Academy of Country Music Awards: A Running Diary

aldean.jpgBaby we ain't never coming back

The Academy of Country Music Awards are a sort of kitschier, more casual version of the CMAs: held in Vegas rather than Nashville, loaded down with even more laughably useless non-country celebrities, unburdened by hall-of-fame salutes to country pioneers. (The ACM Awards are a couple of years older than the CMAs, but this show doesn't shoot for prestige in the same way.) Toby Keith, who never shows up to the CMAs and never wins any of their awards, has won Entertainer of the Year twice at the CMAs. I usually skip the ACM Awards because the show is rarely as well-produced as the CMAs and because one three-hour award show dedicated to country music per year is usually enough for me, but I'm still ridiculously amped about the new Miranda Lambert album, and I'm feeling generally warm and fuzzy toward country, so I decided to skip this week's American Idol rant and do a running diary instead.

8:00: Kenny Chesney opens the show, and already things are looking pretty dire. See, this is what I'm talking about re: production values. The cameras focus on relatively inconsequential side-players like Chesney's horn-section, the stage looks like the set from Solid Gold, and the sound mix is flat and muddy, none of which does Chesney's performance any favors. And Chesney needs all the help he can get; the song, "Beer in Mexico" is a boring midtempo chug, not the sort of track that really screams award-show kickoff. Chesney may be the reigning Entertainer of the Year, but this performance would've fared better if they'd buried it midway through the show.

8:04: Shania Twain is introduced as being "all the way from Zurich, Switzerland," and I have no idea what that could possibly mean. I'm just befuddled. Was that a joke? Does she live in Zurich now? Google is no help at all. Anyway, Shania is here to introduce tonight's host, Reba McIntire, who I will always kind of like just because she was in Tremors and she totally shot that graboid's tentacle off with a shotgun. She's also slightly better at telling unbelievably corny scripted jokes than perennial CMA hosts Brooks & Dunn: "You know, I just blew that joke right there. Well, it wasn't that good anyway."

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8:08: Reba promises that tonight's award presenters will be a dazzling mix of country and Hollywood stars, and her first example comes out to present Song of the Year: Tracy Lawrence and some morning-show anchorwoman I don't recognize. Oof. So we're going to get a whole bunch of people under contract to CBS tonight, huh? That should make for some awkward synergy. George Strait wins for "Give It Away," which is probably my fourth-favorite of the five nominated songs and still a pretty good song. Nashville's production line, as ever, is on top of its game.

8:13: Next presenter: champion bullrider Justin McBride. I honestly have no idea whether CBS is just halfassing it on the celebrity presenters or whether McBride is an actual recognizable star in most of the country. Clearly, I am not country enough to be criticizing this show. In any case, McBride introduces Miranda Lambert, who sings "Famous in a Small Town" and looks like a total star. Her bass player's mohawk is as impressive as ever.

8:21: Reba introduces Martina McBride by reading some stuff that Kelefa Sanneh wrote about her in the Times and then translating it by saying she's a durn good hollerer or something. That was weird. I now have a new professional goal: to have something I wrote read aloud at a country music award show. McBride classes up the joint, singing "Anyway," exactly the sort of rousingly stately power-ballad she always slays at and then presenting Album of the Year to a Carrie Underwood album that came out a year and a half ago but never mind. Underwood is a total pro at accepting awards; she seems utterly bowled over every single time.

8:33: Reba makes a couple of global warming jokes. Somewhere, Al Gore is quaking in frustration.

8:35: Josh Turner, who carries himself with Chris Isaak big-chin neotrad swagger and who sings in a subwoofer rumble, does "Would You Go With Me" a nice little bit of retro bluegrass pastiche fluff that I forget completely thirty seconds after it ends.

8:38: The Wreckers, Michelle Branch's pretty good new career-makeover country duo, are out to present an award with some guy from CSI who makes horrible cop-jokes. Rodney Atkins wins Top New Male Vocalist, which reminds me to download "If You're Going Through Hell (Before the Devil Even Knows)" from iTunes right now. That song rules.

