Country music is probably the most popular musical genre in America right now. Of the top-selling albums of the first half of 2006, one is snoozey housewife adult-contempo, one is R&B, one is rap, one is rock, one is one of those Now compilations, and one is fake opera. One is the High School Musical soundtrack, which is some weird unholy but likable marriage of teenpop and showtunes and which is by far the biggest-selling of all of them. But three are country. It sells vast numbers of records, it has two cable networks devoted to it, and one of its stars just married Nicole Kidman, but the mainstream media still has no idea what to do with country. Last month, country held its biggest annual event, the four-day CMA Festival, in downtown Nashville, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 150,000 people showed up, making it roughly the same size as the Glastonbury Festival. It’s huge, and that’s probably what ABC was thinking about when it decided to produce and air a two-hour primetime special about the show. But the show, which aired last night, was a spectacular failure, utterly burying almost every one of the genre’s charms under untold layers of feelgood piffle and stupid reality-show stunts. It’s not like most country stars aren’t supremely telegenic and friendly, and it’s not like they won’t happily participate in whatever dumb scenario the network higher-ups could dream up, but it’s a shame to see America’s most popular genre willfully and enthusiastically turning itself into an enormous target.
In this interview, the GZA copped to liking country music, and he seems to like the same things about it that I do: “Great stories, man.” The best country songs have a warm, inclusive lyrical specificity, the sort of painstaking narrative detail that turns small, personal stories into sweeping cultural anthems. It’s the sort of humanistic observance that comes through in a lot of my favorite music, be it UGK or the Dismemberment Plan. In the best moments of last night’s special, ABC just sat back and let the performers do some of the best and biggest of their songs: Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel,” Montgomery Gentry’s “Something to Be Proud Of,” Miranda Lambert’s “New Strings.” Every one of these songs tells a story and does it well, and it’s the sort of thing that comes across beautifully on TV, even with the constant shots of scrubbed-up Abercrombie kids in cowboy hats in the crowd. At other times, the specificity was implied. Gary Allan’s performance of “Best I Ever Had” was heartwrenching not because of the song itself, which is a nice bitersweet lament, but because of the unspoken subtext, the story of a man recuperating from his wife’s suicide, something every country fan is understood to know; it was nice that ABC just let him play the song without beating us over the head with the obvious angle. And a few of the other great moments came from my favorite country sub-genre: the redneck-pride anthem. Jason Aldean’s rendition of “Hick Town” and the couple of seconds we got to hear of Little Big Town’s “Boondocks” are exactly how country should be repping itself on network TV. Those songs aren’t exclusionary, exactly, but they do make plain the constant rural-over-urban undercurrent that fuels country’s self-image. (Though apparently it’s not aggressively conformist enough to prevent Miranda Lambert’s bass player from wearing a mohawk and mutton-chops or Jason Aldean’s drummer from rocking a Ramones shirt, utterly fascinating and out-of-place touches of punk-rock pride at maybe the least punk music festival on earth.)
But more often, the show focused on friendly, good-natured chugs of working-for-the-weekend cornball fluff like Kenny Chesney’s “Living in Fast Forward” and Carrie Underwood’s “We’re Young and Beautiful,” as well as unfortunate novelty hits like Trace Adkins’ amazingly awful “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” and WTF moments like Wynonna, looking like Jabba the Hutt with big hair, covering Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.” That stuff isn’t particularly interesting, but it’s not necessarily a misrepresentation either, since all that stuff is perennially huge in country. What really grated were ABC’s lame attempts to make the whole thing look inviting for some imagined middle-America. Every once in a while, they’d get something accidentally revealing, like Kenny Chesney sitting on his private jet, wearing glasses and plaid shorts, talking about the time in college when he won a contest to go see Aerosmith. More often, though, it was just hokey: some chick from Extreme Makeover: Home Edition taking audience members backstage to meet performers, Brad Paisley hijacking a tour bus so he could enact a few lamely staged skits. Some of it was borderline insulting and baldly manipulative, too, like a bored-looking LeAnn Rimes giving a free Tahoe to an amputee Iraq War vet. Look, country music is pretty fascinating as is. It doesn’t need to be dressed up with a lot of reality-TV gimmickry to work in prime-time. These people are professionals. Let them do their jobs.