The CMA Awards: A Running Diary

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Should've swept this thing

You know you've been seeing way too much live music when you're watching a televised award show and you feel a semi-conscious urge to clap after every song, even the ones you don't like. But CMJ is finally over, so now it's back to regular service.

Two big stories behind this year's CMJs... um, CMAs. The first is that the reigning Entertainer of the Year, Keith Urban, won't be there to defend his title in person because he's in rehab. This means the show is going to have to look elsewhere for its dose of drippily sensitive man-love; fortunately, there are about one billion other male country stars happy to fill that chasm. Second, about half of the songs that are nominated for big awards are about Jesus or Heaven or things vaguely Biblical: Brooks & Dunn's "Believe," Carrie Underwood's "Jesus Take the Wheel," Brad Paisley and Dolly Parton's "When I Get Where I'm Going," Alan Jackson's gospel album, etc. All the Jesus-love is the closest the show gets to any actual political statement, which is pretty impressive for an awards show held for a largely right wing-identified musical genre on network TV the night before a huge midterm election. At the CMT Awards earlier this year, host Jeff Foxworthy made a joke about Bush's plummeting approval ratings and got booed. No partisan drama like that this time; I wonder if it's a boardroom decision or just an organic choice not to be offensive from the principle figures of a notoriously nonoffensive musical genre. It should be noted, though, that the Dixie Chicks are persona non grata tonight: no nominations and no invitation to perform even though they had one of the biggest albums of the year.

The big story for me, though, is that the Gretchen Wilson/Big & Rich wave of outward-looking hyper-crunch pop-country from two years ago has apparently burned out completely; this show is dominated by placid retro-traditionalism and cheap-seats power-ballads once again, which is a damn shame. I guess this can probably be traced back to all the upset wins Lee Ann Womack had last year with her old-school move, but that was a good album, and everyone in country scrambling to work with Allison Krauss to prove how down they are is another thing entirely.

Last year, they held this award show in Madison Square Garden, and I watched from the Garden's concrete-bunker press-room on a TV screen that got muted whenever one of the winners came out to pose for pictures and answer a few inane questions. This year, the show is back in Nashville and I'm watching it on TV at home, which means I actually end up seeing the entire show.

On to the running diary:

8:01: Hosts Brooks & Dunn open the show with what passes in country for an all-star jam, which means Vince Gill and Sheryl Crow are singing backup. I love how quickly country embraces any non-country star nice enough to acknowledge its existence: Kid Rock, Elton John, Crow. Vince Gill isn't playing guitar for once, and he looks really awkward and uncomfortable; he isn't sure what to do with his hands, so he just sort of taps his leg. The song is basically 70s California soft-pop, and it's pretty boring.

8:05: Opening monologue! Except there are two hosts, so I guess it's a duologue. Brooks & Dunn are actually really good hosts; they read cheesy jokes off the teleprompter with a natural fluidity, like they'd just thought up this crap themselves, and they don't look the slightest bit winded even after doing a song. Unfortunately, Ronnie Dunn is still doing that "Ah-ooh-hoo!" thing every time someone puts a mic in front of him; I wonder how long it'll take before he gets sick of that. He's also wearing one of those weird lace-up peasant shirts. The awards are on ABC for the first time this year, so someone made Eva Longoria show up and laugh at Kix and Ronnie's inevitable but mercifully brief Desperate Housewives joke. It's funny how she always ends up at this stuff and not, say, Patrick Dempsey or Sawyer from Lost. It's like ABC has no other shows.

8:09: Speaking of non-country stars, Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora are out to soak up all their post-Sugarland Nashville love by presenting Single of the Year with LeAnn Rimes, who trips all over her lines. "Believe" beats "Jesus Take the Wheel," which is some bullshit.

8:16: Carrie Underwood, probably the only major star to emerge in the past year in any genre, does "Before He Cheats," her awesomely snappy new single. She's apparently been infected by this show's retro-disease, though, because this is a pretty toothless rendition; she sounds like Bonnie Raitt or something.

