Outliers and the “Old Guard”: The 2012 CMA Awards

Holly Gleason | November 2nd, 2012

It’s been a long time since a genre’s experienced a shift like country did at this year’s Country Music Association Awards. With no Garth-like mandate, no behemoth sales figures a la Kenny Chesney’s ticket sales or Taylor Swift’s album numbers, the advent of a whole new guard descended in one three-hour primetime special.

Suddenly, outliers like Eric Church, Little Big Town, Thompson Square and Hunter Hayes were walking away with Album, Single and Vocal Group, Duo and New Artist – and theoretically “old guarders” Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert threepeated as Male and Female Vocalist, but broke new ground, co-writing the Song of the Year and Blake’s shocking Entertainer of the Year win. Wordlessly, an industry seized up and coughed out everything it had relied upon.

Suddenly recent fresh-faces like Lady Antebellum and Sugarland looked passe. Last year’s darlings the Band Perry seemed on the bubble. Even perennial cutting edge credster Dierks Bentley appeared tired and plodding. Yes, Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw picked up Vocal Event for their flaccidly posturing “Feel Like a Rock Star” and Toby Keith scored Video of the Year for the ironic, middle-aged skewering “Red Solo Cup.” But those afterthought awards were deemed so insignificant, they were given in New York City during Good Morning America sans winners.

Instead the show opened with Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan and Eric Church. the new holy trinity of roughneck country-rock, laying down “The Only Way I Know,” a half-rapped, half-thumping power number celebrating how it’s done back where they’re from that’s the redneck equivalent of ‘80s arena rock.  Denim clad hard bodies, not overly ripped, they’re turbo blue collar workers throwing down the hardcore gauntlet for working people nationwide.

This ain’t your older brother’s country. Soccer moms may like Carrie’s long, luxurious blond hair and fantasy Barbie dresses, Taylor’s pluck and Miranda’s spunk – as well as the way the jeans fit those new hunks, but this is decidedly the sound of a young America frustrated with the status quo, who’re taking its good times where they can and bucking against an uppity world that might look down on them. Not quite  a sleeker Hank Jr, but certainly rejecting the polish that made Tim McGraw a sleek outlaw, Keith Urban a gentleman rocker and Brad Paisley a clever traditionalist, who made Hee Haw hipper for a more modern Middle America, these winners declared, “This is a new day.”

While Hunter Hayes struggled at radio until recently, he sold records and tickets for Carrie Underwood’s Blown Away Tour with a frenzy. Naysayers call him “country’s Justin Bieber,” but the slight young man offers prodigious talent not yet tapped. He may be cute, but there’s more to Hayes than meets the eye. The same can be said for the surly-seeming Church, who earlier this year impaled himself with the confession to Rolling Stone that he lets his guitarist play Pantera solos to thin the old people out of the crowd. Produced by Iodine’s Jay Joyce, Church fashioned a part radio friendly (the #1 “Drink in My Hand”), part hard perspective (the ungrateful wigger/little brother indicting “Homeboy”) Album winner in Chief. Taking his music to the road when radio wasn’t embracing his music, Church built a fanbase one-by-one by giving his audience songs that better reflected their life.

Thompson Square, the little indie label duo that could who won at the always volatile Academy of Country Music Awards, took home the CMA Duo of the Year. If their radio success is moderate, their languid breakout “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” captured that moment of awkward everyone on the brink struggle with in a make-it-or-break-it moment. For Little Big Town, who’ve long been acknowledged for their talent, but somehow not quite breaking, the Joyce-produced “Pontoon” proved the necessary jetpack. Suddenly their 4-part boy-girl-boy-girl harmony was merged with an earthy, steamy sound to give LBT traction.

There were obvious TV friendly match-ups, grafting Hall of Famer Vince Gill in a pseudo-soul bit of fluff with American Idol Kelly Clarkson felt egregiously contrived. Key members of Nashville presenting Female Vocalist of the Year and Friday night sitcom-ers Tim Allen and Reba McEntire presenting Entertainer of the Year spoke volumes about the network’s priorities. Ditto the obvious performances of retread feeling songs from “big stars” Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, as well as a clearinghouse tribute to Willie Nelson that brought nothing to his legacy, while giving the illusion of homage with no insight. At one point during a cutaway, Nelson looked awkward – perhaps wondering if he would be blamed for all of this.

Which may be the reason there’s a new sheriff in town. If the best 4-time Entertainer of the Year Kenny Chesney can do is reprise his CMT Awards performance of the months old #1 “Come Over” in front of his music video, Brad Paisley offers a choir-capped trek through his sincere Southern totemicism, Taylor Swift’s pretty, but boring “Begin Again” and Carrie Underwood squalls  “Blown Away” in billowing clouds of smoke and whirling bits of paper, it’s hard to blame them.

Though the argument can be made these newcomers are two-dimensional, their dimensions must scan realer. That, or an industry frustrated with artists who’ve been on top too long is ready to push the ennui and entitlement out the window. After all, if even the stars are bored with the awards, themselves and each other, why should anyone else care?

