I usually don’t hate music if it’s blatantly awful. That usually makes me love it. (I have especially great affection for the universally maligned “We Built This City” thanks to the efforts of Twitter queen Megan Amram.) What grates on me is the technically listenable stuff that is still, slyly, really bland and stupid. Travie McCoy offers some decent verses here atop an aesthetically pleasant track; but it all goes to wash if you try to digest the lyrics of Bruno Mars chorus, which earned extra hate-points for always tricking me into thinking “Santeria” was coming on the radio last year.
There are certainly more fundamentally offensive songs out there, but this one elicits from me inexplicable anger. From its pounding pseudo-rock arrangement to Aldean’s spitfire delivery (of ridiculousness like “honey-dripping honey from a holler in Kentucky”), everything about the song feels so aggressive. And if you’ve ever been subjected to the rap re-mix without at least a drink in your hand, you have my deepest sympathy.
It’s the most frustratingly condescending tribute to a wife since “Honey.” At least that Bobby Goldsboro classic was released before the women’s rights movement was in full swing. Sure, at least he doesn’t kill her off in the end, but is death really a worse fate when compared to your husband living for those little moments when you show what a stupid little woman you are?
I can digest Toby Keith’s angry anthem much easier than Worley’s patronizing piece of manipulation. Even though I’m just as relieved as anyone to have Bin Laden gone, this song, like few others, still gets my blood boiling.
This is going to be a really important show, you guys.
Entertainer of the Year: Taylor Swift
Top Female Vocalist: Miranda Lambert
Top Male Vocalist: Brad Paisley
Album of the Year: Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
Song of the Year: “The House That Built Me”
Single of the Year: “The House That Built Me”
Top Vocal Duo: Sugarland
Top Vocal Group: Lady Antebellum
Top New Artist: The Band Perry
Top Till You Drop:
Vocal Event of the Year: Zac Brown Band & Alan Jackson, “As She’s Walking Away”
Music Video of the Year: Miranda Lambert, ”The House That Built Me”
- – -
10:02 Well, all right, that was fun enough. Kinda. Thanks for playing along, y’all, and have a good night!
9:58 A shocking upset! As shocking as, like, one of those chewy Sweet Tarts.
Entertainer of the Year: Taylor Swift
9:56 Hey, how about next year we get James Taylor to come back and sing with the Dixie Chicks again? Yes or yes?
9:52 They segue into “Sweet Baby James.” At least this pairing makes musical sense.
9:48 Leeann: Zac Brown and James Taylor, Carrie Underwood and Steven Tyler, Jennifer Nettles and Rihanna? Is CMT testing for upcoming Crossroads episodes?
9:45 Was having some trouble with the site for a few minutes there. Now we’re up to Zac Brown Band doing a very cool “Colder Weather” with James Taylor.
9:41 Amazing how only a year and a half ago the idea of Miranda winning one of the really competitive awards still seemed like a pipe dream.
Top Female Vocalist: Miranda Lambert
9:36 “Love Gets a Hold of You” or something. It sounds okay – almost in the same you’re-gonna-miss-me-boy! vein as “Turn on the Radio,” though. I think we’re all ready for some more mature Reba now. Take a lesson from Martina.
9:34 Reba’s out to sing something or other. I just saw today that “If I Were a Boy” got yanked as a single; this must be the new one?
9:27 Darius Rucker singing “Music from the Heart” with a choir of various ages and developmental disabilities. Very passionate, touching performance.
9:25 Chris Young’s trying out the hatless thing.
9:25 Oh, for real? At least he acknowledged he has too many now.
Top Male Vocalist: Brad Paisley
9:22 I don’t know how I’m still awake through all this. I shouldn’t be saying such things at 9:23.
9:17 Leeann: Martina is worming her way back into my heart again. I’m a soft touch.
9:17 …Who just tweeted, “Holy crap, I’m singing.” Perfect.
9:14 Awesome. It does. This reminds me of Jeannie C. Riley, the spunky honesty of it. And I like to fantasize that she got some inspiration for that opening “honestly, I think I need a drink” line from Drunken Martina.
9:13 Martina’s coming out with “Teenage Daughters.” I really hope this translates well to stage.
Top Vocal Duo: Sugarland
9:10 Kevin: Naomi Judd: The answer to the age-old question, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”
9:09 Leeann:Ronnie Dunn sounds so much like Brooks & Dunn. Go figure.
9:07 He looks and sounds like musical Jesus. I mean that in a complimentary way!
9:03 Ronnie Dunn’s coming up with “Bleed Red.” Excited for that, kinda. I think C.M. Wilcox is right and that it’ll work well as an award show performance even if the single itself is a little sleepy (to some of us).
8:56 Leeann: Good. Have Kristian introduce Nettles/Rihanna to show how secure he is about being put on the sideline all the time. We’re convinced.
8:55 True fact: The banner at the top of this post will light up and spin all through this Rihanna-Jennifer Nettles performance. Watch closely!
8:53 She interjects a bit of some song I should probably recognize but don’t, and then “I’ll Fly Away.” And she sounds real good.
8:53 I bet there are some Christian folks out there from Miranda’s life who are like, “We did not say that!”
8:52 A Miranda performance is usually my favorite part of an awards night. But it’s “Heart Like Mine.”
8:41 Or, as our pal Corey Parkman of Farce the Music just put it on Twitter, “I wonder what Sara Evans would sound like if she ever got over that sinus infection.”