8:20: I love how the CMAs jump straight from one performance to the next. Imagine: a music awards show actually driven by music! Brad Paisley gives the night's third straight weirdly sedate performance, a sweet little power-ballad with a couple of totally ripping guitar solos.

8:25: This is the CMAs' 40th anniversary, so we get a lot of flashback clips sprinkled throughout the show, like this one of Johnny and June Carter Cash doing "Jackson" in 1977 and making out mid-song, which is awesome.

8:30: Sugarland performs while giant TV screens behind them project silhouette images of the band. They also do some choreographed pogoing, just like 311! And the nerdy mandolin guy is wearing a really weird scarf. Sugarland is hilarious. Their turbo-sass also makes for the first performance of the night with any real teeth.

8:35: Gretchen Wilson, the owner of my favorite voice in pop-country, sings "Come to Bed" with John Rich singing backup. It's another sleepy power-ballad, and it looks like the Nashville establishment has totally reabsorbed these guys; they don't look even remotely insurrectionist anymore. Good song, though.

8:37: A shot of Heart in the stands! Weird!

8:38: When the show was in New York last year, the organizers actually managed to coax out a couple of fairly prominent non-music celebrities. Now that they're back in Nashville, the best they can do is apparently some guy from All My Children. He presents Song of the Year with Lee Ann Womack, and "Believe" beats "8th of November," which is some more bullshit. They should probably just give all the awards to Brooks & Dunn and be done with it. The reverend who cowrote the song accepts the award in a glittery scarf. Last year, chain-wallets were the big thing. This year, I guess it's weird scarves.

8:46: Alan Jackson does "Like Red on a Rose," and it's a really bad sign if I'm falling asleep less than an hour into this thing.

8:51: Little Big Town does a song. It isn't "Boondocks," but it has the same intricately interweaving harmonies over acoustic-blues stomp thing going on. I really have no excuse for not owning their album. The one guy looks exactly like Jesus, and they perform in a huge white cloud of dry ice with candles all around them, which totally makes them my favorite thing so far tonight. They might as well have a fake castle onstage.

9:00: The main guy from Rascal Flatts looks more like an anime character every day. Tonight, he's wearing a brown motorcycle jacket, a rhinestoned T-shirt, and Matrix sunglasses, and he still has shellacked-up spiky bleach-blonde hair. They do yet another power ballad, and I forget about it before it's even over.

9:04: Brad Paisley's wife is the lady on According to Jim? Huh. She's pregnant, which somehow means she can't read the teleprompter, so she and Gary Allen charmingly fumble their intro. Rascal Flatts wins Vocal Group of the year because Brooks & Dunn weren't nominated. (They'll get Vocal Duo instead.)

9:13: Martina McBride does yet another power-ballad, but this one is totally huge and bombastic with soaring strings and hair-metal guitars. I really like it.

9:18: Whistler from Blade, in a black Matrix trench coat, introduces George Strait as the newest Hall of Fame inductee, and I'm sort of surprised that he wasn't already in it. He performs "Give It Away," an effortless little shrug of a song and fortunately not a Chili Peppers cover. He wears glasses during his acceptance speech, which looks really odd. The camera keeps showing the singers' wives during acceptance speeches like this was a basketball game or something.

9:29: It's virtually impossible to imagine Kenny Chesney with any hair on his body whatsoever; he looks like a seal. He does "You Saved Me," which is a total snooze.

9:34: Michelle Branch has pretty much definitively won her MOR-chick war against Vanessa Carlton. Carlton just signed to Murder Inc., which is a total desperation move, and Branch has made the country transition pretty seamlessly. Her new group, the Wreckers, does a bright and sparkly little singalong chug.

9:37: Brooks & Dunn shocks absolutely nobody by winning Vocal Duo of the Year for something like the twentieth year in a row.

