Outliers and the “Old Guard”: The 2012 CMA Awards
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?
- Leeann Ward: Wow! How terrible for Dixie Hall and Tom.
- Ken Morton, Jr.: Another twisted collection of songs to put into the Friday Five Hall of Fame, Juli.
- Arlene: I'd have included "Omie Wise." Doc Watson's is the version I'm familiar with but I think it's been recorded by …
- luckyoldsun: I think the number one country murder ballad is "Frankie and Johnny"--by Jimmie. Also, how about "Delia's Gone" from Harry Belafonte …
- Juli Thanki: Colloquial use of "fantastic" as a synonym for "excellent" dates back to the 1930s. And if it's good enough for …
- Paul W Dennis: I think "Banks of The Ohio", "Miller's Cave" and "It's Nothing to Me" are far creepier than several of the …
- Paul W Dennis: The Hight article is interesting, although I don't know that I would describe it as fantastic, but then I know …
- Dana M: I'm actually excited to hear a new Reba album. As for the Alan Jackson tour, I hope he announces Canadian …
- nm: Agreed. A good job by three very smart women.
- Deremy Jylan: The Hight piece is tremendous reading.