Backstage at the Country Music Awards

brooksdunn2.jpgBrooks & Dunn totally high-fived when they won. It was awesome.

Much has been made of the Country Music Association's decision to hold its 39th annual CMA Awards at Madison Square Garden; it's the first time the event has been held in a city outside Nashville, and New York remains possibly the only big city in America with no country station, so this is anything but a natural pairing. As Kelefa Sanneh wrote in the Times last week, it's a publicity stunt, pure and simple. But then, country music deserves publicity. Despite its persistent reputation as a cultural backwater, despite the fact that most of my friends still think that the shit is just funny, country music sells more records every year, and, as Sanneh has been persistently telling us, it's the one genre of music where huge heartstring-tugging larger-than-life balladry still reigns supreme. So it didn't seem fitting that the biggest non-country celebrities anyone could round up for this year's Academy of Country Music Awards were Ricky Schroeder and the Blue Man Group. If the Association wants to let people know that country is big-time, it could've had worse ideas than holding its big annual party at Madison Square Garden. And as for crossover celebs, Reese Witherspoon and Tony Soprano and Billy Joel might not exactly be dazzling A-list megastars, but at least they're a step in the right direction.

Like rap and metal and indie-rock and pretty much every other genre of music ever invented, country remains locked in a constant struggle with its past, the imagined sepia glow of its traditional core values butting up against the airbrushed mass-market sheen of its commercial ambitions. I'm by no means an expert on the subject; most of my knowledge comes from watching CMT when I get ready for work in the morning (it's habit-forming) and reading stuff like Sanneh's articles and Thomas Inskeep's hugely informative CMA preview. But from where I'm sitting, Nashville country artists can be loosely divided into three groups: the soft-focus MOR balladeers like Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban, the warmly retro traditional standard-bearers like Allison Krauss and Lee Ann Womack, and the rowdy genre-blurring upstarts like Big & Rich and Montgomery Gentry. The balladeers sell records, the traditionalists rack up critical acclaim, and the upstarts are fucking awesome. The boundaries between the three are fluid, of course, with guys like Toby Keith and Brad Paisley straddling a couple of lines, but let's just use my half-assed team-groupings as a conversation-starter and see which group ended up winning tonight.

The night seemed to belong to the traditionalists early on, as Womack racked up three awards (including Album of the Year for an album that I should probably go out and buy, maybe tomorrow), and the Paisley/Krauss duet "Whiskey Lullaby" got another one. But then event hosts and country-pop dictators-for-life Brooks & Dunn won Vocal Duo of the Year, the award they always win, and the balladeers ran away with the night. Keith Urban won Entertainer and Male Vocalist, Rascal Flatts won Vocal Group, and that was it. Pop-country remains pop, shocking absolutely nobody.

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The awards show itself was pretty fun: only nine awards handed out, twenty-five songs performed, and a production crew that was absolutely merciless with get-off-the-stage music during acceptance speeches. A few of the performances were simply great: Miranda Lambert scratching out "Kerosine" through a sea of pyro (her bass player had a fauxhawk), Martina McBride's delicate reading of "Help Me Through the Night," and Big & Rich howling out "Comin' to Your City" (the reaction shot of an open-mouthed Jon Bon Jovi was priceless). More of the performances were boring and perfunctory, but that's Nashville country for you; you have to take the bland with the amazing. If anything, the show was too tame. There wasn't much of the uncomfortable city-folk cultural gap I'd hoped for, unless Paul Simon noodling his way through "Crazy" counts. (We did get Vince Gill yucking it up in a New Yawk accent, but we really didn't need it.) And the funniest moments came from country's own reigning royalty, like when a visibly drunk Whistler from Blade fumbled his Martina McBride intro. And the star-power on display was strong enough to make Toby Keith's conspicuous absence look like a political statement: Shania Twain, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Garth Brooks live from Times Square. Rap music hasn't managed to gather its stars this impressively and comprehensively under one roof since, um, ever.

I'd hoped to attend the CMAs in person, and I sort of did. The PR people couldn't get me a seat in the arena, but they did find a place for me in the media room, a big enclosure far enough from the main room that we couldn't hear anything, set up with a brightly-lit stage and a few flatscreen TVs, sort of like how the press gets sequestered away from the actual event at presidential debates. Outside the arena, things were weird: people wandering around in eveningwear and cowboy hats, Willie Nelson signing autographs in the middle of a crowd. But inside, it was just like I'd come to the arena to watch the event on TV. I sat next to a couple of people from Reuters like I was a real journalist and everything. I was also right in front of the photographers, a group of obnoxious dickbags who yammered on cellphones and stood right in front of the TV when no stars were onstage and then jumped up and down and yelled at the stars when they were there. Every so often, a winner would walk onstage with their awards, which were weirdly shaped like big glass icicle spikes and looked like they could probably kill someone fairly easily, and posed for a few photographs and answered a few questions. (I thought about asking Keith Urban if he was bringing chain wallets back, but I totally pussied out.) Except for LeAnn Rimes, who answered a question about New York by saying "people are really starting to know my face and recognize me as a woman," the stars all seemed to be nice and down-to-earth people. But I wasn't too thrilled when I missed the climactic Elton John/Dolly Parton duet because fucking Rascal Flatts had to get their pictures taken. Next time, I'll hold out for an arena seat.

Voice blog: Riff Raff's Guide to All Things CMA

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