Monday, April 4, 2016

51st Annual American Country Music Awards (Dick Clark Productions/CBS-TV, aired April 3, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was the 51st annual American Country Music Awards, run on CBS from 8 to 11 p.m. and telecast from that legendary hotbed of country music, Las Vegas. It was hosted by Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley (the latter’s first name is usually pronounced “Dirks,” though one woman with an especially thick accent called him “Darks”!), and was pretty much par for the course for a “country-music” show these days. I’ve noted before in these pages that most of what passes for country music today is the sound that in the 1970’s was generally called “Southern rock” — the country singers performing now clearly owe a lot more to bands like the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Z. Z. Top (one of whose members actually guest-starred during one performance — more on that later) than to Jimmie Rodgers (either one), Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. About the only Williams reference all night was that the final award, Entertainer of the Year, was presented by Tom Hiddleston, who’s just starred in a new movie about him (and though he’s British and his best-known previous role was as Loki in the Thor movies, the resemblance is striking: he certainly looks more like Hank Williams than George Hamilton did!). Bryan and Bentley did a nice opening number called “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day” — I was particularly struck by the electric banjo one of the musicians was playing (I hadn’t realized there was such a thing as an electric banjo!) and it was a good way to kick off a show that was appealing overall despite two flaws that afflict a lot of country-music presentations these days: a sameness in the material and the vocal styles, and an overdose of testosterone. Maybe I was a bit sensitive about this after having just seen the marvelous PBS American Masters special on Loretta Lynn, but only five of the featured performers (Cam, Cole Swindell, Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini and Miranda Lambert) were female, and as much fun as it is to watch all those guys in skin-tight jeans cavort as they sing about lost loves and tears in their beer (some things about country music haven’t changed), I’d have liked to hear more women. (There were some other female performers as duet partners and members of gender-mixed vocal groups, but even they were few and far between.)

This was also the first big country variety special since the breakup of Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert, and of course there was a certain prurient curiosity in how they’d handle that. Shelton sang “Keep Playing the Songs,” a typical she-left-me-for-another-guy-so-I’m-gonna-get-drunk country breakup song, and though I think he was just writing Clichéd Country Lyric #103 it was hard not to hear the song as autobiographical. Lambert appeared two hours later and, instead of doing one of her own songs, covered Z. Z. Top’s sex anthem “Tush” (of course when a woman sings “I’m just looking for some tush” it has a quite different affect than it does from a man!) with one of the Z. Z. Toppers in her band (you could tell because of their famous rabbi-like beards) along with Keith Urban, who’d played banjo (acoustic, not electric) for his own song “Wasted Time” (one of the better pieces of material all night) but uncorked a powerful electric-guitar solo on “Tush.” There was a song called “Stand Back” by a group called Old Dominion (one of those oddball names, like Lady Antebellum, reflecting the Confederate nostalgia indulged in by a lot of the country audience — a recent poll showed that 48 percent of Donald Trump’s supporters believe it was a bad thing that the South lost the U.S. Civil War) and then a great song by Kenny Chesney, a performer I usually don’t care for, called “Noise” which was basically country-punk — speed it up and add edgier guitars and a screeching vocal, and it would be a punk song, especially since its subject (the sheer volume of messages thrown at us by the modern media and the futility of getting a little peace and quiet amidst all the “noise” from the media) is surprisingly socially-conscious and a far cry from the usual concerns of country music. Then there was a duet between Chris Young and a woman (in a skin-tight gold lamé jumpsuit) whose name was something like Kate Cassidy on a song called “Think of You,” and after that Eric Church’s “A Record Year,” “record” as in vinyl, which incorporated a D.J. mixing samples of David Bowie, Scott Weiland, “Lemmy” from Mötorhead and Glenn Frey as a tribute to those recently deceased artists. After that Dierks Bentley did an O.K. ballad called “Somewhere on the Beach,” and then came one of the best songs of the evening: “Burning House” by Cam. Though I didn’t like the way the stage literally burned during her song — somebody thought it would be a good idea to illustrate the title by having giant jets of flame shoot up around her like Brünnhilde at the end of Die Walküre — she sang with such passion and sincerity, and the song itself was so lyrically complex instead of being a standard-issue country lament, I loved it anyway.

