Thursday, November 3, 2016

50th Annual Country Music Association Awards (Country Music Association of America/ABC-TV, November 2, 2016)

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

I spent most of the evening watching the 50th annual Country Music Association Awards on ABC — though I turned it off in the last few minutes because it was running past 11 p.m. and I wanted to watch the second episode of Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power (a fascinating three-part British TV documentary on the history of the women’s movement in Britain from the 17th century — when they were hopeful the Puritan Commonwealth would consider seriously the emancipation of women, a hope that was dashed quickly — to the present) and so I missed the final musical performance and Garth Brooks’ win as Entertainer of the Year. (There were an awful lot of “Mr. Trisha Yearwood” jokes about him, probably inevitable given how he retired for several years while she continued her career. The hosts were Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, and the show began with a confusing medley — 12 songs (or snippets of songs) in 12 minutes exemplifying the history of country music in general and the CMA awards (not to be confused with the Academy of Country Music Awards, a rump show promoted by Dick Clark Productions — the man finally croaked but his production company lives on! — and held in Las Vegas, where the CMA Awards are properly held in a city that actually has something to do with country music, Nashville) in particular, starting with Merle Haggard’s youngest son Ben doing his dad’s song “Mama Tried.”

In the modern style of awards shows generally none of these people were introduced, and the only clue for us non-cognoscenti as to who they were were very briefly flashed Twitter handles in case you wanted to tweet them (or tweet about them) during the evening. At least the songs were well chosen — “Tiger by the Tail,” “Stand By Your Man” (the woman who sang it sounded a lot like Tammy Wynette without being too close a clone), “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” (was that Charley Pride himself trotted out without recognition? Is he even still alive? According to Wikipedia, he is, and his Wikipedia page says he’s sold more records for the RCA Victor label than any other artist except Elvis Presley!), Alabama’s “Play Some Mountain Music,” one of Charlie Daniels’ songs about a violin duel (not “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” but something pretty similar — I must confess to a prejudice against Charlie Daniels because he once gave an interview saying he offered $10,000 to any major jazz musician who could cut a decent country record, and he got from Stan Kenton’s manager a bill for $10,000, a copy of the album Kenton made with Tex Ritter in 1962, and a note by Kenton himself saying what a pleasure it had been to work with Ritter, who was a real gentleman), Dwight Yoakam’s “Guitars, Cadillacs and Hillbilly Music,” Clint Black’s “This Killing Time (Is Killing Me),” Ricky Skaggs’ “Country Boy at Heart,” “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” (performer unspecified), and Randy Travis’ “Forever.” (I apologize in advance for any song titles I got wrong, since some of them I wasn’t familiar with and therefore had to guess — this will be true throughout most of this commentary because, once again in the usual modern style, almost no titles were announced.)

The 12-songs-in-12-minutes medley was succeeded by a weird comedy routine between Paisley and Underwood satirizing the upcoming Presidential election, giving both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton their lumps — any thought you might have had that Trump would have a special appeal to the country music audience and therefore they’d go easy on him was quickly dashed, though the spoof of Hillary was actually funnier: they brought on a box which they said was her “Basket of Deplorables,” including a joke in dubious taste but one which was still hilarious: an oversized bra that was made out of different colors of cloth which they billed as the “Bra of Many Colors” in honor of Dolly Parton, who was getting the “Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award” at the end of the show. (There were also an awful lot of jokes about Willie Nelson’s penchant for cannabis.) Eventually they got down to the music — and the awards, though in modern-day awards shows (with the Oscars only a partial exception) the awards themselves are an afterthought and the real purpose are to do what the old variety shows used to: present popular performers that audiences will want to watch. Kelsea Ballerini (that’s the correct spelling of her first name, by the way) did a song called “Peter Pan” featuring a couple of performers, a man (obviously embodying the title character of her song) and a woman (who I guess was supposed to be Wendy), being whirled around in mid-air on wires like Cirque du Soleil performers as she sang a song whose basic point was a rejection of Peter Pan for his refusal to grow up. I liked the song but I liked Ruth B’s beautiful “Lost Boy” (which takes exactly the opposite “take” on the Pan myth, a desire to be a Lost Boy and pal around with Peter) even better. After that Jason Aldean joined Brooks and Dunn for a nice performance of “Brand New Man.”

