(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Hard to pin it down, but there’s been something nagging at me about this year’s CMA Awards show. It was a nice show, mind you, reminiscent of last year’s which I thought was very solid. Nice song after nice song, earnest artist platitude after earnest artist platitude, until you stop and ask yourself: What am I not hearing and seeing here?
For me, it was watching Miranda Lambert sing an original song with her own guitar accompaniment. Lambert is known to many as the hell-fire girl, the scorched-earth vixen who will burn your playhouse down, baby. But just give a listen to her on her “More Like Her” and, if you’ve just been a casual listener to her, you’ll have a new appreciation of her. And of what current country music can be. This is a very serious singer-songwriter with much to say. I feel certain she will be a factor in the future of country music.
That song contained what I wasn’t hearing a lot of on the CMA Awards show: substance. And style. And personality. And grit.
Another come-to-life moment was Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long.” It brought a very real energy and vitality to the show that hadn’t been there. And that’s precisely why that song has been a huge — and very unlikely — country radio hit this year. It livelied up — to borrow a term from the reggae wing of music — the whole country music genre. The young group Lady Antebellum also brought a much-needed jolt of musical adrenalin to the stage. And how telling it is that perhaps the most country-sounding song of the evening came from the old guys — country-rock pioneers the Eagles, who have been at this longer than some of the other performers on the show have been alive. And Darius Rucker, who’s been around the block a time or two, showed why he’s becoming a certified major country artist.
Both Lambert and Kid Rock were going against the grain of what’s expected of them and what the format expects. Why don’t more performers try that? Because they — and their handlers and their record labels and their whole support and distribution and marketing organizations — are terrified of risk. Risk can mean failure. A safe approach can mean at least a soft, halfway success and no risk of failure. Lambert and Kid both seemed to say, “The hell with it. This is what I feel and this is what I want to do.”
That’s what the best country music has always been and done: say and do what you feel. And then enjoy the praise or withstand the attacks.
Well, you know, the show was pleasant enough. God knows, that’s what network TV strives for. But I don’t know that pleasant gets it anymore. I was hungry for that substance. And style. And personality. And energy. And a little bit of grit.
It’s easy to see where some of that was missing, especially just in some of the country personages who were not on the show. Let’s start with Dolly Parton, who can light up a whole downtown Nashville on her own. And maybe the luminous Faith Hill. And certainly Mr. Nice Guy Tim McGraw. And the ever-self-deprecating and modest Toby Keith. Like ’em or leave ’em, they bring life to the genre. And personality. And, truth be told, there were long moments on that CMA show where I didn’t detect a pulse. It was great seeing Shania Twain again. But that was not really, really such a big surprise as had been hinted at. The ovation she received — and the online and media response to even a rumor that she would be on the show — showed just how starved country music is for a superstar. And it pointed up one of the overwhelming conclusions to be gained from this show. Namely, that country’s present-day order of business seems to be all about trying to sell packages, rather than presenting people as they are.
And Taylor Swift, God love her, continues to be wise beyond her tender years. Her common sense and her demure style and her elegant gowns have done more for good taste than she will ever know. I loved some of the sexy black leather outfits on the CMA Awards show. But at the end of the day, as they always say, what is the image, and what is the message that country music wants to leave you with? One guess.