8:38 The return of Sara Evans to the ACMs. Last performance I remember from her here was that severely pitch-challenged one of “Coalmine” the night she won Top Female years ago. She sounds better here, but still not up to many of her recorded performances.
8:35 I mean, seriously, y’all. “Need You Now” is the only reason Need You Now has sold like it has, and the album selling like it has is the only reason it’s getting this recognition. “Need You Now” won Song and Single of the Year at last year’s ACMs; couldn’t that have been enough?
8:31 IEIOF432IfffkDdk&*$#vdsadvfdjfpvfs >:(
Album of the Year: Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
8:28 Well, don’t think I was missing much. Such a shame – he truly would be one of the best male vocalists in the game if he had better taste.
8:25 We get a Blake Shelton performance. Don’t recognize the song.
Single of the Year: “The House That Built Me”
8:14 Jason Aldean doing the Colt Ford country-rap “Dirt Road Anthem” and it’s every bit as cool you would imagine. (That is, decidedly un-.)
8:09 Apparently their dad’s name is Steve Perry. I snickered harder than I should have.
Best New Artist: The Band Perry
8:07 Kevin: And my favorite of the 57 performances so far is…Taylor Swift. No one can ever accuse me of not having an open mind.
8:05 Kimberly Perry delivers the “well” in “If I Die Young” with way too much spunk. “Well! I’ve had just enough time. So if I do die – y’know, whatever!”
8:03 Whoops, apparently it’s a guitjo/ganjo. Whatever, it’s not like I’m a writer of music-related opinion articles or something!
8:00 Taylor Swift singing “Mean” and strumming the banjo, which is not how I’ve known anyone to play the banjo. Pretty cool scene, though – they’re in front of an old-timey house and the band’s all decked out in their Depression-era best.
7:55 Kevin: Not naming the songwriters for Song of the Year is an absolute disgrace.
[They announced it as "Miranda Lambert, 'The House That Built Me,'" though she's not the one who wrote it.]
Song of the Year: “The House That Built Me”
7:53 Finally, we get one: Song of the Year.
7:50 Eric Church doing “Smoke a Little Smoke,” the one single of his I really dig, with verve. BUT THERE STILL HASN’T BEEN A SINGLE AWARD.
7:45 Back from commercial, Keith Urban performing his newest hit, “Without You (Nicole Kidman)(Pt. 3)(Ballad Version).”
7:42 Leeann: Seriously? Still no award yet? What are we watching?
7:38 Dierks Bentley running laps around the arena to “Am I the Only One,” determined to make us like the unlikable.
7:36 Kevin:That’s what I wanted that song to sound like on the album.
7:35 I’ll say this: JNett still has the best stage charisma of any mainstream country star who isn’t Keith Urban.
7:32 Leeann: Half hour in and still no award yet at this…uh…awards show.
7:32 Sugarland’s here, Jennifer apparently with hair extensions, and they’re doing “Tonight.” Figured this would probably be the next single. Like Kevin, I’d like the recorded version if not for the head-cold-ish performance.
7:30 Well, that was fun. Good thing I gave up on the term “country music” meaning anything a few weeks ago!
7:27 Kevin: We’re officially down the rabbit hole.
7:27 They segue into “Walk This Way.”
7:26 Steven Tyler is really good at screaming awesomely and only ok at remembering the words to Carrie Underwood songs.
7:24 Two Soul Surfer ladies come out to introduce Carrie, who’s doing “Undo It.” WITH STEVEN TYLER! OK, I like this now.
7:20 Apparently Dr. Pepper’s current slogan is “There’s nothing like a Dr. Pepper.” Uhhhh.
7:17 Pleasant enough song (“Somewhere Else”), and he’s got that sweet Toby growl going.
7:16 Leeann: It’s nice to like Toby Keith music these days.
7:14 “ARE THEY READY?! DOES ZAC BROWN ENJOY THE FEEL OF HIS ASS IN THE SAND?!” Best Blake line of the night so far.
7:13 The celebrity cheap shots are coming hard and fast, though.
7:10 We are promised no Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan jokes. God? Is that you?!?
7:07 Celine Dion’s here now, and she’s VERY VERY EXCITED! I honestly can’t think of a better Vegas gate-keepeer, though.
7:07 Kevin: Since when did Alabama become a trio? What a poorly cropped picture, lawsuit or not.
7:06 It would be great if, instead of writing songs about how great the classic acts were, today’s artists just figured out how to measure up.
7:04 Leeann: Good. We get this disappointing Paisley song out of the way now.
7:04 “Old Alabama” now.
7:02 Cute-ish opening skit with Blake Shelton “rehearsing for his wedding night” by serenading a blond-wigged Reba with “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking.”
6:52 Leeann: John Rich is so much more tolerable when he’s with Big Kenny.
6:38 The JaneDear Girls just appeared onscreen. When are they un-appearing, I wonder?
6:33 Wynonna and Naomi Judd chilling with Suzanne Alexander now. Colorically speaking, Wynonna has become a human sunset.
6:31 Chris Young is now talking to Storme which means his voice is audible – yay!
6:26 On some red carpet somewhere, GAC’s Storme Warren just presented to Vocal Event award, inevitably, to “As She’s Walking Away.”
6:15 Dierks Bentley will be playing “Am I the Only One” tonight. Have fun, no one!
6:04 Super-jealous of The 9513′s sweet new live blog layout. Also: the smartness of their live-bloggers. Also: the fact that Brady and Brody Vercher are named thusly.