8:46: It's sort of amazing how virtually every other pop genre treats most of its veterans like dirt while country deifies someone like George Strait. Strait was born for the leathery elder-statesman role, and he actually manages to turn serene restraint into arena-pop, which is pretty interesting. This song is pretty boring, though.

8:49: Someone from The Young and the Restless comes out to help present Top New Duo or Group for some reason. Little Big Town wins, deservedly. It kills me that I have to miss them opening for Martina McBride at Radio City tomorrow night because of the (admittedly even more awesome) Mastodon/Against Me bill at Roseland. The camera catches Dr. Phil looking uncomfortable in the crowd.

8:59: Carrie Underwood is the first country singer in forever to score a pair of actual crossover pop hits: "Before He Cheats" and her cover of "I'll Stand By You," both of which are getting crazy airplay on non-country stations. She doesn't do either of those songs, though; I guess that would make too much sense. The song she does sing is pretty good, though. And it's a bit devious for CBS to program her performance to start right as American Idol is ending.

9:02: The girl who plays Nancy Drew in that movie calls Taylor Swift "an internet sensation," and that's the first time I've heard that. Swift starts singing "Tim McGraw" with the real Tim McGraw right there in the crowd, pretty ballsy on her part. She also gets an odd bit of visual dissonance going by strumming an acoustic guitar while wearing a Janet Jackson headset mic, a style I'd have to call arena coffeehouse. But things get all awkward and uncomfortable when Swift actually walks out into the crowd and stands directly in front of McGraw and Faith Hill. Swift stares glassily off into the distance while she sings, and McGraw and Hill do their best to nod approvingly. And none of it really makes sense, since "Tim McGraw" isn't really about Tim McGraw at all; it's about the way pop songs can trigger personal memories and mark time in the lives of people who have nothing to do with pop stardom. To turn a great little song like that into a publicity-stunt meta-move is to do it something of a disservice.

9:06: Another weird moment. Reba shouts out the armed forces, and one guy stands to applaud. Then he looks around and realizes that nobody else is standing up, so he sits back down. And then Reba finishes her spiel and everyone stands up to applaud. So did the one guy stand up twice? Did he feel stupid the first time he stood up, or could he just not contain his patriotic fervor? I need to know these things.

9:07: In a contemptibly manipulative moment, Rascal Flatts sing some piece-of-shit whiney ballad while pictures of Virginia Tech victims flash on the wall behind them. I'm really looking forward to the day when I can watch an award show without enduring a single Rascal Flatts performance.

9:17: They're really keeping Carrie Underwood onscreen as much as possible tonight. She presents the Top New Female Vocalist award to Miranda Lambert, which is a bit off considering that Lambert's first major-label album is already two years old. But fuck it, I'm just glad to see her finally win something; she keeps getting nominated in all the same categories as Underwood and losing as a result.

9:17: Brad Paisley sings "Ticks," a really gross love song about how he wants to pick ticks off you. Sorry, but not even Paisley's goofy aw-shucks routine is powerful enough to make ticks cute; those are some nasty creatures, and I don't want to hear any love songs about them. In fact, "Ticks" may be the moment where Paisley's amiable nice-guy schtick finally wears thin; I really hope he has something on the level of "Alcohol" on his new album. On the other hand, Paisley's bass player is an aging-biker type in a Venom T-shirt, which is awesome. One of these days, I'm going to have to write an entry about eccentric pop-country backing-band bassists.

9:26: Dr. Phil and his wife are two of country's biggest fans, or so we're told. I guess that's why they're out to introduce Toby Keith, not because they have a show on CBS or anything. Keith, who perfectly understands the inherent cheese-factor of this particular show, sings "High-Maintenance Woman" while video chicks dressed as sexy construction workers dance behind him. The best part is where they all play air-guitar. Toby Keith is hilarious.

9:31: Last year's Humanitarian of the Year, Vince Gill, gives this year's Humanitarian of the Year award to Brooks & Dunn. Backs are patted.

9:34: Cowboy Troy has a new album coming out? They're actually going to release a second Cowboy Troy album? Oh man, I cannot wait to write that entry. Troy and Gretchen Wilson introduce Big & Rich and John Legend, all of whom are performing together. This could've gone off the rails spectacularly, but unfortunately it doesn't, not really. Legend, after all, can look comfortable doing just about anything, and they're doing a snoozy, bloated balled together, so there's not much hilarity to speak of happening despite Big Kenny's increasingly ridiculous hats. On the other hand, there's now at least an outside chance that Kanye West knows who Big & Rich are, and just imagine the trainwreck potential there!

