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CMAS 2017: COUNTRY SPEAKS UP

Garth Brooks won an unprecedented sixth Entertainer of the Year Award, yet the big news out of ABC’s 2017 CMA Awards telecast was even bigger. At a time when topicality is often avoided, the assembled country artists, fans and weasels were “gonna talk about it.”  Talk, honor, lift up and remind.

Hosts Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley, whose earlier tweet about the CMA’s  media restrictions got them rescinded, opened the show with a monologue that addressed “what they couldn’t talk about.” If it felt like a tweak to reinforce the tweet, really it was a challenge to the state of an industry that loves trucks, beers, girls, moonlight and mindless good times. They followed with a string of satirical song notions, ultimately delivering a Trump-skewering “Before He Tweets” to riotous response.

Yes, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill—looking like a million bucks—came out to congratulate the hosts on their 10th anniversary. The superstar couple were bearing Brad and Carrie Barbies to send-up a comedy bit the hosts had done years back, and what would normally have been a monologue highlight was now just a good laugh.

From the moment director Gary Halvorson cued the cold open of a solo Eric Church in a single spotlight singing “Amazing Grace,” it was clear the Country Music Association was going to find a way to address and honor the tragedies, people who’d passed and issues that deserved the spotlight with dignity and music. And if the talk of “family” in the house got to be smothering, chalk that up to the PTSD of a community that’s been reeling since Hurricane Harvey, trying to find shelter from the storm.

Whether it was Underwood’s bravura turn on the hymn “Softly & Tenderly,” offered as the In Memoriam segment as images of those who’d passed (including those killed at the Highway 91 Festival in Vegas)  appeared on a screen behind her; Little Big Town delivering a heart-ripping tribute to Glen Campbell by performing a slowed down and reverential “Wichita Lineman” with the song’s composer, Jimmy Webb, on piano; or Brothers Osborne offering a choogling piece of Danny Flowers’ “Tulsa Time,” a hit for both Eric Clapton and the departed Don Williams, the telecast invested significant time in the artists who’ve died. Celebrating the architects of the genre shows what country’s made of.

An early peak came as Dierks Bentley gave “My Town” a Springsteen-like reading, joined by Rascal Flatts. As pictures of Troy Gentry appeared on the screens, it seemed a robust and fitting homage to the charismatic half of 2000 CMA Duo of the Year Montgomery Gentry, who’d been killed in a helicopter crash mere weeks ago. Then the duo’s Eddie Montgomery, mic stand brandished as always, emerged from the wings, took his verse and showed that music—no matter the crisis—can lift you up.

Backstage, Montgomery admitted to doing the performance stone sober, saying of his raw emotion onstage, “I was great, you know, and not looking at the screens, but there was one down front…” As his voice trailed off, he shook it off and continued, “Man, I just wanted him to be proud.”

Proud would certainly be the word for Paisley, who insisted on newcomer Kane Brown having a slot. If “Heaven South” is riddled with the flashcard home-sweet-Southland images so many critics deride, the appearance of the deep-voiced young man who can freestyle rap with the same fluidity he applies to traditional country gave the “Unity” on Paisley’s t-shirt a palpable example. It also demonstrated the charisma of the Nu South on the rise, and the power of Paisley’s action meets intention to change how things are.

That truth also steeped CMA Single of the Year winner Keith Urban’s “Female,” a song written by Shane McAnally, Ross Copperman and Nicolle Galyon in response to the Harvey Weinstein fallout, with the kind of reckoning that tugs the conscience. With a chorus of nouns to describe women, the second verse made its point over a fluid electric-guitar part, asking, “When somebody laughs and implies that she asked for it/ Just ‘cause she was wearing a skirt/ Now, is that how it works?” There was no stridency, no shrieking, no judging on this night. Instead, the pressing sense of what matters, how we get there and the questions to conscience tug even the staunchest members of “the Base,” as “Liberal Redneck” Trae Crowder refers to the NASCAR/NRA types many believe put Trump over the top. With Little Big Town talking about harmony in their acceptance speech, “being able to have a conversation without anger,” this was a night pointing to solutions and common ground.