5:59 Red carpet time, woo!! I bet everybody’s totally wearing clothes this year.
Four generous hits collections were released in 2010, each one chronicling the entire career of a contemporary country music star. Individually, each double-disc set serve as the most expansive and thorough compilation for each artist. Taken together, they tell the story of country music over the last twenty years.
Alan Jackson 34 Number Ones
In the late eighties, Randy Travis did something that no other country star had done before. He became the top-selling country artist by a wide margin without making any musical concessions to pop or rock. In doing so, he tore up the old playbook. Suddenly, you could be a multi-platinum country artists without the added benefit of top 40 radio or accolades from the rock and roll press.
Thus began contemporary country music, the new paradigm that reached its commercial peak in the nineties, but has never come close to receding to its earlier status as a niche genre. A crop of young stars surfaced in 1989 and 1990, each one of them staking a claim to be the Haggard, the Jones, the Willie, the Waylon of their generation. Out of all of them, none struck a more perfect balance between artistic credibility and commercial viability than Alan Jackson.
Simply put, he is the most significant singer and songwriter of the past quarter century. So it’s no surprise that out of all of the country stars who’ve compiled #1 hit collections, Jackson’s set is the best, both in terms of overall quality and effectiveness in summing up an entire career.
Fact is, radio’s played nearly everything Jackson’s sent their way, and he’s demonstrated remarkably good judgment over the past twenty years. The highest of the high points – “Here in the Real World”, “Don’t Rock the Jukebox”, “Chattahoochee”, “Gone Country”, “Where Were You”, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” – aren’t just great records from their time period. They’re accurate representations as well, little time capsules that show Jackson as being centrally relevant to the genre while he was also making great music.
Today, with critical acclaim and commercial success becoming increasingly divergent pathways, 34 Number Ones serves as a powerful reminder that one need not sacrifice quality for radio airplay. Of the new tracks, Jackson’s cover of “Ring of Fire” doesn’t quite measure up, It’s certainly a competent reading, but Jackson’s already a legend in his own right. Just listen to “As She’s Walking Away”, the duet with Zac Brown Band that serves at the set’s bonus 35th number one. His mere presence elevates the track into greatness.
Tim McGraw Number One Hits
Jackson’s ascent into superstardom came at the peak of the new traditionalist movement. Tim McGraw got in just under the buzzer, breaking through a year before Shania Twain shifted the course of country music to a distinctively more pop sound. He’s since been able to maintain stardom by going with the flow of these changes.
At his best, few have been better than Tim McGraw, but Number One Hits documents his bookend years as a follower of trends. It’s the songs on either end of his hit run than are the weakest. Whereas Jackson has flirted with banality once in a while, McGraw has openly embraced it. He became a mega-star by alternating shoehorning the five-hankie weepfest “Don’t Take the Girl” between novelty songs like “Indian Outlaw” and “Down on the Farm”, all of which reek of the hat act herd mentality that was heading out of style in 1994.
But McGraw used his clout from those early hits to get access to better material, and his albums soon demonstrated a song sense that was unrivaled among the other new acts of the time, most of whom quickly faded away as pop ascended in the genre. The best of his biggest singles came over the course of the next decade. Classics like “Just to See You Smile”, “Please Remember Me”, “Angry all the Time” and “Live Like You Were Dying” were among the best songs on the radio.
For a while there, he could get just about anything into the top fifteen, but this collection focuses only on the chart-toppers. So instead of fantastic gems like “Can’t Be Really Gone”, “One of These Days”, “Red Ragtop”, and “If You’re Reading This”, this set features quite a bit of forgettable fare that hasn’t aged well. They may have topped the charts, but that doesn’t make “Not a Moment Too Soon”, “She Never Lets it Go to Your Heart”, and the particularly abysmal “Southern Voice” worthy of inclusion in a best-of set.
If they were able to suspend the concept to include a questionable dance remix of the #8 chart hit “Indian Outlaw” and the mediocre new hit “Felt Good on My Lips”, they might as well have just been more generous with the track listing and released The Very Best of Tim McGraw. His music has been far more compelling than this collection shows.
Dixie Chicks The Essential Dixie Chicks
The explosive crossover success of Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, and Faith Hill was in full swing in 1998, which left traditionalists hungering for a superstar alternative. In waltzed the Dixie Chicks, with a combination of musical credibility, traditional roots, and youthful appeal that instantly made them the darlings of the format. Over the course of two albums – 1998′s Wide Open Spaces and 1999′s Fly – they dominated radio, retail and the awards circuit.
Tracks from those two albums combine for fourteen of the thirty tracks of The Essential Dixie Chicks. All of the biggest hits are here, but chart success wasn’t the only determination for inclusion. Thank God for that, as less impressive top ten hits like “Cold Day in July” and “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me” are left off, with the far more compelling “Heartbreak Town” and “Sin Wagon” in their place.
As good as their first two albums were, it was the 2002 masterpiece Home that truly solidified them as artists for the ages. Released at the height of O Brother mania, the timing couldn’t have been better for this acoustic album. “Long Time Gone”, “Landslide”, and “Travelin’ Soldier” all went top two, and the album swept the country categories at the 2003 Grammy Awards.
And then, the bottom fell out. Poorly chosen words about the president quickly overshadowed Home, and the princesses of country radio suddenly became pariahs, taking the burgeoning roots movement down with them. Radio slamming its door shut is what makes a hit-centered Chicks compilation impossible, and Essential Dixie Chicks wisely chooses to give equal representation to Home and its follow-up, the California country Taking the Long Way.
