You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Finally got a chance to watch the highlights of this year’s CMA Awards, which took place about a month ago, a few days before The Cataclysm. Although the 90-minute edit I watched was mainly of performances, it’s still a good opportunity to read the chicken entrails of the music industry, as is traditional on this blog.
I’ve been watching the CMAs for 25 years now, so for about half it’s 50-year run. This year was the meaningless milestone featuring a 5 and a 0, so there was a deal more wallowing in nostalgia than usual — which is saying something, where country music is concerned.
Invented by radio, featuring something that was – even in the 1920s – characterised as ‘old time’ music, country has always-already been a nostalgic genre, its history peppered with emblematic crises. As early as the 1950s, the so-called Nashville Sound was an attempt to protect the genre by providing slick, commercialised competition for the burgeoning pop and rock genres. In the 1970s, the Outlaws provided a more ‘authentic’ alternative to the slick Countrypolitan sound. In the 1980s, the ‘Neotraditionalists’ claimed their own version of the elusive ‘authenticity’ for a new generation. And so it goes, into the alt.country era, and the Americana movement.
What the CMA Awards show represents, every year, is a compass pointing in the direction the industry is heading. Around 2013 and 2014, I almost gave up on the genre, because there were too many mullets and baseball caps, driven by the Bro Country movement, and too many songs about blue jeans, beer, and pickup trucks on dirt roads. In the background, women were struggling to get airplay on the radio, which meant they were struggling to get marketing push, and the UK iTunes store was a stagnant swamp of cardboard cutouts catering to a lowest common denominator of drunken galoots in football stadia.
Last year’s show, with the astonishing performances of Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake, and the shock board-sweeping win for Stapleton and his album Traveller was the break we needed. Stapleton had received virtually zero airplay or record company support, and yet the buzz around the album was such that, by November, the night was his. Stapleton himself, with his mountain man beard, his bulky frame, and crushed-looking hat, is the antidote to the baseball capped pretty boys.
So to 2016, the year America elected a fascist. What gives in country music? The 50th anniversary show featured a high number of medleys, and as well as the nostalgia, tributes to the likes of Merle Haggard, who has departed this world, and Dolly Parton, who has not.
What interested me this year was a feeling of pulling up the drawbridge and bringing into the fold exemplified by the presence of artists who are rarely (if ever) seen at this most Establishment of award ceremonies. Garth Brooks, for example, was front and centre (and won Entertainer of the Year) in a way that I’ve never seen – even in his heyday. When he was breaking all the records for album sales back in the 90s, he was too big for the CMAs. Later on, he was too retired. Now he’s back, along with Trisha Yearwood, who has also rarely been seen at the show. One of the medleys featured Dwight Yoakam, who has never been a Nashville guy; and Clint Black, who was a staple of the show in the early 90s, but hasn’t been seen in the Brad Paisley/Carrie Underwood era. Even Randy Travis, who was big in the 80s and 90s, but whose career (and health) nosedived, was back on the stage, still evidently recovering from his stroke, but able to sing the single word, ‘Amen.’ And then out came none other than Taylor Swift…
But the enfolding of the outcasts and outlaws was nowhere more evident than in the performance of the Dixie Chicks (with Beyoncé). The Dixie Chicks were banned from most country radio and ostracised by many of their peers after they dared to express dissent about George W Bush. It has been over 10 years, but they seem to be back in favour and back on tour. (I’m still bitter, however, that they haven’t put out any new music since 2006.)
The Chicks and Beyoncé was supposed to be this year’s Stapleton/Tiberlake, but it didn’t quite work for me – largely because they still haven’t got anything new to sing, but also because it seemed over-rehearsed and backy tracky. The beauty of last year’s S/T pairing was the improvisational musicianship and the glorious spontaneity. Still, it was probably the most controversial part of the show, due to the inevitable outpouring of hate on social media.
Apart from that enfolding atmosphere, the semiotics of this year’s show were fascinating. I didn’t see a single baseball cap (loud cheers), but there were lots of cowboy hats. Luke Bryan still got a look-in, but appeared capless and extremely lightweight compared to just about every performance on the night. Eric Church was also capless, though still insisted on wearing his mirrored sunglasses – so I will not be buying his album. Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood took on a medley of costumes from across the eras (Paisley included at least one hilarious mullet wig), and there were fewer people exiled to performing on little stages at the back of the crowd.
My favourite moment, for sheer class, was when Garth Brooks was announced as the winner of Entertainer of the Year. He went to hug each of the other nominees in turn before taking the stage in what seemed to be a genuine show of love and respect. As far as performances went, the best this year was Keith Urban, who performed ‘Blue Ain’t Your Colour’, a nice follow-up to last year’s ‘John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16’.
So the trend is back to the hats, and Don’t Mention The Apocalypse.