Monday, April 16, 2018

57th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards (Dick Clark Productions, CBS-TV, aired April 15, 2018)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our main “feature” last night was the Academy of Country Music (ACM) Awards, the rump country-music “awards” show created by the late Dick Clark (and still owned by his production company — the person is dead but the corporate “person” lives on!) and headquartered in Las Vegas, whereas the “real” country-music awards, the County Music Association (CMA) awards, are in country’s home town, Nashville, Tennessee. (There was a nice joke from host Reba McIntire that noted that no fewer than three of the nominees are about to have children — Chris Stapleton, last night’s big winner and the fat, homely schlub who keeps beating all the cute guys in tight jeans — I’ve called him the Bruce Vilanch of country music — wasn’t there because his wife was about to give birth to twins — McIntire noted that three of the nominees were about to have kids and said, “What happens in Vegas comes out in Nashville nine months later.”) Hosting a major country-music event in Las Vegas right now, just a few days past the six-month anniversary of a mass shooting at a country-music festival there, was a dodgy enterprise to say the least, and curiously the producers of the ACM’s decided, instead of beginning the evening with a suitably “inspirational” song commemorating the event, to have the various stars (or about five of them) just give speeches at the start. The actual first song — Kenny Chesney’s “Can’t We All Get Along?” — referenced the massacre only obliquely. It was a nice song, and Chesney did it tastefully even though he’s visibly getting a little too long in the tooth for the torn T-shirt and tight jeans bit, but one might have hoped for something a little more, uh, appropriate for the opener.

Then Maren Morris, one of my favorite modern singer and who was nominated for two duet records in the preposterously titled category “Best Vocal Event” (which seems to be for duets between people who don’t ordinarily sing together — I’d been hoping it would be won by Willie Nelson and the late Glen Campbell, but it wasn’t), came out with a song called “Rich” that seemed awfully similar to Lorde’s star-making hit “Royals” — it’s hardly a patch on her marvelous “My Church,” the song I heard her do on a previous ACM and which made me an instant fan, but it’s still good and showcases those amazing white-soul pipes of hers. (She’d be my current favorite to do a biopic of Janis Joplin, though Carrie Underwood — of all people — seemed to be trying to outdo her in the Joplin-redux department: more on that later.) Next up was a song called “We’re Not Losing Sleep” by a heavy-set guy named Chris Young, and it was workmanlike and professional — terms that cover my reaction to a lot of the music performed on this show — as were the next two songs on the program, “Meant to Be” by Bebe Ruska with Florida Georgia Line (which seemed to be called “Meant to Be” only because the song’s actual catch line, “Let it be,” already got used as a title by someone else) and Brett Young doing a nicely diffident country love song called “In Case You Didn’t Know.” Charles was irritated at how little all this music sounded like what he thinks of as country — and I can see his point; most modern-day “country” has its roots in the sound we who lived through the 1970’s called “Southern rock,” owing more to the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd than to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, and Charles joked, “How would you feel if you turned on a jazz show and all it was was rock with a few bits for saxophones?” (Actually there is quite a lot of that sort of thing out there; it emerged in the 1970’s as “fusion music” and now is called “smooth jazz.”)

The show periodically broke from the present to celebrate its history — specifically 1993, 25 years ago — and one of the songs from a quarter-century ago they hauled out and refurbished was a piece called “Chattahoochee” (don’t hold me to that spelling!), done as a duet between the original artist, Alan Jackson (no longer a hot male apparition in tight blue jeans but still a quite good-looking man), and current artist John Pardi. Not only did “Chattahoochee” sound like a traditional country song, powered by pedal steel guitar and fiddle, Jackson and Pardi even dressed like old-school country artists, with those hilariously campy Nudie Cohen clothes and, in Pardi’s case, a guitar strap with his last name embossed on it in leather. Then Lady Antebellum came out and blessedly did a song on which their woman, Hillary Scott, sang lead; it was called “Heart Break” — two words — and was quite lovely (and as politically incorrect as their name is — when they first emerged I joked, “What are they going to call their album — Slavery Was Cool?” — I like them, especially when Scott sings lead and the two men, Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood, just sing backup). Next was Dierks Bentley doing a peculiar song called “Woman Amen” which uses all the Black gospel chords to proclaim his worship of the female gender and the various members of it that have been significant in his life. Afterwards came Blake Shelton, whom I usually don’t like (for reasons not the least of which is because this homely, mediocre talent somehow has got two great woman singer-songwriters of far more charisma and appeal to fall in love with him — first Miranda Lambert and now Gwen Stefani), but who did a quite good song called “I Lived It,” saying basically that he at least formerly lived the scapegrace life he’s described in his songs. Then there were a couple of duets, one called “What If?” by Lee Brown and Loren Alaima and one called “Coming Home” by Keith Urban and Julia Michaels — and two solo spots for Kelsea Ballerini (a quite clever piece of material called “I Hate Love Songs”— the conceit is that she may hate love songs but she loves the person she’s singing the song to — for which she was lowered to the stage, Pink-style, in a giant heart) and Jason Aldean (a more generic love song called “You Make It Easy”).