Then, in quick succession, came the two best songs of the evening: Dierks Bentley and Cal King (at least I think that’s her name) doing “Different for Girls,” about how a woman who goes through a breakup can’t just go hang out in a bar, get drunk and pick up a partner for casual sex the way a man (or at least a man in a country song) can — not without being damned as one of those “honky-tonk angels” Kitty Wells famously told us God didn’t make years ago. After that came what was by far the high point of the night: Maren Morris, who would later win the Best New Artist award, with the McCrary Sisters and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on a song called “My Church,” about the spiritual power of music and all that good stuff. It was a song so awesome I had my mouth hanging open from the sheer joy and righteous power of what I was hearing — Maren Morris’s album Hero has just zoomed to the top of the list of CD’s I want by living artists (I do sometimes ask myself, “Mark, when was the last time you bought a CD by someone who’s still alive?”) and, if this song is anything to judge by, she’s an addition to the quite remarkable group of women artists who are dominating the music world these days, both aesthetically (Tori Amos, Neko Case, Rhiannon Giddens, Lorde) and commercially (Adele, Taylor Swift, Pink). She’s also a prime candidate for anyone who wants to make a Janis Joplin biopic — when I heard Idina Menzel tear her heart out on “Let It Go” from Frozen at the last Academy Awards I rejoiced at the thought that the perfect star to play Janis now existed, but Morris would be even better: she’s also a Texan, she looks surprisingly like Janis, and she’d have no problem singing the role — or acting it, if the power of her vocal performance is any indication of her ability to communicate emotion when speaking as well as singing. I was just so awed both by her song and her performance of it that it was hard to get excited about the rest of the evening — I rooted for Morris in every category in which she was nominated and rued it when Carrie Underwood beat her out for Best Female Vocalist. Frankly, the only other woman singer in her league on that stage last night was Rhiannon Giddens, and she was ill-used — just a few lines and a backing vocal part on Eric Church’s  “Kill a Word” (the song is a good one, and it has a nice message — let’s get rid of the words that express prejudice and hate — but quite frankly she could have sung it a lot better without him!).

After the incredible “My Church” Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood came on for a medley including “Jackson” (the fact that one of country music’s most famous real-life couples would begin their appearance with a song about breaking up seemed odd — I only hope it’s not an omen that they’re going to go the way of Blake and Miranda!), “Chug-a-Lug,” “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue?” (the director cut to a glimpse of Crystal Gayle, who had the hit on that song originally, sitting with her sister Loretta Lynn, and the look on Gayle’s face was priceless), “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man,” “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” (what on earth prompted them to dig that one up?), “Don’t Close Your Eyes” and “Golden Ring,” a nice closer and the most heartfelt singing from Mr. and Mrs. Yearwood — oops, I mean Mr. and Mrs. Brooks — all night. Then Carrie Underwood did a song called “Dirty Laundry” wearing an outfit that looked like it was made from scraps — a woman’s skirt and a man’s collar and tie — the sort of thing one might indeed wear because every other piece of clothing you owned had become dirty laundry and you needed to have something on while you washed it. Then Little Big Town did a nice song called “I Wish You Were a Better Man” — i.e., I wish you weren’t such a lying, cheating, abusing son-of-a-bitch because then we could still be together — and their dark-haired woman singer sang lead and adopted the properly sad-looking mien, looking as well as sounding right for the song. Miranda Lambert did a nice song called “Another Vice” and then Tim McGraw came out with the Song of the Year winner, “Humble and Kind” — it’s an O.K. piece but I’m suspicious of anyone coming out and telling me how humble and kind they are; one can’t help but think they’re lying! Then they started to bring out the odd combinations that have become de rigueur in shows like this — they’ve come to be called “Grammy Moments” because the Grammy Awards have become notorious for jamming together musicians who have nothing to say to each other (like the Foo Fighters and Chick Corea — I like them severally but jointly they’re just a pain) — including Brad Paisley with the Oak Ridge Boys on “Elvira” (it’s still a dorky song but it’s also still a lot of fun), Alan Jackson and George Strait on what sounded like a medley of songs called “Remember When” and “Old Troubadour,” Keith Urban (blessedly solo) on “Blue Ain’t Your Color” (not a great song but a quite nice one), and what was billed as a major event: the first appearance on the Country Music Association Awards by that well-known country star Beyoncé. (That’s irony.)

