The CMAs: A Running Diary


I came to bring the pain

I missed VH1’s Hip-Hop Honors because I was on honeymoon and BET’s Hip-Hop Awards because of CMJ, but the awards season is just now kicking into gear, and the running diary lives on. I’ve had a sort of extra fascination with the CMAs, country’s big prestige award show, ever since it came to New York two years ago and I watched from a backstage bunker at Madison Square Garden. Once again, the show is back in Nashville, where it belongs, and once again it’s way too long

8:00: Rascal Flatts predictably enough get the show-opener pole position. Have I mentioned lately how much I hate these smug fuckers? “Still Feels Good,” their new single, is total inoffensive midtempo fluff, only really country by dint of its semi-prominent fiddles and banjo, and I think maybe I just hate it because it reminds me so much of the Eagles and because of Gary LeVox’s sinus-clogged squeak of a voice. It’s nice to see someone keeping the Janet Jackson headset-mic alive, anyway. At the end of the song, the big TV screens behind them run a quick montage of old CMA moments, and it just serves to reinforce how little these tools sound like Porter Wagoner or Willie Nelson. The assembly-line is still alive and well, but it really has changed.

8:05: Whoa, no host this year! Weird. I’d definitely imagined that Brooks & Dunn would still be doing this thing long after I was dead. Instead, some chump from Desperate Housewives is out to kick off the festivities. He immediately endears himself to me by introducing Miranda Lambert, probably the single best reason to watch this year’s show.

8:07: They’ve got Lambert rocking a sparkly dress, and the cameras seem to be studiously avoiding her bass player’s mohawk. Doesn’t matter. “Gunpowder & Lead” is such a badass song, and the way Lambert scrunches her face up on the chorus is probably the best thing I’ll see tonight. A perfect example of why the Nashville assembly line still works.

8:08: It’s sort of simultaneously endearing and pathetic the way the Nashville establishment will embrace any mainstream musician who deigns to recognize its existence. That explains Sheryl Crow, a country beneficiary for the past couple of years, coming out to present Single of the Year. Carrie Underwood wins for “Before He Cheats,” the first real pop-radio crossover country has had since Shania Twain was hitting her peak and probably my favorite of the nominated songs. (Fuck “Ticks.”) For maybe the first time in her career, Underwood manages to accept an award without exploding into tears. After seeing her radiating gratitude through the TV so many times, it’s almost a disappointment.

8:15: The Desperate Housewives guy is back again, but he’s no longer introducing Miranda Lambert, so I have no further use for him. Instead, it’s leathery George Strait’s old-school Nashville orchestra, here to dispense dignified deadpan hooks pretty well despite showing absolutely no immediacy or life. It’s OK.

8:20: Once again, Montgomery Gentry don’t get to perform, but they do get to hand out Song of the Year, so that’s something. Eddie and Troy look like they’ve been hitting the buffet line a little hard this year, and Eddie looks like maybe he stole his skull T-shirt from the Shop Boyz and his blindingly white rhinestone shirt from, um, someone who wears blindingly white rhinestone shirts. They’re quite a sight. George Strait’s “Give It Away” wins this one, and it’s always fun to watch the anonymous pro songwriters get the spotlight for like two minutes, sort of like watching someone win an Oscar for Best Sound Editing.

8:24: I really like Taylor Swift, but whenever she’s on TV she’s got these weird dead fish-eyes and these awkward staccato movements, both of which have to be huge liabilities for a prospective country star, even one who comes out of a huge flower-looking rig and who plays a glitter-covered guitar. Also, her guitarist is all dressed up in stereotypical Sunset Strip glam-rock gear; he looks like an alien up there. This makes for an absolutely absorbing three minutes of TV. Good song, too!

8:32: Sara Evans, who I guess is replacing the Desperate Housewives guy, introduces Brad Paisley. Paisley manages to come off all aw-shucks humble and normal even when a marching band is playing his song’s intro and Taylor Swift and Kellie Pickler are awkwardly dancing up on him. Ladies, please! He’s married to the chick from Father of the Bride! “Online,” it must be said, sounds a whole lot better when that unbelievably obnoxious George Costanza video isn’t attached to it.

8:38: Alison Krauss is here to provide prestige-cred. She’s got an amazing voice and everything, but Jesus, how boring. Robert Plant is nowhere in sight, unfortunately.

8:46: Big & Rich might be putting out dogshit records these days, but they sure do know how to wipe away any sanctimony residue Alison Krauss might’ve left: fur coats, flying Vs, backup dancers. Within five years, they’re going to be the best act in Vegas. They dedicate “Loud” to Porter Wagoner and call him “the king of bling,” which is equal parts stupid and hilarious. Too bad “Loud” is pretty much their worst single ever; they should’ve just gone all in and done the Lil Jon remix.

8:49: Three random-ass one-hit-wonder male country singers, one of whom looks like the wrestler Edge and all of whom look like dipshits, present Vocal Group of the Year, and Rascal Flatts surprise absolutely no one by winning. Little Big Town might want to consider hiring a hit man; it’s the only way they’re ever getting that thing.

8:53: Rodney Atkins sure works his everyman schtick hard; it’s kind of nice to see a musician onstage wearing a trucker hat for pandering purposes rather than ironic ones. I like this guy, but “These Are My People,” the would-be smalltown anthem he does here, is no “If You’re Going Through Hell (Before the Devil Even Knows).”