  1. Mike Wimmer
    November 2, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    I disagree a bit with the idea that Bryan, Aldean and Church aren’t also aiming for the “soccer mom” Country fan. Maybe they dont do it as obviously as artists like Keith Urban or Rascal Flatts, but all Aldean’s career really shot up with “Dont You Wanna Stay”, Bryan was a middling newbie until “Do I”, and Church has balanced out his “outlaw” image with a couple of pretty sappy love ballads.

    They obviously rely on that audience just as much as all mainstream Country acts do. Sure they can release party songs to appeal to a young crowd, but they also do very little, if nothing to turn away that audience. Maybe Church a little bit, but Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan are constantly featured in “People Country” and played up to be equal parts family man as party rebel. There is a reason Aldean was so publicly apologetic when he got caught by TMZ.

    I enjoy your articles, but I just fail to see how Aldean and company are leading the way for the “lost” American generation of young people. As someone 26, nothing about those guys music “speaks” to me. Church I like, so I guess more of his stuff does, but as a young man who fits the description of their audience, all their songs do is feel like pandering.

    It also says a lot that it took LBT releasing a forgettable, uninspiring summer anthem to break through. It’s nice that they won, but it would have been nice to see them recognized for their previous, stronger work.

  2. Barry Mazor
    November 2, 2012 at 11:04 pm

    I like that “illusion of homage with no insight.” Thumbs up on that; there was not the slightest understanding of “Crazy” OR “You Were Always on My Mind” in those performances, so we got a ham-fisted, literal and self-pitying reading of the chorus phrases, as Willie never intended, let alone fresh understandings that might have made for interesting interpretations. The songs were over there heads.
    I was really afraid someone was gonna murder ” Well, Hallo, Walls,”–like Art Carney as Ed Norton addressing the ball; ( “Hello, WALLS!”).. We were spared that. And yeah, you could see that Willie was pained. Those who do not understand history are doomed to denigrate it.

  3. Paul W Dennis
    November 2, 2012 at 11:13 pm

    “Those who do not understand history are doomed to denigrate it”

    Nailed it Barry – truer words were never spoken (or written, for that matter )

  4. Holly Gleason
    November 2, 2012 at 11:51 pm

    The thing about what we like, and what’s happening beyond our realm is the dissonance that misleads —
    Reality: Aldean is selling A LOT of tickets. To pretty young people.
    Not urban hipsters, but in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio this summer, the parking fields were PACKED with teens and 20-something from Akron, Cleveland and the surrounding area — all facing sketchy futures (there’s a 1 in 4 vacancy problem with houses in Akron; Cleveland’s factories are all but gone) and not a lot of incoming corporations cause of the state and city taxes. But they were out there, ready to rock with the guy who “understands.”
    And I don’t think — in spite of the Kelly Clarkson song — he’s pandering to the MILF set. No more than Kenny Chesney to the hipsters w Grace Potter… Yes, cross-marketing works, but I think Aldean’s bread and butter is steroidal country, celebrating a way of life that young people want to embrace whether they live it or not. At least, the ones who aren’t all about Taylor’s romantic contretemps!

  5. Bruce Walker
    November 3, 2012 at 12:46 am

    Looks like there’s no place for traditional country anymore in the new guard. There was not one traditional performance now that Alan Jackson and George Strait are outcasts. Even if there was, how out of place would it of sounded? People would have tuned out in droves would be the fear. If Tim and Kenny weren’t bald, there wouldn’t even be any cowboy hats left.

    Would have been cool seeing Jamey Johnson or Lee Ann Womack or Sheryl Crow, even Kid Rock sing for Willie, people who’s respect for him seems genuine. Seems the producers just needed an excuse to use Lady A and Blake who didn’t have songs to promote so they make up an award and bring in a legend and get to add them to the list of performers that way. It was great seeing him even though he’s just there because enough young people have heard of him.

  6. Sheldon
    November 3, 2012 at 11:45 pm

    Wouldn’t it be great if someone would come up with an award show that mixed the new, hot radio crap with established artists and their music? The one on FOX is a joke, and it’s harder and harder to tell the ACM’s from the CMA’s.
    The arena show does nothing for me either – How i used to love watching the CMA’s from the Opry house…the gaudy neon triangles hanging from the balconey, the potted plant sets…Dolly sitting on randy Travis’knee…Reba boo-hooing on cue, A shocked Alison coming up on stage with her I.D Tag firmly in place…Wynonna barely tolerating Mama Judd, Spotting stars in the crowd “Hey look! – there’s Dottie West…and Mac Davis…and Lynn Anderson!!! And video and Vocal Event actually announced during the telecast. Hall of Fame was always worth the wait, too (“..And tonight, I’m wearing the dress!!”)
    One last note – Shame on ABC for for using Tim Allen to announce Entertainer of the Year. Maybe next year they can get Barbara Walters and the girls to do it.

