Although it skimmed along quite smoothly, Wednesday’s (May 22) Academy of Country Music Awards show was strangely devoid of excitement. The congenitally effervescent Reba McEntire did a superb job of hosting, but almost everyone else seemed to be going through the motions. There were few moments so artistically vibrant that they demanded we pay close attention and care. Maybe country music will eventually learn that it cannot simply celebrate itself into emotional significance. But probably not.
In spite of its diluted content, the show was pleasant enough to watch. McEntire had plenty of good lines, and she read them well. Beyond that, it was reassuring for those who like continuity in their music to see her back in the thick of things again, no matter how briefly. As Martina McBride would remind the audience later, McEntire has been a trailblazer for women in country music (not to mention one of the format’s most effective ambassadors).
And, let the record show, McEntire is still gorgeous. Twice during the evening, she cracked jokes about the eye appeal of Kid Rock’s companion, bosomy actress Pamela Anderson. Those who remember McEntire’s own “coming out” party at the 1993 Country Music Awards might be forgiven for thinking, “Let she who is without enhancements cast the first meow.”
Alan Jackson opened the program with “Drive (For Daddy Gene)” and was a beacon of sincerity each time he trudged self-consciously to the stage. “Without humbling you all to death up here, I’ve always felt uncomfortable about the attention this song has brought to me” he said, as he accepted the song of the year award for “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning,)” his anthem to the events of Sept. 11. “And I guess I was always uncomfortable about what it was written about. I’m still angry and sad and forever changed about what happened that day, and I thank God for sending the words and music down to me, because I believe I was an instrument for that. I don’t feel like I can accept an award for this song without sharing it with and dedicating it to the thousands of people — the men, women and children — that died and suffered and are still suffering because of that cowardly and heartless attack on America and mankind. So this is for all of them.”
Less eloquent were a number of the performances. Willie Nelson and Lee Ann Womack ’s rendering of the yawningly banal “Mendocino County Line” was so hesitant and uncertain, it was painful to watch, particularly since both are such exquisite vocal stylists. Hank Williams Jr. and Kid Rock’s labored romp through “The F Word” was an exercise in self-indulgence. The lyrics weren’t witty, and Kid Rock can’t sing — at least not as singing is perceived in the known world.
Singing well was not McBride’s problem — few can match her glorious pipes — but she oversang “Where Would You Be,” training an operatic blast on lyrics meant for restraint and nuance. To her credit, McBride is finally allowing her glamour to come out and undergird her undeniable talent. For too many years she dressed as if she were auditioning for The Sound of Music.
Trisha Yearwood was majestic in her soaring declaration of freedom, “I Don’t Paint Myself Into Corners.” Jo Dee Messina conveyed both bone-chilling weariness and tight-lipped resolve with “Bring on the Rain.” And Travis Tritt was as gritty as he ought to be in reciting his tale of a “Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde.” Allowing viewers to cast Internet votes for the Home Depot Humanitarian of the Year award (which McEntire won) was a nice and generally unobtrusive bit of audience involvement.
In the segment that honored country music giants who had died within the past year, Chet Atkins and Harlan Howard got short shrift compared to the time lavished on Waylon Jennings . While one can’t question Jennings’ importance, the imbalance of attention was jarring.
Dick Clark, who is famous for wrapping up his award shows on schedule, kept the ceremonies moving briskly. Presenters and winners were humanely restricted to a few words each. Nominees for new-artist awards were presented deftly through video clips. About the only time this imposed brevity seemed out of place was when Alabama ’s Randy Owen told Clark that the group would be doing its final tour next year. Although this was a bombshell announcement — or should have been — Clark breezed right by it without comment.
Awards shows are intrinsically doomed to a stop-and-go rhythm that’s hard to endure over a three-hour stretch, as this one was. (The equally long CMA show often fares no better.) But if financial considerations dictate that this tedious length must prevail, then producers owe viewers less formula, less label politics, less publicity razzmatazz and more performances that demonstrate how magnificent country music can be at its best. The music is out there. It just needed to be in there.