(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
In a world of extremely uneven music awards shows, last year’s CMA Awards was probably the best such animal I can recall seeing. The musical balance of different artists and different musics — which is usually the main complaint about these affairs — was extremely even, for once, and it was a solid presentation of country’s many strengths.
The evening, of course, was heavily marked by the debut of Alan Jackson ‘s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).” That song was as moving a musical moment as I can recall experiencing anywhere, anytime. The audience stood as one, with tears flowing throughout the Opry House, but with smiles also shining through.
But many different wings of the music also were allowed to shine that evening. Seeing Buddy & Julie Miller onstage with Lee Ann Womack was a thrilling moment, as was hearing and seeing real bluegrass on the CMA Awards stage, with “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” (which also won single of the year) and seeing the extended cast of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack exulting when they got their very deserved win for album of the year. George Jones singing with Garth Brooks was a good idea, as was Willie Nelson with Sheryl Crow. And the Dixie Chicks ‘ rendition of Bruce Robison’s “Travelin’ Soldier” was a triumphant moment.
The CMA slogan last year was “America Loves Its Country” — a well-chosen selection to match the nation’s somber tones in the wake of the 9/11 tragedies. It was especially well-suited, since the slogan the CMA had floated the year before for a new campaign for the country music industry was the ill-advised and puzzling “Country. Admit it. You love it.”
At any rate, pop vs. traditional forces were pretty well balanced last year, as they seemingly will be, at least in the scheduled performances, on this year’s show. Faith Hill and Shania Twain will anchor the pop forces, and Dolly Parton and Alison Krauss will lead the trad troops.
It may seem hard to believe now, but that same pop vs. trad issue at the CMA Awards led to a very serious split in country music a few years ago. In 1974, when country music was going through one of its periodic shifts toward pop music, the sugary Australian country-pop singer Olivia Newton-John was named the CMA female vocalist of the year. Tempers flared up and down Music Row. The great trad country singers George Jones and Tammy Wynette were married at the time, and their house was the scene shortly after the CMA Awards of a meeting of angry trad country artists. Getting together to talk about the supposed injustices they were suffering were about two dozen country stars, including Bill Anderson , Porter Wagoner , Jim Ed Brown , Dottie West , Faron Young , Conway Twitty , Mel Tillis , Barbara Mandrell and Parton. Interestingly, Dolly’s sister Stella — who was a country singer but not a country star — wrote, recorded and released a song defending Olivia. The song, titled “Ode to Olivia,” said in part: “If you’re not a country girl/neither are we/they don’t treat us this way/when we sing in your country.”
But, the upshot of this angry gathering at George and Tammy’s house was the formation of a country solidarity movement called the Association of Country Entertainers (or ACE). Their major stated concerns — which would be no less relevant today — were valid representation of trad artists on the CMA board of directors and a musical balance on country radio’s playlists.
For me, probably the all-time greatest CMA Awards moment came at the 1975 awards show as a result of that 1974 split. An obviously well-lubricated Charlie Rich ended his reign as 1974’s entertainer of the year by announcing the new recipient of the CMA’s top prize. Charlie, who had been drinking a little backstage, pulled out his Zippo lighter and set fire to the card holding the announcement of sugary country-pop singer John Denver’s win as 1975’s entertainer of the year. Rich held the burning card up for the cameras on the nationally-televised live show and he smiled a big smile of triumph. It’s the sort of unscripted moment you will probably never again see on a CMA Awards show
And what happened to ACE? It faded away, as these liberation movements tend to do when overwhelming commercial interests are involved.