Sandra Bernhard nailed it as usual in her much re-tweeted tweet the day before last night’s Country Music Association Awards show.
“Who do i think of when you mention country? loretta, june, dolly, patsy, tammy, Gwyneth,” wrote Bernhard, who frequently includes Dolly Parton’s classic “Jolene” in her sets. She might have added Carrie, Miranda, Taylor and Lady A, all of whom played big parts in the awards show, not to mention Gossip Girl Leighton Meester, who also stars with Gwyneth Paltrow in the upcoming country music film drama Country Strong, and Ty Pennington and Joanna Garcia–presenters who presumably love country music, but are certainly ABC network TV stars primed for CMA cross-promotion.
Quickly, all the singers named above acquitted themselves capably if not superbly. Paltrow? A bit tentative, but showed that her three months of intense preparation for her part paid off–though she was nowhere near as convincing as Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart.
But Paltrow, who is not a country singer, took precedence over Vince Gill, who is. Gill, the most decorated artist in CMA history, was relegated to playing guitar and singing backup for Paltrow, which he did with his usual class and taste. But long gone are the days when Gill, who also wrote the book on how to host an awards show, dominated the proceedings with his wit and pure country talent.
Indeed, Gill’s generation has virtually been passed over. Tim McGraw presented, and Alan Jackson performed but only as an adjunct to New Artist of the Year-winning Zac Brown Band’s performance of their duet “As She’s Walking Away” (from the band’s album)–though the now elder statesman gave the young whippersnappers a lesson in what real country music artistry is all about.
Otherwise, only the ageless Female Vocalist nominee Reba McEntire, who looked great and sang great on her surprising cover of Beyoncé’s “If I Were A Boy,” and perennial Male Vocalist nominee George Strait (without whom the category would likely disintegrate) were any older, save for Little Jimmy Dickens, who did a nice snorkel-and-fins comedy bit with co-hosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood about a Nashville flood warning system (and was movingly saluted by Paisley in his Entertainer of the Year acceptance speech when he quoted his hero Dickens: “If you see a turtle on a fencepost, it hadhelp getting up there”), and Loretta Lyn–who were the only true country legends present.
The show thus solidified the changing of the guard in country music of the Taylor Swift era–one that is now far removed from the genre’s roots. Swift’s listless performance of her lovely new song “Back To December” was decidedly un-country in its delivery, what with the grandiose grand piano/string section/snowstorm (perhaps entertainment awards shows now contractually have to have at least one of these ridiculous “serious music” set-pieces). But so were most of her peers’/competitors’, who lean more to hard rock than country and last night included Lambert, whose “That’s the Way That the World Goes ‘Round,” while very good, featured a blazing guitar solo along with wind machine and fog effects followed by a cutesy reaction cut to fiancé Blake Shelton.
No, it’s not your granddaddy’s country music, to borrow David Nail’s comment at his recent show in New York. Not that there wasn’t some traditional country: Paisley’s new “This Is Country Music” brilliantly tributed Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Jr., Buck Owens, and George Jones and Tammy Wynette–though odds are that few in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena knew that Paisley and Underwood were parodying George & Tammy’s classic 1976 duet “Golden Ring” in their throwaway salute to Lambert and Shelton.
Male Vocalist nominee Dierks Bentley also went trad with the titletrack from his bold bluegrass album Up On The Ridge, same with The Band Perry on “If I Die Young.” More often than not, though, the show went for spectacle: Sugarland’s “Stuck Like Glue”‘s a great song that hardly needed Jennifer Nettles’ wind-up ballerina shtick. Jason Aldean’s “Don’t You Wanna Stay” power ballad duet with Kelly Clarkson also employed the tired string section gimmick. And Kid Rock’s new album titletrack “Born Free,” while deserving of its standing ovation, was more a Southern rock anthem a la Allman Brothers/Lynyrd Skynyrd or even Springsteen than CMA-worthy.
But make that old CMA-worthy. Loretta Lynn, as Sissy Spacek noted in her intro to the outstanding Lynn tribute segment, “defines down-home excellence,” and while Lambert and Sheryl Crow did a perfectly fine job on “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” no one could have held a candle to the real thing–then and now.
Except that “then” goes back to 1967, when Lynn won Female Vocalist of the Year, her first of eight CMA Awards. She can still hold her own easily against today’s country stars, but as last night showed, there aren’t many from her time left standing.
Subscribe to this page and follow me on Twitter!