9:43: Dierks Bentely does a pleasantly workmanlike road-song with a vaguely funky bassline. On this show, that counts as a radical departure.

9:49: Eva Longoria assures everyone that she's from Texas and she's still a huge country fan. If that's true, she and Tony Parker must get in some huge fights over the stereo. Keith Urban wins Male Vocalist of the Year, but he's in rehab, so Ronnie Dunn reads a letter from him.

9:51: Miranda Lambert singlehandedly saves the show with a new song called "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," a charged-up, immaculately clean rockabilly banger. One of her guitarists is really old, and her bassist has an enormous mohawk. She only plays guitar on the first half of the song, but she still smashes it at the end. She's so badass.

9:59: Faith Hill continues the song's retro-trend by doing a song with Lori McKenna and Kelly Willis. The song is pretty, but it requires Hill to play a neglected housewife, which isn't entirely believable.

10:04: For about thirty seconds, Josh Turner does the old Soul Train thing where he sings a song on a lit-up elevated platform out in the crowd, but then he ambles back up onto the regular stage. He also seems to be wearing a hearing aid. I don't remember anything about the actual song.

10:08: The camera doesn't show Miranda Lambert when Carrie Underwood wins the Horizon Award, but I imagine she's spitting nails. When the camera shows Underwood out in the crowd, she's sitting with Anthony Federov, that Ukranian fake Clay Aiken guy who was on American Idol with her. Underwood always seems totally flabbergasted that anyone would ever want to bestow an award on her, which makes for some good acceptance speeches.

10:14: It's Whistler from Blade again! He's out to do more Hall of Fame stuff. First, he inducts Harold Bradley, a Nashville session guitarist from the 50s who seems like a nice guy. Then, he inducts Sonny James, who's wearing a bolo tie and who also seems like a nice guy. Hall of Fame inductees always seem like nice guys.

10:21: For a moment, Jason Aldean rips the night out of its languor, doing "Hick Town," a completely awesome swaggery-choogley redneck-pride anthem. Bonus points: he actually looks like a redneck.

10:28: Sara Evans may be the only person in the history of the universe to see her career benefit from being on Dancing With the Stars. She does "A Real Fine Place to Start," which, as weepy midtempo power-ballads go, is really good.

10:36: Hannah Montana is Billy Ray Cyrus's daughter? Where was I for that? She makes fun of the mullet he used to have, but she lets his current soul-patch/Fabio-hair thing slide. Great moment: they announce the nominees for Female Vocalist, and the split-screen shows all of them sitting out in the crowd. When Carrie Underwood wins, Faith Hill, standing backstage, mouths "What?" at the camera and storms off the stage. In the excessively-nice parallel universe of country music, that counts as a Kanye-level breakdown. I imagine it's all over YouTube at this point (edit: yup), and I'm not sure how they're spinning it this morning, but she looked like she was sort of smiling, so I think it was probably a joke. Either way, amazing TV. Underwood, of course, totally falls apart while she gives her acceptance speech. One thing about the CMAs: they actually give awards to the people selling records and thus keeping their industry afloat, even if they aren't respected veterans or whatever. The Grammys, meanwhile, always pull shit like giving Album of the Year to Steely Dan instead of Eminem.

10:40: Montgomery Gentry is presenting instead of performing, which blows. Brad Paisley wins Album of the Year, which does not blow.

10:44: Vince Gill sings his song about giving homeless people a dollar when you pass them on the street; it's one of the really pretty ballads from his ridiculous new quadruple-album. Sheryl Crow, Amy Grant, and his daughter all sing backup.

10:53: Barbara Mandrell, in an enormous black Morticia Adams dress, comes out to present Entertainer of the Year. Kenny Chesney, who won the award two years ago before losing it to Keith Urban last year, wins it back again. I guess the CMA people don't approve of rehab. This award show actually ends early, which is about the nicest thing an award show could possibly do.


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