I’ll be updating this blog all night long with thoughts and grades on this year’s celebration of country music, the CMA Awards on ABC. Read on for the good, the bad and the ugly.
Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line, “That’s My Kinda Night” and “Cruise”: We’re starting with the new country establishment: young, muscular white guys singing about what they want to do with their favorite beautiful women. They’re solid live performers and they know how to rev a crowd, but are they contributing anything exciting or fresh into the country music spectrum? Nope. They’re just asserting their dominance. C+
Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood proved again why the CMAs keep hiring them back year after year. Solid chemistry, topical references and jokes that ultimately amuse more than offend. Kudos to whoever initially thought to stick these two together.
Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” win the first award of the night for Single of the Year. They’ve chosen crossover popularity over intelligent songwriting. The bros are king.
Jason Aldean, “Night Train”: Even though it’s is one of the better songs from his listless album of the same name, “Night Train” doesn’t generate too many sparks in this live setting. Aldean’s performance is fine, but nothing more than that. That definition of “fine” has defined the night so far. Let’s hope things pick up. B-
Kacey Musgraves, “Follow Your Arrow”: Finally! A new perspective amid the bro-domination. Not only that, but it’s from an artist with perhaps the most exciting country album of the year, a seamless blend of traditional melodies and progressive lyrics. Musgraves’ style isn’t well-suited to the pizzazz of an awards show, but her plain-spoken honesty is a refreshing alternative to the male gaze that’s pervaded the night so far. B+
Lady Antebellum, “Compass”: Country’s soul trio seems to be taking its cues from Mumford and Sons: tiny instruments, anthemic chants, plaid jackets. Their energetic chemistry and impressive vocals made this performance the liveliest of the night so far. B+
Lee Brice’s I Drive Your Truck wins Song of the Year. I would have loved to see one of the Musgraves singles win, but this song wears its heart on its sleeve, and it’s a worthy winner.
Little Big Town, “Sober”: Country’s most purely talented vocalists haven’t lost any of their aural power with this inspirational performance. Solid, straightforward. B+
Florida Georgia Line wins Vocal Duo of the Year. Of course they do. (The Civil Wars were robbed.)
Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert, “We Were Us”: This propulsive song straddles the pop-country divide with ease, and the dynamic duo had an easygoing chemistry that kept the performance lively throughout. The best of the night so far. A-
Taylor Swift, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Sam Bush, Edgar Meyer, Eric Darken, “Red”: The night’s persistent narrative pitting “real” country against genre experimentation comes to a crossroads of sorts with this performance, which marries the “realest” of real country with an artist who openly confesses to largely abandoning the genre with her most recent album. Taylor Swift seems to be making a statement here, but I’m not sure what it is – after all, singing one song in a country style doesn’t make her album any more country, not that it needs to be. Nonetheless, I admire Swift for adding a dash of unpredictability and inventiveness to this pedestrian telecast. B+
Florida Georgia Line, “Round Here”: Has there ever been a more boring country sensation than these hunks of Southern charm and generic tropes? C
Hunter Hayes and Jason Mraz, “Everybody’s Got Somebody Got Me”: This performance was all over the place, from Jason Mraz missing his cue to Hunter Hayes’ dyed (?) hair to the abbreviated arrangement to the awkward Segway into the Best New Artist nominees. C
Kacey Musgraves wins Best New Artist, and the night just got much better. Her speech was articulate, composed and wry. In other words, Kacey Musgraves isn’t buying into the T-Swift school of feigning shock and delight.
Eric Church, “The Outsiders”: He’s got fire and brimstone, but he doesn’t have a very good song with this one-dimensional blast of hard-rock posturing. He’s committing to the bit, but Eric Church’s silent strength is in ballads like the terrific “Like Jesus Does.” He’s much less interesting as country’s “outlaw” (quotation marks mandatory). C+
The Band Perry, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely”: This heartfelt track showcases the prettier side of Kimberly Perry’s impressive range. She also dials down her recent theatrical trend just enough for a subtler, savvier performance. B+
Sheryl Crow hops on her soapbox to encourage country fans to vote by purchasing albums. Hopefully they won’t start with this year’s winner for Album of the Year, Blake Shelton‘s Based on a True Story, the worst of the nominees.