It was also a night of music first. If, in the Bro Country reductivism of the last seven or eight years, country oversimplified and leaned on looks and mindless good times more than the music, many of the night’s winners flew in the face of that status quo. Best New Artist winner Jon Pardi brought an industrial-dance-groove honky-tonk to his “Dirt on My Boots,” Video and second time Duo of the Year Brothers Osborne found the intersection of Allmans and Skynyrd to put the hammer down on Southern rock-leaning country of “It Ain’t My Fault” and seven-time Female Vocalist Miranda Lambert delivered pure truth—doused in steel guitar—on “To Learn Her,” proving unadorned classic country drives straight to the heart.

Chris Stapleton, who threepeated as Male Vocalist of the Year and picked up his second consecutive Album of the Year for Songs from a Room, Vol. 1, embodied this ethos. Performing a no-bells, no-whistles “Broken Halos” on the telecast, the receding shy songwriter told the press room, “After all the tragedy, that was only thing to play. It wasn’t more than a two second conversation.”

Standing onstage with wife/artist Morgane Hayes Stapleton, as close to a modern Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash or Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter as today’s country has, the Kentucky-born’n’raised Stapleton weighed the power of music over artifice, songs over sizzle. Measuring his words, Nashville’s most unlikely superstar explained, “I’ve always only been able to be me. I’ve made it about music first. Let the music fall where it will, and fortunately, it’s always worked out. When it’s about treating music with respect, treating people with respect, it’s never a wrong decision.”

Having sold out two nights at Nashville’s Gaylord Arena without thundering radio hits—also like fellow nominee Church—Stapleton suggests something not seen since “Waylon, Willie and the Boys” gave rise to the Outlaw movement. There are people, as the Osborne Brothers noted in the press room prior, “who have been overlooked, people who just like music, like songs and playing. They’re the ones who come out to a Chris Stapleton show, the reason he sells out this place two nights. He’s proven you can’t be too good, because he’s the damn best. There are people who want that.”

Certainly with Jason Isbell nominated for Album of the Year, as well as many of the winners and stand-out performers, there’s a ripple in the tide that may be changing. Nothing struck as clear a chord as the night’s final performer, 2017 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Alan Jackson. In a buckskin-colored Western suit coat, loose jeans and a white cowboy hat, the shy songwriter sang “Chasing That Neon Rainbow” as Georgia boys Luke Bryan and Church, clearly moved, sang along from their seats.

With simple, straightforward music, classic country song structure and an homage to dreams and honky-tonk living, Jackson ratified the destinies of everyone—artist, picker, writer, weasel or otherwise—in the room. Like Stapleton, Church, Osbornes, Lambert, Urban, Paisley, Pardi, Brown and Darius Rucker, Jackson exemplified what country was, is and needs to hold onto.

For the first time in a long time, the show, which never became overly somber, found a way to remember that it’s the music we’re here for. Even pop’s P!nk, nominated for Vocal Event with Kenny Chesney for “Setting The World on Fire,” made music her focus and delivered singular beauty with “Barbies.” A pure performance honoring her gift instead of a shotgun-wedding “moment” that so often waters down all involved, it was basic math: song + vocal = true heart/soul.

Even the absent Taylor Swift, in New York for Saturday Night Live rehearsals, reflected the power of classic songwriting. Powered by Little Big Town’s harmony-driven angst of wanting but letting go, “Better Man” earned the superstar her first Song of the Year CMA Award.

Can the CMA maintain this level of sophistication? As the tragedies and politics fade, will the notion of meaning seem less urgent? It’s hard to say. But for one night in November, the Country Music Association leaned into what needed to be said, done and shared and got it entirely right. As an industry, but also as a creative community, it was the music makers, the songs and the intention  driving the telecast. Standing tall and proud, country music truly celebrated its best.

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