9:42: A disturbing trend continues. Little Big Town appear on TV yet again singing a song that isn't "Boondocks." "A Little More You" isn't really an acceptable alternative; they could at least do that "daddy's got a shotgun" song.

9:47: Rodney Atkins immediately makes up for the absence of "Boondocks" by singing "These Are My People," another addition to the redneck-pride-anthem canon. It's not quite "Boondocks," but it'll do.

9:48: Whoa, Hootie's back on TV! I guess the ACM people were psyched that Darius Rucker wore a rhinestone cowboy suit in that Burger King commercial, since he's here to present Single of the Year alongside an alarmingly tan Terri Clark. George Strait's "Give It Away" wins again, even though that song is probably a bit too unassuming and shrugged-off to be sweeping these categories.

9:51: Jason Aldean, who reportedly played a Guns N Roses medley at Stagecoach, sings "Johnny Cash" an amazing rocked-up highway-escape song that doesn't even remotely sound like Johnny Cash. Jason Aldean, I'm starting to realize, is a fucking badass, and thankfully the producers don't have the bright idea to send him out into the crowd to sing the song at Roseanne Cash or something.

9:59: The Rascal Flatts dudes promise us "a major musical event," which turns out to be Reba McIntire singing Kelly Clarkson's "Because of You" alongside the actual Kelly Clarkson. "Because of You" works pretty well as a country song, and Clarkson totally sings Reba off the stage, which is maybe a sort of disrespectful thing to do. It's her show, Kelly!

10:03: Hey, it's Montgomery Gentry and ... a volleyball player? Really? If that's the best this show's producers could do, why didn't they just leave out the mainstream celebrities altogether? Eddie Montgomery is wearing an Undertaker trench coat embroidered with glittery crosses and skulls, which is pretty great. They give Top Male Vocalist to Brad Paisley, who really isn't much of a vocalist.

10:12: Brooks & Dunn sing "Hillbilly Deluxe," their own redneck-pride jam. It's a pretty good song, but this show is starting to feel really, really long. Seriously, we could've lost an hour somewhere in there with no real problem.

10:16: Rascal Flatts win Top Vocal Group, a victory so predictable that even presenter Black Shelton jokes about it. Fuck Rascal Flatts.

10:19: Faith Hill sings a boring power-ballad that she apparently just learned. I really wish I was watching the Pistons/Bulls game right now.

10:29: Now that Sugarland have shed their ambiguously gay butch female guitarist, they're somehow enormously less interesting. Maybe Jennifer Nettles just needs a counterbalance her turbo-sass and the dorky mandolin guy just isn't cutting it. Anyway, they perform on a giant conveyor belt for some reason.

10:32: Hey it's someone else from CSI, here to give the Top Vocal Duo award to Brooks & Dunn for the millionth consecutive year. I seriously don't know why they bother anymore.

10:39: Tim McGraw manages to shake off the show-fatigue doldrums by giving a stirring and dramatic read to "I'm Already Home," avoiding bombastic power-ballad crutches and keeping even the string arrangement delicate and understated. Near the end of the song, the lights slowly come up and reveal that the stage is crowded with family members of dead soldiers. Note to Rascal Flatts: that's how you do baldly manipulative heartstring-jerking!

10:45: Luke Wilson, of all people, comes out to present an award immediately afterward. That's probably a bad programming choice, considering that Wilson always sounds like he's joking even when he isn't. Carrie Underwood wins Top Female Vocalists: "I'm crying again. This is what I do at awards shows."

10:51 Vince Gill does one of his utterly unconvincing roadhouse-blooz songs. NRBQ fans everywhere must be amped, I guess.

10:56: Shania returns from Zurich again to give Kenny Chesney one more Entertainer of the Year award. He wears a giant hat and shouts out George Strait, which is pretty much exactly what you'd expect him to do. A predictable end to a predictable show.

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