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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

CMA awards show reflects the country's climate as well as the music

CMA Awards 2017

With all the natural and man-made horrors of the last few months, and the Country Music Association Awards show’s short-lived (thanks to co-host Brad Paisley’s bold objection) threat to remove any press room reporter from asking questions about the recent gun massacres, it was no surprise that both were addressed at the start of last night’s CMA Awards show.

It did open solemnly with Eric Church’s solo acoustic guitar take on “Amazing Grace,” which fed into Lady Antebellum and Keith Urban joining Darius Rucker on his “Hold My Hand” hit from his Hootie & the Blowfish rock days—though this was needlessly marred by a big network pop-up ad for The Goldbergs. Not even the huge superstar turnout for the final chorus made up for the annoyance.

After co-host Carrie Underwood named the tragedies still fresh in mind and promised a night of coming together as a musical family, Paisley made note of the CMA’s media “guidelines,” then trashed them with political jokes that fell flat in light of the previous night’s election results.

Flatter yet was this show’s traditional reaction shot overkill, with pop star Pink getting at least five within the first 15 minutes—this suggesting that she was the night’s star attraction. Whatever the point, her toned-down performance of new album track “Barbies” was okay, but met with a bland crowd response that didn’t help next-up Old Dominion’s “No Such Thing as a Broken Heart.”

But no one stood out for being really bad, and some of the acts were really good. On her hit “Legends,” Kelsea Ballerini held her own vocally with Reba McEntire, who in turn—at 62—held her own physically with the 24-year-old. Veteran partners Tim McGraw and Faith Hill were fine on their new single “The Rest of Our Life,” and Maren Morris and One Direction’s Niall Horan had it down on their “Seeing Blind” hit collaboration from Horan’s Flicker solo album debut.

Repeat Entertainer of the Year winner Garth Brooks has since admitted lip-synching on his performance of “Ask Me How I Know”—maybe explaining why he was overshadowed by Brothers Osborne’s “It Ain’t My Fault” and it’s tagged-on tribute to the late Don Williams via a bit of Williams’ classic “Tulsa Time” that had the stars on their feet singing along.

Best by far was Miranda Lambert, whose performance of “To Learn Her,” with its opening pedal steel intro and fills, seemed a throwback to CMA shows of the 1970s, or the ‘90s style of Alan Jackson. Speaking of the newly inducted Country Music Hall of Famer, Jackson showed why he got there with his 1990 hit “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow” and the show-closing “Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” from ’91.

Other high points included the 2002 Montgomery Gentry hit “My Town” tribute to the late Troy Gentry, delivered by Dierks Bentley, Rascal Flatts and Eddie Montgomery, and a Glen Campbell tribute with Little Big Town singing “Wichita Lineaman” to its writer Jimmy Webb’s piano accompaniment. And the appropriately lengthy and full memorial segment was outstanding, with Underwood singing the standard hymn “Softly and Tenderly” while portraits of the year’s departed country music luminaries were screened prior to those of the victims of the Las Vegas country music concert shooting.

And while filmmaker Tyler Perry recognized that he wasn’t an obvious choice to present the Album of the Year award, he appropriately invoked Charley Pride in a moving preface about the critical importance of coming together now and finding common ground. Meanwhile, outside the arena, Grammy-winning country artist Sturgill Simpson was busking to raise money for the American Civil Liberties Union, and in keeping with the tone set forth in the evening’s opening, took it over the top.

“Nobody needs a machine gun, coming from a guy who owns a few guns,” said Simpson live on Facebook in a mock CMA acceptance speech. “Gay people should have the right to be happy and live their life any way they want, to get married to anyone they want to without fear of getting dragged down the road behind a pickup truck. Black people are probably getting shot in the streets and being enslaved by the industrial prison complex, and hegemony and fascism is alive and well in Nashville, Tennessee. Thank you very much.”

On “country music’s biggest night,” country music was indeed reflecting the country it purports to speak to.



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