage and shook the hands of all the … women, darnit. Hunt only got to do about half of his song — that was the procedure for all the Best New Artist nominees: they got truncated versions of their hits and were immediately ushered offstage so the stage could be taken over by an established artist, in Hunt’s case Dierks Bentley for “Riser,” the title track of his latest release and an O.K. song. After that came one of the high points of the evening: an awesomely soulful performance by Martina McBride on her song “Independence Day” during which I pointed out to Garry that it was fun to look at the men but the greatest music on the show by far was being made by female artists — including Kim Perry of The Band Perry, who weren’t on the program but a snippet of whose incredibly soulful and powerful voice was heard during a sample of a song announcing their nomination for Best Vocal Group (which they lost to Little Big Town, though I can’t get too upset over that if only because they performed a song called “I’ve Got a Girl Crush,” and there was their female lead singer glorying over her romantic, sexual or “questioning” feelings towards another woman — no, this certainly isn’t your mother’s country music anymore!!!).

After that things came back down to earth, more or less, with co-host Luke Bryan’s “I See You,” and then came Miranda Lambert doing her country-pixie act with a medley of “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Little Red Wagon.” Then came Jason Aldean with another medley (it seemed like the Milestone winners were not going to be allowed to be content with performing just one song!) of “Tonight Let’s Go,” “My Kind of Lonely in a Big Town” and “She’s Country” — I’m guessing at these titles because, though some of the names of the songs were announced in front, most weren’t — and after that came the biggest surprise of the night: Reba McIntire, long since descended from the empyrean heights of her career but singing with a surprising degree of passion and soul. The songs were oldies from her career peak — “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” “Fancy” and “Goin’ Out Like That” — but she sang with such incredible commitment and power she obviously still cared about the material and wasn’t thinking, like some other artists of her vintage do when confronted with their old songs, “Oh, shit — I have to sing that again?” After that the “Little Girl Crush” song by Little Big Town seemed woefully anticlimactic, and after the “Girl Crush” song Cole Swindell’s (the Best New Artist winner) “You Ain’t Worth the Whiskey” — a breakup song in which the person he’s breaking up with isn’t even worth getting drunk over! — seemed even more offensively sexist than it might have in a different context. Next came another Best New Artist nominee, Thomas Recht (I’m guessing at the name, too), with a song called “Make Me Wanna,” and after that Blake Shelton sang a song called “Your Lips Taste Like Sangria” which was as silly as you’d expect from the title. (No wonder he lost in his category and Mr. and Mrs. Shelton did not get to take home his ’n’ hers ACM’s. I couldn’t help recall how Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson broke up over his jealousy that she won an Academy Award before he did — though somehow it didn’t faze Paul Newman that Joanne Woodward won an Oscar 28 years before he did, though Newman’s debut Academy win was for one of the worst films he ever made, The Color of Money, even more disappointing because it was a sequel to one of the best films Newman ever made, The Hustler.)

The run of good but not great songs continued with one of those Grammy-style matchups (or mashups), Christina Aguilera (yeah, one of the all-time greats of country music) teaming up with the group Rascal Flatts for yet another medley, this one joining two songs that appeared to be called “Hard Road Ahead” and “Riot,” and after that there was one of the most ballyhooed parts of the show, a new appearance by one of country music’s most famous recluses, Garth Brooks — who’s about to embark on a new concert tour with Trisha Yearwood as his opening act. (Since she’s Mrs. Garth Brooks, that’s not exactly the world’s biggest surprise.) Brooks’ selection was “All-American Boy” and it was turned into a huge celebration of our military and the way they’re fighting in far-flung corners of the earth for our “freedom” — the song is about an All-American high-school football player who turns down offers from big colleges, “signs with Uncle Sam,” comes back alive and relatively whole (a surprise since the payoff in this genre is usually that he comes back either missing some parts or in a box), and then Brooks goes into a final chorus lamenting the boys who go to war and don’t come back alive. Had they just presented the song simply, they might have made the point, but instead they way overdid it, from having Brooks play the song on a red-white-and-blue guitar to having actual servicemembers march through the audience in uniform for the final chorus and using the video screen to show more or less appropriate images just in case we didn’t get the point. After that Kenny Chesney came on for a couple of songs that appeared to be called “Mostly Young” and “Wild Child” (I quite liked “Wild Child” even though it’s hardly the best thing ever written in its genre) and then Lady Antebellum did a song called “Long Stretch of Love.” I still don’t like their name — “antebellum” literally means “before the war” and is a word usually used by Southern sympathizers to describe the wonderful aristocratic slavery-driven plantation system they had before the Civil War — when I first heard there was a group called Lady Antebellum I grimly joked, “What are they going to call their album — Slavery Was Cool?” — but I like their music, especially when their female member, Hillary Scott, is front and center; alas, “Long Stretch of Love” was a duet between her and Charles Kelley, the male singer (the third member is Dave Heywood but he doesn’t sing leads), and every time he came in instead of (or over) her the energy level dropped considerably.