  7. Barry Mazor
    November 4, 2012 at 11:36 pm

    The very good “ACM Honors” staged here in Nashville at the Ryman, if included in the ACMs, would add up to the sort of show you’re asking for, Sheldon. Apparently, it’s what they’re avoiding!

  8. Ben Foster
    November 5, 2012 at 10:29 am

    It’s often bugged me that ABC has exploited the CMA Awards as an opportunity to shamelessly plug their current programming, but I was more or less about to tolerate it until Reba and Tim Allen presented Entertainer. To me, the award that should be the most important award of the night should place focus squarely on the music (even if the rest of the show doesn’t). And while Reba is obviously a country music legend, it’s pretty clear that the real reason she was there was to help plug ABC’s Friday night comedy block. It really irked me.

  9. Ben Foster
    November 5, 2012 at 10:31 am

    Another big disappointment of CMA night is that I was really hoping somebody would say a few words for Kitty Wells.

  10. Harriett
    November 5, 2012 at 10:43 am

    makes perfect sense to me that EOTY award was presented by stars of new tv shows since the award went to someone based on his tv success.

  11. CraigR.
    November 5, 2012 at 2:02 pm

    Holly I understand your viewpoint completely but I object to the word “wigger”. It is the n-word in disguise. It’s meant to insult and degrade a white person, and in doing so it also insults African- Americans by default. Though I like Eric Church,songs like “Homeboy”, Toby Keith’s “Made in America”,and Josh Thompson ” Way Out Here” have subtle undercurrents of white pride. There is nothing wrong with having pride. But when it is used as a defense against someone else or someone’s culture it can be demeaning and some- what bigoted.

    The real trend I see in country music is the total lack of inculsion. Country may welcome Darius Rucker and may sing with black rappers. But at the end of the day country music,of late, sounds as if the backwoods really means the non-whites woods. That is what Aldean, Brantley Gilbert, Justin Moore, many songs by Rhett Akins, and some of Church’s attitude all seem to be humming.

    Willie, Waylon, Hank, Sr., the two Georges,Cash, and especially Garth Brooks never sounded that way. Even when country was all white it never promoted a way of life that was all white. The lyrics of Aldean and company’s song at the CMAs seemed to say ” We white people work harder, never complain, and never ask for a handout, and don’t expect one”. Who are those themes really geared toward? That is the country music sound that is emerging. Pop and rock have always been there. The ugly face of isolation and disinterest in others is creepin’ in. That is why Brad Paisley’s song ” Southern Comfort Zone”, though poorly written, is so spot on. Country isn’t changing, the tone of country is changing.

  12. Jon
    November 5, 2012 at 4:26 pm

    You know, there’s a lot of overstatement in that, but it’s not wholly a bunch of bologna.

  13. luckyoldsun
    November 5, 2012 at 6:52 pm

    Craig R–
    Hank Sr. and “the two Georges” were generally apolitical, and Cash and Willie seemed to have fairly liberal points of view–but you left out Haggard in talking about the giants of the past. Check out his “I’m A White Boy Looking for a Place to Do My Thing” if you want your hair to stand on end. Oh, and Garth did “We Shall Be Free”–but he also did “American Honky Tonk Bar Association,” which is in line with the trend of welfare bashing.

    You make some valid points about subtle racism in some country music, but I think a lot of it is pushback against the tide of political correctness in recent decades. People now don’t even realize that it’s only fairly recently that showing the Confederate flag has been treated in the mainstream as a taboo symbol of “hate,” rather than just a quirky but innocuous relic of the old south. It’s also only very recently that “the N-word” has become like the “f-word”–in that one cannot use it at all in the media. Until the last decade or so, one was not supposed to refer to someone as an “n-word,” but you could use the word itself in various contexts without being censored.

  14. Leeann Ward
    November 5, 2012 at 9:55 pm

    What? What? It’s not been okay to use the n-word in all the decades that I’ve lived in, which has been more than the last decade or so.

  15. Holly Gleason
    November 5, 2012 at 10:15 pm

    I don’t think that special word that starts w “N” had ever been “cool”…
    though obviously in certain literary works, when reflecting bias or attitude of said character or person, it’s accepted usage.
    Just like the notion of racism in country music has gone in and out of discussion. Hank Sr was taught how to play by a black man, after all…
    Although his son, who is quite a fine blues player when engaged, DID release “Mr Lincoln” on MAJOR MOVES, which speaks to cracking down on street criminals, prison overcrowding and suing the gun manufacturers instead of the criminals (with a pretty pointed inference, if you infer what I mean)

    When there’s less pie, fewer jobs, less TRUE understanding of the issues, fear and letting the working people fight among themselves becomes an ultimate smokescreen. Distract with paper tigers, let the winners take all!
    Which is a long way from where this post started…
    but so valid, especially on the brink of what may be the most pivotal election any of us have ever seen.

    Funny the mess, yet horribly the reality it leaves us in. Thank you, though, everyone who’s posted… for proving discourse about music can be about life, how we live it and what matters. You guys make me proud to be an American (sans Lee Greenwood’s back-combed chest hair)

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