After that Jason Aldean came out with a song called “When the Lights Come On” — he won Entertainer of the Year, though the big winner in the other categories was Chris Stapleton, an unlikely country star because he’s big and homely (think “Meat Loaf goes country” and you’ve got him) and he started as a songwriter — indeed, there was a funny bit early in the program in which various artists claimed that they had given him his first big break by recording one of his songs and/or using him as a duet partner — and then a bit of a disappointment because they piped in Garth Brooks from the middle of a concert he was doing in Ottawa, Canada, but all they had him do was present the Album of the Year award. Next up were Cole Swindell with “You Should Be Here” (not as searing — literally or figuratively — as Cam’s performance, but still nice) and Brett Eldredge with “Drunk on Your Love” (the title gives away that it’s yet another clichéd reference to alcohol, though this time at the beginning of a relationship instead of at its end), followed by Keith Urban’s “Wasted Time” (I usually find him rather bland but I loved that song) and “Stay All Night” by the group Little Big Town (for whom I have an affection if only because their breakthrough song was “Girl Crush,” and it’s indeed the female singer telling us about her crush on another girl) with the neo-traditionalist jazz player Trombone Shorty trying to add to the song and, frankly, just getting in the way. After that there was a duet between Kelsea Ballerini and Nick Jonas on a couple of songs, “Love Me Like You Mean It” and “Lost Boy” — Ballerini was great but the ex-Jonas Brother just came out in the middle, played guitar and sang a virtually inaudible part that didn’t add much — and then Tim McGraw came out on stage for his big inspirational hit “Humble and Kind.” (From what I’ve heard about McGraw he’s about the last person on earth who should be singing about being humble and kind!) Then there was a nice ballad by Charles Kelley called “Lonely Girl,” and after that Carrie Underwood came on stage for a song called “Church Bells” in an overproduced staging that seemed like she was auditioning to join the Blue Man Group, but it was still a quite powerful piece of material from a performer I’d always thought of as talented but bland. After that Sam Hall came out for a song called “Make You Miss Me,” though after I’d fallen in lust with him at the Grammy Awards this was disappointing; he was dressed in baggy clothes and seated at a piano.

The next song was the Song of the Year winner, “Die a Happy Man” by Thomas Rhett (I think I have that name right!), which wasn’t that great a song (though it was nice and refreshingly free of breast-beating) but had the sound of what I thought at first was a pedal steel guitar. It wasn’t, but it was a lap guitar that gave the song that familiar “twang” which used to be one of the paradigmatic sounds of country music before the genre was taken over by Southern rock! Then Miranda Lambert sang her ode to the human rear end (particularly the male version thereof now that she’s, uh, “available” again), and after that came the big duet CBS had been hyping for weeks now: Dolly Parton and Katy Perry. Parton was there to receive the Tex Ritter award for her ghastly movie Coat of Many Colors — a touching story from her poverty-stricken childhood that made a great three-minute song and a lousy 90-minute movie (as I wrote in these pages when I saw the film, “I was expecting Coal Miner’s Daughter and I got The Waltons”) — and she and Perry did a medley of three songs that reflected three phases of Parton’s career: bluegrass (“Coat of Many Colors”), country (“Jolene”) and pop (“Nine to Five,” a reminder of the time Dolly Parton actually got to be in a great movie). The show lumbered to a close with only two more songs after that — “Confession” by Florida Georgia Line and “Fire Away” by Chris Stapleton (he is an O.K. performer rather than a truly great one, but after all those hot, sexy guys who look like their jeans have been appliquéd on Stapleton’s bear look was actually a refreshing change!) — and the presentation of Entertainer of the Year to Jason Aldean. Oddly, Stapleton wasn’t even nominated for Entertainer of the Year even though he was the big winner of the night in other categories — not that awards are the real business of an awards show anymore!