Then came one of the high points of the evening, Miranda Lambert doing “Keeper of the Flame,” apparently one of the songs from the In the Wee Small Hours-style breakup album she did after she and Shelton parted ways (and I noticed the diplomacy of the people behind the ACM Awards to book their appearances about an hour apart), after which Little Big Town did the same cover of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” we’d previously heard them do on the Elton John tribute special I’m Still Standing. “It’s O.K. but it doesn’t really add anything,” said Charles, and I entirely agreed (even though it’s nice to have lyricist Bernie Taupin on record as saying the song was inspired by a Ray Bradbury short story called “The Rocket Man” and meant exactly what the lyrics say, and was not a veiled reference to drugs). Then came another of the 1993 tributes, Toby Keith (who headlined at President Trump’s inaugural gala after most bigger stars turned the gig down) and Blake Shelton duetting on “Should Have Been a Cowboy.” (As I once remember pointing out to a roommate, the job “cowboy” still exists — it’s someone who’s responsible for keeping cattle in line on cattle drives — and the only real difference between modern-day cowboys and the ones of Western legend is that instead of riding horses, the modern ones drive trucks.) After that came a vocal group called Midland doing their hit song “Drinking Problem,” which was O.K. but too close to the sort of country song people who don’t like country music make fun of. (I once told Charles the old joke, “What do you get when you play a country song backwards? You get your job back, your car back, your house back, your wife back, and you sober up” — to which Charles replied, “Yeah, and your mother and your dog come back to life.”) Then came a sensational soul performance by Carrie Underwood, belting out a song called “Cry Pretty” that had precious little to do with country music — it was pretty obviously modeled on Garnet Mimms’ hit “Cry Baby,” especially as covered (and transformed) by Janis Joplin on her third album, Kozmik Blues — but was electrifying, especially when Underwood started doing Janis-like moves with her voice. Like Miley Cyrus’s “The Bitch Is Back” on the Elton John special, Underwood’s was a powerful piece of soul singing from a singer I didn’t realize had it in her.

Then it was pretty much downhill: vocal duo Dan and Shea did a song called “Tequila” that was basically country-lite, without the boozy appeal of the Champs’ old instrumental of the same title; Darius Rucker, who’s sort of the Florence Foster Jenkins of modern-day pop (dorkily incompetent but charming in his ineptitude) did a song called “The First Time,” Thomas Rhett in quite a nice reworking of the the-partner-I-want-is-marrying-someone-else trope called “Marry Me” (as in “she wants to get married, but she won’t marry me,” illustrated with clips from the video for it, which show the guy she is marrying), Luke Bryan with “Most People Are Good” (which had the interesting sentiment for a country song that you should “love whom you want and not feel ashamed” — even the country audience has moved forward on our issues; I can remember how Garth Brooks got raked over the coals for a similar sentiment nearly a quarter-century ago in “We Shall Be Free” — “when we’re free to love anyone we choose”), Lauren Alaina doing a nice feature called “Doin’ Fine,” a third 1993 revival featuring Reba McIntire duetting with Kelly Clarkson on Reba’s “Does He Love You?” (which might have worked better if they’d rewritten the song so Reba sang the part of the jilted lover and Clarkson the part of the girl he jilted her for), and a finale (most of it heard over the credits) with Chris Jensen doing a song called “Redneck Life” that almost qualified as country-punk: its gravamen is, “I didn’t choose a redneck life/Redneck life chose me,” though Jensen looks considerably less like a redneck than a cross between a beatnik and a punk, dressed in casual all-black clothes, with tousled hair and a fiercely protective mien. I couldn’t help but think that if he’d been born and raised in Britain, Jensen would be singing nasty songs about the Queen!