An excellent job is done of selecting the best album cuts from both collections, an especially difficult task with the latter album. Sure, it won five Grammys and sold well, but the platinum single “Not Ready to Make Nice” was the only real hit. Thankfully, we’re treated to gems like “Top of the World” and “Truth No. 2″ from Home and “The Long Way Around”, “Easy Silence,” and “Lubbock or Leave It” from Taking the Long Way.
And while a case could be made for some great tracks left off – “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”, “More Love”, and “Voice Inside My Head” come to mind – everything that’s here is essential listening. Then again, the Chicks could have randomly picked any 30 songs from the four albums represented here and still ended up with a great collection of music, so high has their standard of excellence been all along. How many other superstar country artists could do the same?
Brad Paisley Hits Alive
If the Dixie Chicks best represent the last gasp of lofty aspiration in mainstream country music over the past twelve years, Brad Paisley best represents the mediocrity the genre was willing to settle for. Rising to fame around the same time as the Chicks, Paisley was similarly touted as a traditional savior for the increasingly pop-influenced genre.
And for more than ten years, he’s lived up to the traditionalist part, rarely flirting with crossover sounds. Much like Alan Jackson, Paisley’s sound hasn’t changed much over time. But unlike Jackson, Paisley’s point of view hasn’t changed much either. He’s been releasing antiseptic, mostly dull radio fodder for most of his career, getting regular radio play with an endless stream of interchangeable love songs and party anthems.
Hits Alive attempts to assess his work to date, and it takes an odd approach. A disc of studio hits is paired with a disc of live recordings of his hits. Figuring out the guiding principle in song selection is near impossible. Some of his signature hits – “I’m Gonna Miss Her”, “Letter to Me”, “Waitin’ on a Woman” – appear only in live form. Songs that practically beg to be livened up, like “Ticks”, “The World”, and “Celebrity” – are only here in their studio incarnations. Bizarrely, “Alcohol” and “Mud on the Tires”, are presented in both forms.
The double dipping means early hits like “Who Needs Pictures”, “Wrapped Around”, “Two People Fell in Love”, and “I Wish You’d Stay” are omitted entirely. That’s a shame, because they’re all better than his string of condescending and slightly misogynist love songs that do make the cut, the worst offenders being “The World” and the jaw-dropping “Little Moments”, the latter providing a list of endearing traits that would be insulting if he was singing about his child, let alone his partner.
Thankfully, many of his best moments are included, most notably “Whiskey Lullaby” and “When I Get Where I’m Going”, two hits that have gone on to become genre standards in the years since their release. Plus, the live disc brings some unexpected treats. “Time Warp” showcases his stunning instrumental talent, while the hits “Water” and “American Saturday Night” truly do come alive on stage, making them sound better here than they did on the radio.
Of the four collections, Paisley’s may be the least impressive, but it’s still a decent representation of one of country music’s last superstars, and it speaks volumes about the creative holding pattern that still paralyzes the genre. Unless the spiritual successors to Alan Jackson or the Dixie Chicks come along, Paisley’s might be as good as it’s gonna get on country radio.
Earlier this year, a discussion with a colleague of mine revealed a mutual affinity for country music. It was a typical conversation that I have with fans that are around my age. We fell in love with the music about twenty years ago, don’t think it’s quite as good as it once was, but can find a lot of things to like from just about any era, including the current one.
So in the 2010 version of making a mix tape, I offered to load up her iPod with a whole bunch of country music. A week later, she took me to dinner as a thank you. We started talking about the music that I’d passed on to her, and she told me that she was listening to the iPod while mowing the lawn. Suddenly, a song came on that made her cry. Full-out cry, mind you, not just a tear or two.
So I ask if it was “Love, Me”, or maybe “Where’ve You Been”, or something similarly tragic. She was almost embarrassed as she told me that it was the old Anne Murray hit, “You Needed Me.”
Now, there are a few possible reactions to this. I suspect for many or even most, it will be either befuddlement or outright derision. But me? I totally understood why that song would have such a strong impact, and I can best describe it in one word: Sincerity.
It’s the bane of the cynic’s existence, and of many critics as well. You don’t see Anne Murray pop up on too many lists when discussing the greatest country artists of all time, or even the greatest pop-country singers of all time, even though she’s definitely both. Ditto for Kenny Rogers and my once future wife Olivia Newton-John, who also fit well into both categories.
But there are some artists who exude sincerity and still are treated with reverence, like Loretta Lynn and Alan Jackson. What makes them different? I think it’s the added perception of authenticity that differentiates them from the artists above.
Take Dolly Parton as a case study. Rare is the critic or country music historian who doesn’t speak highly of both her pre-1976 and post-1999 output, where her music was firmly grounded in her mountain roots. But her pop era – roughly 1977-1986 – is widely maligned. The sincerity is there all the way throughout her career, whether it’s delivering the brilliant working class social commentary present in both “In the Good Old Days” and “9 to 5″, or when she’s just being hopelessly maudlin, be it with “Daddy Come and Get Me” or “Me and Little Andy.”
I think that she gets less credit for that period because there’s a sense that she’s being something that she’s not, that the authenticity is lacking. When you think someone is being inauthentic in their sincerity, it’s hard for some to embrace them. I think that I’m in the minority in that I don’t care much if someone is authentic, so long as they’re sincere.
