Saturday, September 10, 2016

10th Annual ACM Honors, September 9, 2016 (Dick Clark Productions/CBS, 2016)

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

The show was the 10th annual ACM Honors — not to be confused with the ACM Awards, a TV staple for years (“ACM,” in case you couldn’t tell, stands for “Academy of Country Music”). Apparently these have been going on for a decade within the storied walls of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the converted barn that was the original home of the Grand Ole Opry radio show until the people who put it on decided they wanted something bigger and better and built a combination theatre and theme park called “Opryland, U.S.A.” (and in case you were wondering how the premiere broadcast showcase for country music got called the “Grand Ole Opry,” it seems that during the show’s early days it followed a broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and at the start of one episode one of the announcers dead-panned, “You’ve heard grand old opera from New York, and now here’s some of our Grand Ole Opry” — and the name stuck). The reverence for the venue as well as some of the people performing in it — and some of the ones being honored — got a bit too much after a while; I wished I’d been there just so I could make one of my typical snarky comments: “Ah, Ryman Auditorium! That’s where Elvis Presley auditioned for Jim Denny, and Denny told Elvis to go back to driving a truck.” There was also a bit of the usual-suspects aspect about the whole show, but unlike the ACM Awards, the ACM Honors did enough reaching-back into the history of country music — no, not all the way back to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, but at least to honorees like Crystal Gayle, Tanya Tucker and the evening’s principal honoree, Glen Campbell.

The choice of Campbell as the principal honoree was obviously inspired (if that’s the right word) by his tragic struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, and Campbell himself wasn’t there but his wife and children were (and his two kids were playing in the evening’s house band, so those apples didn’t fall far from the tree!). The show began with a surprisingly beautiful performance by Lady Antebellum of Campbell’s 1960’s hit “Galveston” — it seemed back then as if Campbell and his principal songwriter, Jimmy Webb, were in touch with chambers of commerce throughout the Southwest and were being paid to write songs that would promote their cities: “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston” (which has generally been considered the runt of that particular litter, but in Lady Antebellum’s performance it was quite beautiful and moving) — and then proceeded to give Keith Urban the Mae Boren Axton award for a long-standing commitment to country music. In case you didn’t know who Mae Boren Axton was, she wrote “Heartbreak Hotel” (though the official credits list two other people, Tommy Durden — whom she gave half the copyright to because he could record a demo for it in a voice similar to Elvis Presley’s — and Elvis himself, who took a cut-in credit on virtually every song he recorded) and she was also the mother of singer-songwriter Hoyt Axton (whose 1969 solo album My Griffin Is Gone on Columbia was one of my favorites back then, particularly for the refreshingly un-preachy and straightforward anti-drug song “Snowblind Friend”). I’ve seen Urban on previous country-music awards shows and been impressed by his extraordinary guitar playing — he’s a real country-rock lead player and not just someone who can play chords — but the song he picked was a ballad called “Blue Ain’t Your Color” that he sang well enough but didn’t give him a chance to show off his instrumental chops.

Then Tanya Tucker (her brief status as Mrs. Glen Campbell discreetly unmentioned, as was the more recent breakup of Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert — they both appeared on the show but in different and widely separated segments) was given the first of several “Cliffie Stone Pioneer Awards (given that most of the recipients of these awards were women I’d have assumed Cliffie Stone was a woman, but he wasn’t; he’s described on his Wikipedia page as “an American country singer, musician, record producer, music publisher, and radio and TV personality who was pivotal in the development of California’s thriving country music scene after World War II during a career that lasted six decades”) and a modern singer whose name I didn’t catch but who might have been Maggie Rose (some of the award winners got to sing for themselves but most of them stayed in the audience as modern singers did their trademark songs) paid tribute to Tucker by doing her early hit “Delta Dawn” (a song with a tangled recording history that I always thought Bette Midler did far, far better). Then Dierks Bentley gave the Songwriter of the Year Award to Ross Copperman and performed “Freedom,” a song Bentley, Copperman and a third person whose name escapes me (and which I can’t find online at the moment) co-wrote and introduced at the Country Music Hall of Fame Awards last March in a performance I recall as considerably more intense and emotional than this one. I was surprised that neither Bentley, Copperman nor anyone else on the show referenced the upcoming fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks in introducing a song called “Freedom”! After that Luke Bryan and Cole Swindell gave the Poets’ Award to the late Eddie Rabbitt and performed his “I Love a Rainy Night” (which they did justice to and which I’ve always liked, though my personal Eddie Rabbitt song is “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places,” a sentiment virtually every Gay man who’s ever lived could relate to! At least I think Eddie Rabbitt introduced that song, though I can’t find confirmation of it online). Then Kelsey Ballerini was brought on to give an award to Crystal Gayle, who emerged in the 1970’s as the younger sister of Loretta Lynn (who actually suggested her stage name so she would make it on her own and not on Loretta’s coattails) and became famous for her incredibly beautiful long straight hair (a far cry from the drag-queen “do”’s Loretta favored!) as well as a sweet, pure country-soprano voice beautifully featured on her breakthrough song, “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue?” Gayle came up to accept the award after Ballerini performed “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue?” — she joked that after hearing Ballerini she’ll never again sing the song herself — and the hair was a bit more tousled than it was “in the day” but she was still a strikingly attractive woman.