An ambiguous announcement sounded like she was duetting with the Dixie Chicks, and there was a Black harmonica player, bald and with thick black shades over his eyes, that made me wonder if it was an uncredited Stevie Wonder sitting in. The song was something called (I think) “Daddy Said Shoot,” about a young girl getting firearms-handling lessons from her father — this is country music, after all — and it was actually one of the most appealing numbers of the night. Then Kenny Chesney got the Pinnacle Award for expanding the audience for country music — it’s only been awarded twice before, to Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift — and Thomas Rhett came on for his hit, “Die a Happy Man,” another song that’s not truly great but is really nice, a warm little piece about how the singer doesn’t care about all the big ambitious things he wanted to do and never got around to because his relationship is working so well he’ll die a happy man just from his partner’s love. Then Chris Stapleton — who’s sort of the Bruce Vilanch of country music, a big, homely schlub of a man who rose from songwriting to singing and won the Male Vocalist of the Year award against several other, considerably hotter guys in tight jeans (and let’s face it, to this old queen part of the appeal of a country-music show is watching all those hunky guys in incredibly tight jeans!) — and Dwight Yoakam did a lovely song called “Seven Spanish Angels,” followed by Luke Bryan doing a song I didn’t recognize which was either called “L-O-V-E” (like the old Nat “King” Cole hit) or “I Can’t Move When You Move,” or maybe something else, an O.K. ragbag of country clichés but still infectious enough to work. Then Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood spotted Lee Greenwood in the audience and got him to sing a chorus of “God Bless the U.S.A.” — it was a pretty obvious tie-in with Walmart, the show’s sponsor, and their campaign to get people to buy green lightbulbs and burn them 24/7 to show their support for America’s veterans. (America can best show its support for veterans by dramatically increasing the appropriation for the VA so veterans don’t have either to wait for care or take their chances in the private health market — and it’s a sour comment on the poverty of choice America’s political system gives us that, as much as I hate, despise and detest Walmart, I’m about to vote for a former Walmart board member for President.)

Then Florida Georgia Line and Tim McGraw did the song “May We All,” a would-be anthem, and then came the Church-Giddens “Kill a Word” before we finally got to the Dolly Parton tribute, with her former Nine to Five co-star Lily Tomlin introducing her and presenting the award and some good tribute performances of Parton’s songs (or bits thereof): Jennifer Nettles and Pentatonix (this time truly a cappella instead of performing with a drum machine!) on “Jolene,” Reba McIntire on “Nine to Five,” Kacey Musgraves on “Here You Come Again” (one of Dolly’s late-1970’s hits that were really pop-rock — only her reputation and her twangy voice “typed” them as country!), and Martina McBride in a lovely rendition of Parton’s subtler “take” on “I Will Always Love You,” communicating with the song’s churchy origins (remember that both Dolly Parton and Whitney Houston started out as church singers!) without the overwrought melodramatics of Whitney’s version. Dolly Parton accepted the award graciously, as is her wont, joking about how she wanted to crowd as much of her life into accepting a lifetime achievement award as she could but they kept trying to play her off so she couldn’t — she also promised us a sequel to the bathetic TV-movie Coat of Many Colors called Christmas of Many Colors (ouch!), but her spirit was positive enough I can forgive her just about everything, including the way she’s milked that genuinely heartwarming story from her childhood into a hit song (and a three-minute song is just the right length for it!) and now two TV-movies.