After that the show did another mashup, this time with Nick Jonas of the Jonas Brothers, who had their 15 milliseconds of fame in 2008 or thereabouts (it’s hard to keep track of boy bands because, like people in Oz, they come and go so quickly; I couldn’t help but think when I saw a poster for an upcoming concert by New Kids on the Block that by now they’re pretty old kids on the block, and one wonders how much longer One Direction can continue before their career direction is down) with the country duo Dan & Shea for a couple of songs called (I think) “I Still Get Jealous” (actually according to my online search it’s just called “Jealous”) and “Chains” — both titles that were previously used for considerably better songs, “Jealous” and “I Still Get Jealous” for songs in the classic era and “Chains” for an old R&B song the Beatles covered on their first album. Nick Jonas seemed overpowered by Dan & Shea even on his own song, “Jealous,” and I thought his brother Kevin was the cute one anyway. Then came what was by far the most moving portion of the show, a sort of back-handed tribute to the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing (it took place on April 19, 1995 and was the most serious terrorist incident on U.S. soil until the 9/11 attacks six years later, and as I recall it was originally blamed on “Arab terrorists” before the culprits turned out to be closer to home: two disaffected veterans, Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols, who’d read William Pierce’s Right-wing screed The Turner Diaries and wanted to make its fantasy of a race war and the ultimate imposition of a white supremacist government to replace the so-called “Zionist-Occupied Government,” or ZOG, that supposedly rules this country now) that presented Alan Jackson doing his famous song about 9/11, “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?” It was everything Garth Brooks’ song should have been and wasn’t: a simple, eloquent, surprisingly non-judgmental piece of material, presented with no frippery, just a few video images and Jackson singing and playing acoustic guitar, and doing his song in an understated way that was far more effective than the patriotic breast-beating from Lee Greenwood, Lynyrd Skynyrd (though I thought their Right-wing anti-Obama song “God and Guns” was the best conservative political song since “Okie from Muskogee” — and how do you do a tribute to Merle Haggard without including “Okie from Muskogee”? It’s like doing a tribute to the Rolling Stones and not doing “Satisfaction”!), Toby Keith et al. 

The show should really have ended there but there were still a few awards to be presented and a few celebrities to be trotted out in non-singing roles, including Taylor Swift (who actually sort-of apologized to the country crowd for making a pop album — which just underscores how silly and arbitrary the whole salami-slicing of the music world into genres is; it has far, far more to do with marketing than artistry) and Steve Tyler (who claimed Buddy Holly as an early influence, which may have explained why he was wearing similarly ugly glasses) and three more songs: Brad Paisley’s hit “Crushin’ It” (which appears to be what you do with a beer can after you finish drinking its contents), a much-ballyhooed reunion of Brooks and Dunn on a song apparently called “My Maria,” and an ensemble finale in which all the performers who could crowd on the stage of the Dallas arena at once did the Louis Jordan “Let the Good Times Roll” —not especially a country song and a weird way to end this lumbering and bizarre spectacle in which, as usual, the artists who did not trick up their performances with pyrotechnics, elaborate dance spectacles or light shows on the stage floor came off better than those who did (though thank goodness for one thing: the plague of Cirque du Soleil-style gymnasts and acrobats that afflict all too many pop acts’ stage shows these days hasn’t yet hit the country world) and the show dragged on way too long (3 ½ hours) for its slender content — though at least it did come in on schedule and didn’t suffer from the impromptu bloat (as opposed to the planned bloat) of most awards telecasts. And I was certainly amused to see the final credit to Dick Clark Productions — the king is dead but (like Walt Disney) his production company lives on!