NASHVILLE SKYLINE: ACM Telecast Needs Training Wheels

Gretchen Wilson Is Shining Light of Uneven Show

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

I never thought I would be saying this, but I miss Dick Clark as TV producer. Due to his illness, he was not on-hand for this year’s ACM Awards show. I turned it on wondering how the production would fare the first time in recent years that he hasn’t actively been on the scene. Watching the mishmash that masqueraded as the ACM Awards show the other night really made me miss Clark. Say what you will about the world’s oldest teenager (and I have a great deal of respect for him), he maintained certain professional standards for that show. Standards which seemed to have fallen off the ACM truck on the way to the show this year.

Live TV is not easy, but there are a number of people who can do it well — believe it or not. I wonder where they were the other night. This show more or less looked like and sounded at times like a series of muffled explosions in a Salvation Army thrift store. Is this the best possible presentation of country music to the world? What did you think?

For starters, how do you manage to mar Faith Hill’s return to network TV by botching her performance with some of the most inept lighting this side of my teenage home movies? By and large, the musical sound throughout the telecast was small and confined (and sometimes in obvious need of Pro Tools). Was there anyone listening at rehearsal? Was there a wardrobe department? Couldn’t prove it by the overall drab appearance of the artists. Unflattering outfits seemed to be the show’s theme. Hello, makeup? Shiny faces on screen are not flattering.

One other thing this toy show proved was that an awards show sadly needs a host and moves at a snail’s pace without one. A good staff figures out which presenters can be trusted/allowed to ad lib and which need strictly scripted lines. Give them something to do, lest the audience be treated to the dread spectacle of the star-trapped-like-a-spotlighted-deer. That happened more than once to hapless stars. The invisible, anonymous announcer further eroded the show’s credibility by announcing “Lonestar!” just as the screen revealed two — two — members of Lonestar standing there. This country audience knows, you see, as if I need to explain it, that Lonestar has four — four — members. A small thing, to be sure, but an indication of the show’s general musical cluelessness. Like, how do you locate only one Warren Brother? They’re not terribly hard to book, you know.

A couple of bright spots lifted the dark miasma that pervaded the six-hour telecast. What’s that you say? It was actually three? You could have fooled me. But Sugarland and Dierks Bentley, both stepping in at the last moment to perform, showed a nationwide audience just what up-and-coming country artists can do.

One thing the show’s murk could not hide was the triumphant appearance of Gretchen Wilson as a rising country star of the first magnitude. Her natural talent and devotion to the work ethic have combined to give her a presentation unlike anyone country music has seen in recent years. Her direct honesty cannot be faked, and you don’t see it often in any music artist.

The morning after the ACM thing, I went to the funeral of Jimmy Martin, the King of Bluegrass. In listening to his music again and to his friends and family tell Martin tales, it struck me again how Martin had that same musical conviction that Wilson has, that same kind of direct, honest link straight into his listeners’ hearts and minds. Nothing could get between singer and listener. Hank Williams had that special kind of spiritual link and a precious few others have, in many walks of music. R.I.P.: Jimmy Martin. And here’s to many more years of listening to Gretchen Wilson.

Meanwhile, I want to send Dick Clark my best regards and wishes for his speedy recovery.