Where things fall apart for me are when I perceive authenticity without being able to sense the sincerity in the performances. This is my major issue with many of the more traditional artists today. I think Jamey Johnson, Gretchen Wilson, and Brad Paisley are completely authentic in their music. They are who they say they are, and such. But I have trouble getting into them because they don’t come off as genuinely sincere.
It’s hard to articulate this, but to use Paisley as an example, he often sounds to my ears like he’s emotionally divorced from what he’s singing. The brain is plugged in, but I don’t feel the heart. I loved, loved, loved “Letter to Me” because his voice cracked with emotion. I felt the sincerity that I don’t feel when I hear “Anything Like Me” or “Little Moments.”
Meanwhile, Carrie Underwood can rarely do wrong with me because she drips with sincerity, something that was prevalent even during her embryonic Idol days, but has really come into play with her writing so much of her material. “Change” is my favorite song she’s done so far, not just because I fully agree with the message, but that she sings it with such sincerity. Does she live out the message in her own life? I have no idea. But her performance is so powerful to my ears that it being her authentic life story is as irrelevant to me as the fact that Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon aren’t really a death row convict and a Catholic nun, respectively.
Sincerity over authenticity, if I have to choose. Both are great to have, but the former is more essential than the latter in the music that I love the most. It may be a meaningless distinction in the end, but it’s the only explanation I can come up with for me usually liking songs much better by great singers than by the original songwriters, and for Laura Bell Bundy getting so much more play on my iPod than Taylor Swift, the most genuinely authentic teen star ever. Or at least since Lesley Gore.
With that all said, how about we listen to some Anne Murray? She’s awesome.
I don’t think there’s ever been a song that I’ve wished remained an instrumental as much as this one, as the gorgeous instrumentation, especially the fiddle, is the very best example of what the title claims.
But alas, our reigning Entertainer of the Year insists on tackling the title with lyrics, and it doesn’t end well. It doesn’t even begin well, with the ridiculous notion that country music is where you need to go to hear that Jesus is the answer, as it’s not afraid of rubbing folks the wrong way by saying so in a song. Michael W. Smith and countless Winans have made a career out of doing so without ever recording a country song.
Has Paisley managed to live an entire life in the south without ever stumbling upon Contemporary Christian or Gospel Music? Of course he hasn’t. He’s just decided to do another tired country music spin on American exceptionalism.
We’re not the only country in the world that has freedom. By some measures, we might not even have the most of it. But it makes us feel good to sing along to a song that pretends we’re the only home of the brave and the only land of the free.
This at least accomplishes national solidarity, so it can serve a meaningful purpose. What purpose does it serve to convince people that country music is the only place – the only place! – where we can find songs about cancer and Jesus? And Mama? Don’t forget Mama! Given that Kanye West wrote a better Mama song than any country composition this side of “No Charge”, Paisley best not perform “This is Country Music” on the MTV Awards.
Given that the song quickly devolves into drinking on the weekend and hating on your boss by the second verse, it’s probably a waste of time to over-think this, even if it was Paisley’s insistence that has us going all meta in the first place. By the time he gets all serious again, this time via a soldier not coming home from war, Paisley has weighed down his impassioned defense of country music with so many genre stereotypes that he ends up being a witness for the prosecution.
If you happen to be curious about country music and want a song that also demonstrates “this is country music” without eliciting the knee-jerk response, “Why should I care?”, then I suggest you check out Sugarland’s “Very Last Country Song” instead. It captures the same sentiment attempted here more effectively, and without the nonsensical “My genre can beat up your genre” undercurrent.
When the nominees were announced in August for the 44th annual CMA Awards, they sparked a firestorm of headlines –and thoughtful commentary by critics and fans alike– thanks to the CMA voters’ surprisingly bold moves. It’s all about change this year, as the voters revamped the ballot with a slew of fresh faces in almost all of the big categories.
How will it all play out? We’ll know for sure on Wednesday at 8pm Eastern, but before Gwenyth Paltrow throws on her cowboy boots, check out our staff picks and predictions and join the discussion in the comments below. And be sure to drop by Wednesday night for all of the CU live blog madness!
Entertainer of the Year
Miranda Lambert – Kevin
Zac Brown Band – Leeann, Dan, Tara
Kevin: Among the five nominees, Miranda Lambert has best represented the genre this year.
Leeann: I’m torn between Lambert and the Zac Brown Band as most deserving this year. I recently saw Lambert’s show and wasn’t incredibly impressed, however. While I have not yet attended a ZBB show, theirs is one of the few spots that I look forward to at awards shows these days. Moreover, I’m impressed by how much of a following they had even before they made any mainstream records.
Dan: Of these five, Zac Brown Band had the second-most success this year (after Lady A) and made the second-best music (after Lambert), so that’s pretty good standing. And I feel like giving this award to a grassroots act would be a good way for the industry to greet the future.
Tara: I’m consistently impressed by Zac Brown Band’s live performances, and it would be really refreshing to see them win – so I’ll go with them. (But I’m still disappointed that the first year my head and heart align on Carrie Underwood deserving an EOTY award, I can’t support her. I’m holding out for 2012…)
Miranda Lambert – Tara
Brad Paisley – Kevin, Leeann, Dan
Zac Brown Band
Kevin: I’ve probably learned nothing from last year’s Swift sweep by going with Paisley again, but he’s the only nominee of veteran stature who hasn’t won yet.
Leeann: I can’t imagine that Paisley won’t finally win this one.
