A Certain Tendency in Country Music

Darius Rucker, lead singer of Hootie and the B...

It’s been a few years since I got to see the CMA Awards. The BBC used to save it till Christmas, then show edited highlights. It was how I discovered a lot of the artists I like. I first watched in the era when Vince Gill was presenting the show, and receiving most of the awards. For a couple of years, the BBC tried to big it up, and broadcast it in October, with a lot of pokey old Radio 2 DJs in attendance. But the sight of Bob Harris gushing over the 17 year old Taylor Swift was incongruous, and it never found its audience.

So the last time I watched it was around the time of Taylor Swift’s first album. This year, I discovered that the entire show was on YouTube in HD, without ads, so I just sat through it again for the first time in ages.

The CMA Awards is a bellwether for the industry. The show is a way of seeing who is in, who is out, what the trends are, what kind of stuff is selling.

As viewers of Nashville (both Altman film and TV show) know, Country music and right wing politics go together like cheap meat and gristle. Always conspicuous by their absence are the more liberal acts in Country: you don’t see the Dixie Chicks (or Courtyard Hounds), or Steve Earle, or Dwight Yoakam, Kelly Willis, Bruce Robison. Trisha Yearwood doesn’t turn up, nor does (or did) Garth. This year I noticed there wasn’t even a shot of Reba, or Martina McBride, or Sara Evans. Yes to Kacey Musgrave (terrible dress), but no Ashley Monroe. Tim and Faith are in the front row with Taylor and Eric Church, Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert. Darius Rucker is in the second row. Vince Gill is back in row four or five.

So you can see which way the wind is blowing, sure enough, and that’s before you get to the nominations.

For the past few years, the show has been presented by the double act of Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood. They’re good at it. Don’t like Carrie Underwood’s voice, or her variety of music, but she is a natural presenter. The CMA Awards has some of the same challenges of an Oscars, or Eurovision.

The staging is interesting too. There’s the main stage, and this is where the Big Acts get to perform. This year, it was Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, Taylor Swift, etc. But what really interested me was to see the artists who were relegated to a second stage, or even just a little podium in the middle. Little Big Town. And Darius Rucker.

So, what’s the tendency? Well, it starts gently enough. There’s a stadium full of white privilege (two token black men that I saw), and the show begins with a gentle joke about Obamacare, which gets a strong reaction.

Then there are the acts, the nominees. Country seems to be revolving around a celebration of what you might term Dukes of Hazzard-style redneck politics. So what else is new, you might ask, but to see a succession of male vocalists take the stage to sing about “how we roll” and “how we do it round here” or “how it’s done”, you start to get the idea that the level has been ramped up.

So there’s Luke Bryan, who struts around the stage squatting and signifying like he’s a hip hop artist with his baseball cap pointing backwards, singing about trucks and beer. He’s fucking awful. What a cunt! Then there’s the Florida Georgia Line. Great idea, name yourself after some kind of line. Covered in tattoos. Songs about beer, trucks, and “how we roll.” Then there’s Eric Church. I like a couple of the numbers on his last album, though he irritated me with his tendency to sing along with guitar solos. He comes on stage and does some sub-metal southern boogie about how “we” are “outsiders”. Outsiders, right. On the biggest stage in the centre of the most successful part of the American music industry, performing songs from the country’s most popular genre in a stadium. Yeah, you’re an outsider. Then there’s the Zak Brown band. ZZ Top-style Southern boogie. Good musicianship, but the signifiers are all there: tattoos, beanie hat, beard that hasn’t seen a trimmer in seven years. And a song about how things are done around here, or something along those lines.

Yeah, that’s how we roll. If you don’t like it, fuck off back to the North, or your own country, or anywhere but here. This is Country music after six years of a black president, the Tea Party, etc. All the men look like they come from Alaska, and all the women are cheering them on. Everybody acts like they’re under siege and struggling against The Man. So instead of celebrating their racism and privilege, they pretend they’re outsiders.

It’s pretty dismal, really. Darius Rucker makes a couple of appearances, but then when he’s up on stage to perform (at the end), they cut him off. It’s the end of the show.

It’s depressing to me because in the absence of any other information about what’s good, I always relied on this show to introduce new things. But, give or take Jason Aldean, who did a good song (not available on UK iTunes natch), and Keith Urban doing a duet with Miranda Lambert (not available on UK iTunes, natch) there wasn’t anything good that I didn’t already have.

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2 thoughts on “A Certain Tendency in Country Music”

  1. I’ve been driving backwards and forwards around the M25 listening to the Be Good Tanyas recently.

    I guess they are way too far northern (Vancouver) to fit the CMA profile in the way you describe it.

    They play a pretty good acoustic set though.

    alt.country, anyone?

  2. alt.country is all very well, and I like a bit of alt. (Kelly Willis par example), but I really do like the slick, commercial stuff, and would miss it if my diet consisted of acousticy stuff. I don’t even mind an occasional song about trucks and beer, but there’s just too much of the same kind of thing about at the moment. Country radio in particular is guilty of ignoring (especially newer) female artists – and playing maybe 1 female vocal per 10 tracks – and that would more likely be an established star than, say, Ashley Monroe.

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