8:59: ABC synergy at work: it’s the chick from Pushing Daisies! She introduces Carrie Underwood, who brings a massive string section and blows the shit out. The power-ballad will never die.

9:04: Vince Gill, introducing the motherfucking Eagles, calls them “the blueprint of what country-rock is all about.” Urgh. Remember when Nashville was going all nuts for whatever zero-original-members version of Lynyrd Skynyrd was kicking around? I liked that better. The reunited Eagles sound a lot like the old Eagles, which is to say so boring and joyless that I’m amazed they’re actually alive.

9:13: Brooks & Dunn might not get to host again this year, but they do get to kick out another pious and sentimental song about God. This one is about people going through rough times, thinking God is too busy for them, and then realizing he hears their prayers after all. I have a massive weakness for this stuff.

9:18: Jason Aldean does “Johnny Cash,” a song which sounds nothing like Johnny Cash but which absolutely fucking rules nonetheless. Thus far, this show is doing a pretty good job balancing the boring out with the not-boring.

9:21: Jewel and her rodeo-guy boyfriend/Nashville pass come out to present Vocal Duo of the Year. If the Wreckers win, we’ll be greeted with the alternate-universe Lilith-Fair spectacle of Jewel handing a CMA award to Michelle Branch. The Wreckers, of course, don’t win. But! Sugarland get the award, finally ending the bazillion-year Brooks & Dunn reign of terror, or at least interrupting it. They seem shocked.

9:29: Dwight Yoakam, wearing some truly regrettable leather pants, announces Sugarland’s victory-lap performance. They do “Stay” all bare-bones and acoustic, and it’s really good even if they don’t let the clearly audible organ-player onstage. Jennifer Nettles’s facial expressions are crazy; she’s like the country Mary J. Blige or something.

9:34: You can tell Dwight Yoakam’s about to start talking about Porter Wagoner because he’s wearing an ass-ugly rhinestoned jacked to match his ass-ugly leather pants. He also gives Album of the Year to George Strait, who seems happy but not remotely surprised.

9:43: LeAnn Rimes, looking weirder every day, introduces Martina McBride, now in semi-casual story-song mode rather than formal-wear power-ballad mode. I’m pretty sure McBride’s gospel-choir backup singers are the first non-white people onstage all night, and it’s to McBride’s credit that she doesn’t make that move look any more forced than, say, Alicia Keys would at the Grammys or whatever.

9:49: These days, Keith Urban has been bothering less and less to dress his lite-rock up as country. I can’t believe I’m skipping Gossip Girl for this shit.

9:54: Carrie Underwood presents the Horizon Award, which is sort of like a Best New Artist award except you can be nominated for it multiple times for some reason. Taylor Swift wins, and she’s weirdly taller than Underwood, something I wouldn’t expect. Swift totally falls apart Underwood-style.

10:02: Reba McIntire and LeAnn Rimes sing a duet. This show could really stand to lose an hour, huh?

10:06: Little Big Town do us a massive favor, skipping their kinda-meh new single to do “Boondocks.” This song is like two years old now, and it still bangs.

10:09: Dierks Bentley is wearing a black velvet suit and a chain-wallet. Country fashion is just mind-boggling. Carrie Underwood wins Female Vocalist of the Year, once again screwing Miranda Lambert out of an award she deserved. This can’t keep happening. Underwood loses it, finally. If she’s still winning awards in fifty years, she’s still totally going to scream, “You guys!” and start crying.

10:12: It’s the annual Hall of Fame segment, this time a whole lot shorter than usual. At this rate, the CMAs are going to be taping all the performances in hotel suites next year. Hey, Vince Gill made it in this year! Mazel tov, Vince Gill!

10:18: Brad Paisley’s wife introduces Kenny Chesney? Uh, that makes sense, I guess. Chesney does “Don’t Blink,” which is about as good a melodramatic inspirational ballad as you could ask for.

10:23: Josh Turner brings the old-school formalist rockabilly, which is fine with me if he keeps doing great little novelty-jams like “Firecracker.”

10:33: “I Wonder,” Kellie Pickler’s big why’d-mom-leave tearjerker, just kills me. Apparently it just kill her too; she barely manages to make it to the end of the song before collapsing into tears. See, this sort of display of nakedly cliched and sentimental emotion is exactly the sort of thing Nashville was built for, and it’s why country will still stand strong long after the rest of the music business crumbles completely. This show is going a little nuts with all the showstopping ballads, but right now I’m not mad.

10:37: Someone should tell Kid Rock that the Gumby haircut is cool again. He and Gretchen Wilson give Male Vocalist of the Year to Brad Paisley, who’s been nominated for this award and lost it way too many times.

10:46: Jamie Foxx and Gary LeVox from Rascal Flatts used to be roommates? That’s what Brad Paisley’s wife just said by way of introducing their duet. I bet Foxx was a total asshole about doing the dishes. Here, he makes a pretty good case that he should just sing all Rascal Flatts’ songs for them. When LeVox tries to trade vocal runs with Foxx at the end of the song, he sounds like a joke.

10:55: Entertainer of the Year time. It’s kind of fucked up how Carrie Underwood is quickly becoming one of Nashville’s main meal tickets but she still can’t even get nominated for this show’s biggest award. Kenny Chesney wins again. Whatever.