Dan: I was going to guess Lady A, since they’re sort of 2010′s “flavor of the year” the way Taylor Swift was 2009′s. But when I think about it, Swift’s ascent was greater and more gradual, and she stood in contrast to the rest of her nominee pool (four male veterans) in a way Lady A don’t with theirs (in which they’re one of three new competitors). So, Paisley.
Tara: I have no rationale. My gut says Lambert.
Male Vocalist of the Year
Dierks Bentley – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
Kevin: Bentley made the best music this year.
Leeann: Bentley may not have the best technical voice out of these nominees, but he has the most interesting and distinctive of them, which is always something that I gravitate toward. Also, I agree with Kevin that he’s made the best music this year.
Dan: Shelton and Bentley are the only ones in this pool who made significant career strides this year – Shelton at radio, and Bentley creatively. Since I’m backing someone else in the Album category, this is where I’d like to see Bentley recognized for following his muse.
Tara: I guess Up on the Ridge is as good a reason as any to fall off the Brad-for-MVOTY bandwagon. He’s a close second for me, though.
Dierks Bentley – Kevin, Dan
Brad Paisley – Leeann, Tara
Kevin: I can see the roots album giving Bentley an edge. Then again, Paisley could just repeat again, or Shelton may suddenly have deep support among voters. I say, Bentley by a nose.
Leeann: I think that voters will reflexively give this one to Paisley again.
Dan: I’ll ditto Kevin.
Tara: I can’t really see Paisley losing this one, but I think if he does lose to Bentley, it’ll be a telling moment.
Female Vocalist of the Year
Miranda Lambert – Kevin, Leeann, Dan
Carrie Underwood – Tara
Kevin: Underwood and McEntire are the women who made my favorite singles from the eligibility period, but Lambert’s the only one who hasn’t won this award. She’s not overdue, but she’s due.
Leeann: Kevin’s right that Lambert is due to win this award now, not to mention that she’s my favorite female singer out of the bunch.
Dan: Lambert still isn’t at Underwood’s sales level, much less Swift’s, and I don’t see her catching up before traditional music sales die out altogether. Doesn’t matter, though: her habit of making creative music will sustain her regardless of industry conditions, and will elevate the genre in the long run. It’s time to look ahead.
Tara: I’m 50/50 on Lambert and Underwood. I’m not sure how to balance Lambert’s long overdue mega-year against Underwood’s continuous stream of solid success, ambassadorship and artistic growth. I’ll be happy either way, but personal investment’s got me in Underwood’s camp.
Miranda Lambert - Kevin, Dan, Tara
Carrie Underwood- Leeann
Kevin: I’d be shocked if Lambert lost, and can’t even make a guess as to who she’d lose to, should she somehow lose.
Leeann: It’s between Lambert and Underwood, but I give Underwood the edge, especially since it’s somewhat surprising that she didn’t get an Entertainer nomination. Although Lambert has gained popularity in the past year, Underwood is still one of the two biggest females in the business and I refuse to predict that Swift will win the award.
Dan: Lambert’s had enough mainstream success this year to give tasteful voters an excuse to give her some props.
Tara: The voters love them some Lambert this year, and I think of all her nominations, this is the one she’s got in the bag.
Vocal Duo of the Year
Brooks & Dunn
Joey + Rory – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
Kevin: I’m assuming “Stuck Like Glue” was after the eligibility period, so I think actually making some music over the year is important. Joey + Rory are the only duo I like who have yet to win.
Leeann: I simply like them the most, but I know they don’t have a chance.
Dan: I mean, why not? Nobody on this ballot has done much but tour.
Tara: I’m not very excited about any of these acts right now, to be honest. It would just be heartwarming to see Joey + Rory pick this one up.
Brooks & Dunn – Kevin, Dan
Joey + Rory
Sugarland – Leeann, Tara
Kevin: Sugarland’s year off helped guarantee a B&D victory lap, which would probably have happened anyway.
Leeann: It’s between Brooks & Dunn and Sugarland. I should just pick B&D because of their retirement, but I’m still going with Sugarland because of their popularity.
Dan: Brooks & Dunn, unless voters ignore the eligibility period and stick with Sugarland.
Tara: Isn’t the Brooks & Dunn retirement thing kind of old news by now, or am I just out of touch?
Vocal Group of the Year
Lady Antebellum – Tara
Little Big Town
The Band Perry
Zac Brown Band – Kevin, Leeann, Dan
Kevin: Let’s start getting some variety in this category, instead of having Lady A own it for five years.
Leeann: They’re the only group that I like right now.
Dan: I’ll probably be rooting for Little Big Town come ACM season, but for now…
Tara: I don’t want Lady A to own this for five years, either, but I do think they deserve to win this year. At least in my opinion, their huge success on the charts and with album sales can be attributed much to their ability to (I know, I know – I’m a broken record) hone in on specific emotion and deliver it in a way that people can really connect with. There’s some meat (and a heck of a lot of potential) behind their success that tends to go unnoticed.
Lady Antebellum – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
Little Big Town
The Band Perry
Zac Brown Band
Kevin: Lady A and Zac BB are both very popular with voters, but I’m thinking that this is the only race where voters can reward Lady A for dominating at retail this year.
Leeann: Ditto to Kevin.
Dan: New Artist will be ZBB’s consolation prize.
Tara: …And I think the voters will agree with my pick, if not for the same reasons.
New Artist of the Year
Chris Young – Leeann
Zac Brown Band - Kevin, Dan, Tara
Kevin: ZBB is in another league, which makes me wish they still called this the Horizon Award.
