It’s hard to imagine anyone watching last night’s CMA Awards show and not being charmed by it. It wasn’t flawless. Some performances fell flat, some acceptance speeches rambled. But there were moments of exceptional tenderness and beauty. Moreover, the event demonstrated that country music is still an incredibly broad and inclusive art — a landscape ruled neither by traditionalists nor modernists. Where else could the hoary “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” and the so-now “I Wanna Talk About Me” co-exist so amicably?
While pre-show controversy can build viewership and sharpen attention, it can also undermine the music by relegating it to an afterthought. That could have happened here. There were so many distractions. Would Garth Brooks and George Jones quit their public sniping and just sing together? (Hear what Brooks had to say backstage about his performance with Jones.) Would the CMA’s press restrictions and oppressive security measures snuff out all the usual spontaneity and fun? Was there so much security because former President Bush would be attending? (A rumor the CMA emphatically — and accurately — denied weeks ago.) Would the CMA’s determination to show its patriotic colors degenerate into a blustery display of red, white and Vegas? In the end, the music prevailed, and the surprises just kept coming.
Host Vince Gill was, as always, the show’s reassuring center, moving it gently along and keeping it on an even emotional keel with his uncanny sense of the appropriate. “I believe in times like these,” he said at the start, “we need musc more than we ever have.” Producers kept the presenters on a tight rein — no stale jokes nor long-winded intros allowed — and winners had to say their thanks fast or risk being nudged from the spotlight (as Lee Ann Womack was) by a scolding musical cue.
When “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” won the single of the year award early in the evening, it signaled that authentic drama might lie ahead. After all, if the voters could make such a left-field choice as this, anything weird could happen. And it did. Like “Murder on Music Row” making a comeback. Like the underappreciated Toby Keith finally getting his due.
Among the many musical highlights were Tim McGraw ’s soulful “The Cowboy in Me,” Diamond Rio ’s forever-current lamentation, “One More Day,” and Reba McEntire ’s plucky “I’m a Survivor.” Events of the past few weeks may have sharpened their applicability, but these songs are enduringly solid.
The Dixie Chicks , last seen battling their record label in court, were mesmerizing in their folkish and forlorn tendering of “Travelin’ Soldier.” They reminded us again of how good they can sound when they concentrate on music rather than personality. Keith may well have gained some crossover terrain with “I Wanna Talk About Me,” a song with which almost every male, regardless of his musical taste, can identify. “If you can’t laugh at that,” Gill observed sagely, “you need to quit.”
With “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” his meditation on the horrors of Sept. 11, Alan Jackson gave the evening’s most majestic performance. While other country artists have proclaimed their “patriotism” by rattling lyrical sabers, Jackson dwelled on that which is most noble in humanity.
After all the fuss about it, the Brooks and Jones duet, “Beer Run,” was a real letdown. The song was too thin and contrived for their enormous talents -— and neither artist appeared honestly animated by it. Or by each other. Similarly, Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow’s pairing, “Be There for You,” emerged as tentative and anemic, especially coming as it did on the heels of Jackson’s spellbinding performance.
There couldn’t have been a more fitting end to the ceremonies than the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack taking album of the year honors. And since it was presented as the last award — a slot heretofore reserved for entertainer of the year — we can only assume the producers knew the results in advance. It was an all-embracing award, enshrining both young performers and old and honoring an out-of-town producer (T Bone Burnett) who drew abundantly on in-town talent. So country music is all formula? Well, not this year. And not this show.