Monday, April 3, 2017

52nd American Country Music Awards (Dick Clark Productions/CBS-TV, April 2, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

At 8 p.m. last night I settled in to watch the 52nd American Country Music Awards on CBS — this is the “rump” country music awards show produced by Dick Clark Productions (unlike people, corporations really can live forever!) and brought to us from the T-Mobile Arena in that hotbed of country music, Las Vegas. (The rival Country Music Academy Awards at least take place in the city generally regarded as the center of the country-music world, Nashville, Tennessee.) Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this year’s American Country Music Awards was the person who wasn’t there: Blake Shelton. While the Country Music Academy Awards (abbreviated as “CMA” to distinguish them from the show that was on last night, which is “ACM”) at least included Shelton, though they scheduled his performance literally hours apart from that of his ex-wife Miranda Lambert, the ACM’s neither nominated Shelton for anything nor invited him to perform, while they gave Lambert Female Vocalist of the Year (I, of course, was rooting for Maren Morris, who knocked me out on the CMA’s with her great song “My Church,” and ever since I’ve been a huge fan of hers) and awarded Album of the year to The Weight of My Wings (a beautiful title which Lambert said was given to her by her mother), which is essentially her equivalent of Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours: a concept album about her marital breakup. In their acceptance speeches, both Lambert herself and her collaborators on the record gave her points for artistic and emotional honesty and said that the greatest music in the world is that which communicates “truth” — and indeed, the one song Lambert performed from the record, “Tin Man,” which uses Wizard of Oz imagery to feature Lambert telling the Tin Man that he is indeed better off without a heart (as Frank Morgan said in the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie, “Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable”), seemed heartfelt and genuinely moving, understandable given what we know about what Lambert went through and why she made the record but also universal enough that anyone who hears it who’s been through a painful breakup can think, “Yes, that’s me.” I didn’t have any galvanic shocks from this show the way I did when I heard Maren Morris do “My Church” on the CMA’s, but there was quite a lot of good music on this show — indeed, there was quite a lot of music, period; even more than most “awards” shows these days the awards themselves seemed like merely an excuse for the performances (there were 30 songs performed over a three-hour time slot, less commercials, which didn’t leave much time for awards presentations, and the relative unimportance of the “awards” part was shown by the fact that CBS followed the damnable old tradition of giving the show to us on the West Coast on a tape delay three hours later instead of starting the telecast at 5 p.m. so we could see it in real time, yet one more reminder that to the East Coast-centric people who run the U.S. media we on the West Coast suck hind tit).

One of the best pieces was “Fast” by Luke Bryan (who also co-hosted the show with Dierks — pronounced “Dirks” — Bentley), a lovely song about how young people always want to go fast — they want to drive fast, fall in love fast and listen to fast music —while as they age and realize that they’re pressing up against life’s literal deadline, they complain that things are going by too fast. I loved that song, though I’m not sure I would have liked it as much if I were 40 years younger and closer to the “fast” end of the fast-slow continuum Bryan was singing about! Most of the music didn’t sound particularly like what one ordinarily thinks of as “country” — all too much of what’s popular on country radio today is more like what we in the 1970’s called “Southern rock,” owing more to the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd than Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash — and as often happens in music today, though most of the artists were male (and let’s face it, to this old queen one of the appeals of a country-music show is all those cute young guys in ultra-tight jeans!!), the women on the program — Lambert, Morris, Carrie Underwood and Kelsea Ballerini — seemed to sing with more sincerity and soul. Underwood stood out on the opening medley of five songs from the Entertainer of the Year award nominees (the winner, for the second year in a row, was Jason Aldean), belting out her contribution with real emotion and some killer high notes while the men pretty much just ran through their songs professionally but unexcitingly. One of the exciting moments was Bryan, Bentley and Joe Walsh of the Eagles playing a tribute to Chuck Berry — rather than doing a medley the three took turns on the various choruses of “Johnny B. Goode” — Berry wasn’t a country singer but country was certainly part of his musical mix (his star-making hit “Maybelline” began as a parody of Bob Wills’ country classic “Ida Red”) and he’d have been flattered by the attention, especially if his friend Bo Diddley was right when he said Berry always really wanted to be a country singer. (Charles asked me if there were any people of color actually on the show, and the only one I remembered seeing was Darius Rucker, who reinvented himself as a country singer after the breakup of his pop-rock band Hootie and the Blowfish — and even he was only invited as a presenter, not a performer.) Maren Morris did “I Could Use a Love Song” — I give her points for performing other things than “My Church” instead of running that stunning song into the ground (obviously she doesn’t want to be seen as a one-hit wonder) — and later joined with Thomas Rhett for a duet on the song “Craving You” (and she was obviously holding herself back so she wouldn’t drown him out).

Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, the most famous power couple in country music now that they’ve outlasted Blake and Miranda, did a duet called “Speak to a Girl,” which was basically how you should talk respectfully to your mother when you’re a boy so you’ll get good training in how to approach women when you’re a man, and Cold Swindell did a nice duet with Bentley on a song called “Flatliner” (and yes, it’s what you think, about someone who’s been so beaten up by love it looks like any moment it’s literally about to kill them), and one of the high points of the evening was Reba McIntire’s duet with “Christian music star” Laram Daigle (I think I’ve got her name right) on “Keep On Praying,” a self-consciously “inspirational” song but one retaining enough roots in both Black and white gospel music to be appropriately moving. (Charles later told me one of his Twitter friends had tweeted that the ACM awards was “three hours of people thanking Jesus,” which was a bit unfair — only a couple of the awards recipients thanked God, and indeed on one of the Black awards shows you’ll probably hear a lot more people praising the Almighty for having allowed them to win an award than you did last night.) Maren Morris won the New Female Vocalist award (as she deserved!) and someone named Tom Pardi (not exactly the most “country”-ish name) won New Male Vocalist and did a song called “Dust on My Boots” (as in he wants his girlfriend to dance with him so hard it shakes the dust off his boots) which, like most of last night’s music, wasn’t especially moving or intense but was appealing and fun. (Another song in the “appealing and fun” category was Brett Aldredge’s “Something I’m Good At,” given a music-video presentation which involved Aldredge having to pass through a number of sets and enact situations representing the things the song says he isn’t good at before he made it to the stage.) Keith Urban did “Blue Ain’t Your Color” (a quite nice love song which lost Song of the Year to the considerably less interesting “Die a Happy Man” by Thomas Rhett) and then duetted with Carrie Underwood on “What If I Fall?” (and she was considerably less conscientious as a duet partner than Maren Morris was later with Thomas Rhett: with that huge voice and those killer high notes, she simply overpowered him), and Chris Stapleton, whom I’ve described elsewhere as “the Bruce Vilanch of country music” — the overweight schlub who started out writing and ended up singing and becoming a star even though he’s hardly a male sex god — did a song called “Let Me Be the Second One to Know” (that you’re leaving me, was the predictable sentiment).

I also quite liked the Brothers Osborne, who won the Best New Vocal Group award and “It Ain’t Too Far” — there seem to be three of them and two of them look alike enough to be believable as brothers, though the third wears a ZZ Top-style beard that blurs his facial features so it’s hard to tell how much he looks like the other two, and as for new male vocal groups Old Dominion (one of the many politically problematic names that get attached to country bands — like Lady Antebellum, who when I first heard of them I joked, “I wonder what they’re going to call their album — Slavery Was Cool?”) had them beat with “(There’s No Such Thing As) A Broken Heart” (tell that to Miranda Lambert!). Lady Antebellum also performed something called “You Look Good,” and Little Big Town appeared to do a song called “Happy People” (as in happy people don’t frown, don’t get depressed, don’t have bigoted prejudices and don’t hate other people) with a backdrop of flowers that reminded me of those dorky sets the people on the Ed Sullivan Show built for the white psychedelic-rock acts they had on in the 1960’s. I was also amused by the film clips from a previously organized concert for the ACM’s “Stand Up to Cancer” charity, one of which featured Luke Bryan and others doing — of all songs — David Bowie’s “Heroes,” in a version that utterly lacked the “edge” Bowie and Nico brought to this song. (“Heroes” as safe supermarket music — who knew?) The big, much-ballyhooed finale was an ensemble number by Florida Georgia Line (two men) with the Backstreet Boys (five guys who are hardly “boys” anymore — like the Bowery Boys, they’re having to enact the parts of teenagers even well into their 30’s, and when they were announced as doing “a long residency in Las Vegas” I thought, “It’s true! Old performers never die — they just end up in Vegas”) doing a medley of the FGL hit “Unconditionally” and the BB’s “Rock Your Body” that was O.K. but a disappointing conclusion.