Tim McGraw, “Southern Girl”: Here’s another example of this year’s increasingly boring trend: generic songs about anonymous pretty girls. McGraw adds nothing, aesthetically or thematically, to this lazy motif. Congrats on the Clooney movie, though. C+
Blake Shelton, “Mine Would Be You”: The Voice coach and reigning Entertainer of the Year is in his solemn mode, effectively belting this solid ballad from his otherwise uninspired album. B
Lennon and Maisy Stella just captivated the crowd with their too-mature-to-be-believed harmonies.
Now all of Taylor Swift’s former headliners are onstage at once. That’s quite a crew. Does Taylor Swift deserve this award? Eh…I guess. We probably could have waited a few years to fully assess her impact, and it seems odd to honor one Entertainer of the Year nominee with a special award before the big one even goes out, but I understand why it’s happening now. The big takeaway from this segment: lots of famous people like Taylor Swift. Lots of non-famous people too. Not exactly revelatory. Her speech was Taylor Swift-y, but nice.
Carrie Underwood, “Good Girl,” “Blown Away,” ” Though some of her recent performances have suffered from pitch issues, she sounds fantastic and fiery on this scattered medley of her recent hits. Oh, and she looks pretty terrific too. Thank goodness that Carrie’s ominous “time permitting” comment from earlier didn’t pan out. A-
Little Big Town wins Vocal Group of the Year. The Band Perry had a stronger year, but I can’t quibble with LBT.
Alan Jackson and George Strait, “He Stopped Loving Her Today”: It seems crass to judge a performance that seeks to summarize a legendary singer’s entire life and career, but I can’t think of anyone better to provide George Jones with a satisfying sendoff than two of country’s greatest living traditionalists.
Zac Brown Band and Dave Grohl, “Day for the Dead”: The hardest-rocking, most electric performance of the night. Nirvana veteran Grohl has that effect, I suppose. A-
Brad Paisley, “The Mona Lisa”: And the award for Most Athletic goes to our esteemed co-host, who could thump a guitar and run a half-marathon without breaking a sweat, apparently. His vocals soared into the stratosphere at the end. This show is picking up. A-
Kenny Rogers, Jennifer Nettles, Rascal Flatts and Darius Rucker, “Just Dropped In,” “The Gambler” and “Islands in the Stream”: A solid tribute to a genuine country trailblazer. Nettles does a convincing Dolly Parton, and the crowd really dug the collaborative vibe. B+
Miranda Lambert wins Female Vocalist of the Year for the fourth time. If we’re looking at things from a socialist perspective, it’s high time Carrie Underwood or Kacey Musgraves got a nod, but Lambert had a solid year, especially with the Musgraves co-write “Mama’s Broken Heart.” Country’s royal couple continues its reign.
Luke Bryan, “Drink a Beer”: When he steps away from his frat-boy shtick, Luke Bryan consistently proves to be a capable balladeer, corny but sincere. This song is stronger for its personal connection to Bryan’s family. When he’s got something to say, he can say it well, but he doesn’t have things to say often enough. B
Blake Shelton wins Male Vocalist of the Year, because the monarchy cannot be denied.
George Strait’s win for Entertainer of the Year might come as a surprise until you remember that Strait is currently in the midst of his final tour after 30 years in the business. The fact that Strait’s chart success has hardly wavered in nearly three decades deserves recognition, and Strait’s subdued speech suggests he was moved by the career-spanning honor. This award recognizes career achievement rather than prominence in the past year, as it ostensibly honors, but it’s hard to quibble with an artist as solid and reliable as Strait.
Final Thoughts: Despite a few clunkers, this year’s CMA Awards were a generally solid mix of live performances and amiable comedy from the hosts. Despite Luke Bryan and Zac Brown’s embrace, I’m not convinced that this pop-country argument has been buried. Nonetheless, this show proved that there’s room in country for a multitude of voices, perspectives and styles. We can only hope that country radio will follow suit.
Best Performances: Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert, Zac Brown Band and Dave Grohl, Carrie Underwood
Worst Performances: Florida Georgia Line, Hunter Hayes and Jason Mraz
Best Acceptance Speech: Kacey Musgraves
Worst Acceptance Speech: Florida Georgia Line (Vocal Duo)
Most Surprising Wins: Kacey Musgraves for New Artist, Blake Shelton for Album of the Year
Most Depressing Wins: Florida Georgia Line* for Vocal Duo
*OK, I’m exaggerating my hatred for FGL quite a bit. But I can’t find anything worth celebrating about this duo.