Leeann: It’s weird to see ZBB here considering their nominations elsewhere, so I think that Chris Young has the most potential of the remaining nominees.
Dan: I’d love to see Young take this, but ZBB can’t be denied.
Tara: This is a great line-up, but there’s no question that ZBB deserves this win.
Zac Brown Band – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
Kevin: ZBB is nominated for Entertainer of the Year, much like Ricky Skaggs was when he won Horizon in 1982. (Skaggs also won Male Vocalist, which means I may have to rethink my pick for Vocal Group, too.)
Leeann: Kevin’s argument is too compelling not to follow. Also, they are the most popular of the nominees, therefore, probably the most deserving.
Dan: Everyone here but Niemann has had a significant breakthrough. With ZBB in the mix, though, it’s no contest.
Tara: It’s a funky set-up to have ZBB nominated for both the top and bottom (figuratively) prizes, and I think this one will play out exactly the way Kevin explained it.
Album of the Year
Dierks Bentley, Up on the Ridge – Leeann
Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
Miranda Lambert, Revolution – Dan, Tara
George Strait, Twang
Carrie Underwood, Play On – Kevin
Kevin: I have all five of these albums, and Underwood’s is the one that I listen to the most, with Strait a not-too-close second. In 2010, of course, “listening to an album” really means “how many songs do I pull off the album and put on a play list,” which has Underwood ahead by three tracks.
Leeann: If I follow Kevin’s test, Bently wins with Lambert as a close second. Bentley’s is, hands down, my favorite album of these choices. I’d love to see something this different from the mainstream win.
Dan: Also employing Kevin’s test, I flip-flop Leeann’s first and second choices. Only about two thirds of Revolution click for me a year later, but those two thirds have helped redefined what I thought modern country could be (still flipping about “Me and Your Cigarettes”), and the stray third at least tried.
Tara: I’m not going to follow Kevin’s test: I don’t play Revolution quite as much as three of the other albums on here, but I feel it’s the most deserving. It’s sharp, smart and an excellent example of an artist taking her potential by the horns.
Dierks Bentley, Up on the Ridge
Lady Antebellum, Need You Now
Miranda Lambert, Revolution – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
George Strait, Twang
Carrie Underwood, Play On
Kevin: I really do think Lambert will sweep. I think she should’ve won for her last album, which wasn’t even nominated, but I’m not going to complain about an ambitious album getting the prize.
Leeann: I’m guessing either Lambert or Underwood. Although Lambert has the better album, Underwood has the slight edge because it sold better. I wouldn’t be especially surprised if Lady A takes it though.
Dan: Seems to me like a toss-up between Lady A’s commercial favorite and Lambert’s critical one. Lambert?
Tara: This is Lambert’s to lose, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if Lady A (or maybe Bentley?) snatched it.
Single of the Year
Easton Corbin, “A Little More Country Than That”
Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now”
Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me” – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
Kevin: It’s the big chunk of meat in a category of mashed potatoes and candied apples.
Leeann: Kevin just made me really hungry, therefore, kind of distracted. It’s a good thing that my choice doesn’t need justification then.
Dan: “Need You Now” had the biggest impact, of course, but “The House That Built Me” was no slouch either – four weeks at #1 – and was arguably the riskiest, most rewarding release. Also of note: she sang it real pretty.
Tara: “Need You Now” and “The House That Built Me” are performed equally well, but “House” is the better-written song. I’ll go with “House” on the basis of that, but I do think country music will be represented justly either way. Both songs resonate with pure, compelling sentiment.
Easton Corbin, “A Little More Country Than That”
Lady Antebellum, “Need You Now” - Dan, Tara
Miranda Lambert, “The House That Built Me” - Kevin, Leeann
Kevin: I think Lady A would have a better shot if they hadn’t won last year for “I Run to You.”
Leeann: It’s simply the clear winner.
Dan: Again, somewhat for diversity’s sake, I’ll guess that many voters have already forgotten about “I Run to You” – I certainly have – and will use this category to recognize the biggest hit, while they use Song to recognize the best one.
Tara: I’m jumping on Dan’s train…
Song of the Year
“A Little More Country Than That” – Rory Lee Feek, Don Poythress & Wynn Varble
“Need You Now” – Dave Haywood, Josh Kear, Charles Kelley & Hillary Scott
“The House That Built Me” – Tom Douglas & Allen Shamblin – Kevin, Leeann, Dan, Tara
Zac Brown Band featuring Kid Rock, “Can’t You See”
Kevin: Its presence in the Single category makes “Hillbilly Bone” the most likely winner.
Leeann: It’s the most mainstream of all the choices.
Dan: “Bad Angel” could play a welcome spoiler, since all three of the artists behind it command a lot of respect right now. I still see this going to the hit, though.
Tara: I’m predicting the big boys will win this one. It’s a decent song, but it makes me laugh that it gets as much love as it does – I mean, this is the song that has Adkins admitting that he’s “always wanted to sing a bone song”…!
Kevin: Lambert made the two best clips, with the humor of “Liar” outpacing the literalism of “House.”
Dan: The “House” video is beautifully conceived and directed, but somehow the “White Liar” one just sticks out more. Maybe it’s because “White Liar” is a thinner song, so the video has more of a chance to establish its own identity.
Tara: The “White Liar” video is the brightest and most creative of the bunch.
It’s pretty rare that the CMA nominations garner much attention outside of the country music press, but the always excellent Whitney Pastorek at Entertainment Weekly has a lengthy article trying to rationalize the exclusion of Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift from the Entertainer category.