After that there was an odd round robin in which Curley Scott from Lady Antebellum introduced Thomas Rhett, who in turn introduced Jason Aldean for a medley of three of his hits which I must admit I didn’t recognize — the opener sounded like it was called “Dirt Road,” the closer like “A Little Bit Yes, a Little Bit No” and the one in the middle … well, at least partly due to Aldean’s habit of singing in unison with his guitarists, the closest I could get to the title was “Tattoos on the West Town,” which is almost certainly dead wrong. I like Aldean because he hasn’t starved himself to be rail-thin and fit into those skin-tight stovepipe jeans that are the de rigueur costume for male country singers these days (in that regard he’s a male country version of Adele), but watching him do snippets of songs the live audience in the Ryman Auditorium knew far better than I ever will didn’t give me much of a chance to assess him. Afterwards Emmylou Harris introduced Miranda Lambert for a tribute to Merle Haggard — a beautiful song called “Misery and Gin” which sounds almost like a parody of country music, but which Lambert did full justice to in one of the best performances of the evening. (I must confess I was glad when she and Blake Shelton broke up: “Beauty finally left the Beast!” I joked.) Then Martina McBride introduced a Cliffie Stone Pioneer award to the Statler Brothers — whom I vaguely remember from the early 1970’s but I didn’t know until last night that a) only two of the four of them were brothers, b) none of them were really named Statler (in imposing that name on all members they were a decade ahead of the Ramones!), and c) they were basically a comedy-country band who sounded amazingly like the Kingston Trio, especially when they sang in close harmony. Chris Young and Darren Shen did the Statlers’ biggest hit, “Flowers on the Wall” (sung with a nice 1960’s-style psychedelic graphic of flowers projected on the back wall of the theatre), at one point dragging in a third (unidentified) male singer and getting some of the same feel as the Statlers’ four-part harmonies on the original (which had a revival in the 1990’s when Quentin Tarantino used it for the film Pulp Fiction).

After that was one of the evening’s disappointments: Toby Keith gave a Poets’ Award to songwriter Jimmy Webb, who as mentioned above wrote most, if not all, of Glen Campbell’s Southwest-city hits, but the song they decided to represent him by was not any of those — or even anything sounding particularly country — but the opening “Someone left the cake out in the rain” strain of “MacArthur Park.” What made it even worse was that instead of taking the arrangement from the original hit by Richard Harris (more known as an actor than a singer), they trotted out drum machines, chunk-a-chunk dance-music rhythms and strobe lights in tribute to Donna Summer’s cover (one of those maddening records in which Summer proved in the song’s slow introduction that she was a magnificent, musical singer who could bend, shape and phrase in the manner of the best jazz singers and cabaret divas of the 1930’s and 1940’s — until the tempi sped up, the drum machines kicked in and strait-jacketed her into barking the lyrics over an inflexible “dance” beat). The group that had to perform this travesty was The Band Perry, whom I’ve already seen on some of these shows and whose lead vocalist, Kim Perry (she and her two brothers are the band), is one of the greatest white soul singers around today — only she was wretchedly unsuited for this song and this arrangement and tried her best with some soaring, impassioned high notes. What’s more, due to time considerations the song cut off after the first part — that silly “someone left the cake out in the rain” bit (I once had an argument with my then-girlfriend Cat, who pointed out, “It’s not a song about a cake left out in the rain! It’s a metaphor for a busted relationship!” — to which I replied, “I know, but it’s a stupid metaphor for a busted relationship”) — and Kim Perry didn’t get to the far superior “There will be another song to sing … ” portion which jazz singer Carmen McRae had the savvy and good sense to record without the rest of it. After that someone named Mike Bishop announced the ACM had given a “Lifting Lives” award (“Lifting Lives” is their charity to buy musical instruments for schools to get them to re-start their music programs) to Carrie Underwood, who just happens to be Mrs. Mike Bishop, and while she was out on tour and therefore unavailable to do the program, they showed a film clip of her singing a song called “Temporary Home” that was actually one of the highlights of the evening.

Then Cam — that’s her name, or at least the one she uses (her full name, according to Wikipedia, is Camaron Marvel Ochs) — gave a Country Milestone Award to Little Big Town for their controversial song “Girl Crush” (as in girl-on-girl crush), which Cam and Alicia Keys performed together for what was easily the most beautiful and soulful song of the night. Before it began Alicia Keys said, “Country, blues, soul — they’re really all the same,” and I found myself talking back to the TV, “And they all come from gospel music.” They certainly did when she and Cam performed “Girl Crush” in an intense soulful version that led the members of Little Big Town themselves to say, “You’ve taken our song to church!” (They had, too.) Then Blake Shelton introduced the show’s big finale, a series of performances of Glen Campbell’s hits which kicked off with Shelton himself singing “Southern Nights,” Dierks Bentley doing “Gentle on My Mind” (of Campbell’s first four singles, this was the only one not written by Jim Webb — it was by John Hartford and helped kick off his recording career — and the only one whose title didn’t contain the name of a Southwestern city), Keith Urban doing “Wichita Lineman,” Toby Keith doing “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and the four of them all joining in and taking turns on “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Overall, the 10th ACM Honors (the first nine were private parties for the performers and audience alone; this was the first time Dick Clark Productions and whichever member of the Cossette family I saw mentioned on the credits — Pierre Cossette was the producer of the Grammy Awards telecast and ran it until his death, whereupon his kids took it over — allowed it to be televised) was an odd and sometimes bastard combination of awards show and musical tribute, but fortunately the music-to-talk ratio was balanced much more in favor of music over talk than in most of these productions and the overall show was nice and entertaining, though only a few times (mostly in the Cam-Alicia Keys duet on “Girl Crush”) did it touch greatness.