It’s amazing that in a year where a record was set for the most nominations by a female artist, there can still be a valid accusation of gender bias among the nominations. Women have been poorly represented in the Entertainer category for pretty much the entire history of the CMA Awards. Even when you include duos or groups with female members, there have never been more than two out of five nominees that are women.
Never. Think about that for a minute. If this category’s nominees are to be considered reliable, the CMA is essentially saying that there has never been a time in the past 44 years that more than two of the genre’s top five acts have been female, and in the past decade, there’s never been more than one.
Why is this coming to a head this year, when it’s been a problem all along? Because there is no rational argument that exists, in this era of decreased record sales and economic downturn, for the exclusion of Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift from this category. Ironically, the inclusion of another female artist – Miranda Lambert – makes the oversight even more obvious. By any historical standard for this category, Lambert would be jockeying for fourth or fifth place, at best.
With all due respect to Brad Paisley and Keith Urban, their success this year would not get them into this category if they were women. Yet two women who have far exceeded them this year by every measurable standard, two women who are more immediately recognizable and widely beloved than Paisley and Urban have ever been, are left off of the list.
There’s a bias here, and it’s hurting the credibility of the CMA. How is it possible that acts long past their prime, like Brooks & Dunn or Vince Gill, were still getting Entertainer nominations regularly, yet superstars like Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Taylor Swift only made the cut once? Has there truly been no woman besides Reba McEntire in the last 25 years who has been one of the five top entertainers more than once?
Even if you strain your reason to justify Swift’s exclusion because she was a little less visible during the last three months of the eligibility period, the Underwood snub is the most blatantly unfair this category has seen since the days of Shania Twain, who somehow only earned one nomination while she was absolutely destroying the competition at an international level that has never been matched.
Perhaps the voting methodology of the CMA awards, which allows voters to pick up to five nominees in each category, has exacerbated the “token female” dilemma. I don’t know, and I really don’t care. Because in an era where even the ACM Awards are showing better taste than the CMA’s, the flagship organization of country music needs to address its female trouble while it still has a single shred of credibility left.
If turnover has been slow in the Entertainer category, it’s been nothing less than glacial in the Male Vocalist race. Over the past ten years, only eleven men have received nominations. Four of those eleven – Dierks Bentley, Vince Gill, Darius Rucker, and Josh Turner – have been nominated only once.
Now, Toby Keith and Tim McGraw were regularly invited to the party in the first half of the last decade, with four and three nominations, respectively. But the race has essentially been dominated by the same five men: Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley, George Strait, and Keith Urban, who combine for forty nominations in just one decade.
The recent history has been pretty boring. After two consecutive wins by Alan Jackson, we’ve had three consecutive wins each by Keith Urban and reigning champ Brad Paisley.
Will there be a new winner this year, or even a new nominee? Should there be?
Let’s take a look at last year’s race:
Darius Rucker was the new face to enter the race last year. No brand new nominee has been nominated again in this category since Keith Urban earned his first nomination in 2004. He’s been in the race ever since. I’d say Rucker’s close to a lock, along with Paisley. But just like in the Entertainer race, a case could be made for a decent shake-up, especially some of this category’s veteran acts have dipped at radio and retail.
Here’s who I would nominate this year. Share your picks in the comments:
Anybody else notice that this guy’s outselling the rest of the male solo artists? All the while, he’s been completely ignored at the country awards shows for his last two projects. He’s not overdue just yet, but he’s due.
He went out of his comfort zone to release a bluegrass-flavored album that was pretty darn good.
He just missed my list for preferred Entertainer nominees, but he’s at the head of the pack in this category. With his domination at radio, not to mention a stronger studio album than his previous two, I wouldn’t be shocked for him to become the third artist in history to win four of these.
His hit-making has certainly been kicked up a notch as of late. He may be destined to toil just under the radar of this category like Trace Adkins and Gary Allan before him, but it would be nice to see him get a nod.
A decent comeback at radio and retail, coupled with him being a great singer who’s been overlooked, makes me hope he finishes out this category.
I left off previous nominees Keith Urban, George Strait, and Darius Rucker because they haven’t put out new albums during the eligibility period, so it seems like a good time to let some new folks get a chance. I left off Kenny Chesney because he’s been doing nothing but stopgap releases for the past year, none of which sold to his normal standards. I left off Tim McGraw, even though he’s made some music I really like lately, because he hasn’t been doing as well as usual at radio and retail.
A common element that runs through Brad Paisley’s songs is a style of conversational storytelling. To many it seems simple and authentic while others just feel it’s simplistic without real depth. Depending on the song, either opinion is relevant or in some instances, both views are valid within the same song. “Anything Like Me” just may be one such song, but leaning closer to the positive than negative. The song is written in the trademark conversational tone, but the personal sentimentality of the subject matter is strongly present.
When Paisley discovers that he’s going to have a baby boy, he takes the common parental saying of “I hope your children give you the same trouble that you’ve given us” to heart. Using his own youthful temperament and experiences as a barometer, he both looks forward to and dreads being a parent to a boy that might turn out to be so much like him.
The song leaves out the fact that a little girl could present many of the same challenges, but the sweetness of the intended sentiment generally shines through. The strongest part of the single, however, is the understated production that is almost all acoustic with the electric instruments still being gentle and unobtrusive.
Written by Chris DuBois, Brad Paisley, and Dave Turnbull