Hey, the CMAs happened. It’s country music’s biggest night! Except for that other big night they have in Vegas in May where they rearrange the acronym and do it all over again! And dear god, PopWatchers, was it loooong. Why was it soooo looooong? My esteemed colleague Chris Willman was there in person, and I can only hope that at some point today he’ll weigh in on that question for us. Because from my couch in L.A., it was like a Chevy commercial that wouldn’t end but instead kept bumping up against an ad for Ambien starring Jewel. To misquote an old proverb employed by host Brad Paisley in order to introduce the Eagles in the dullest way possible: When you drink from a well, and that well was dug by the CMAs, don’t operate heavy machinery.
Maybe it was the power outage in downtown Nashville this afternoon that killed the energy, but even under ideal conditions three hours is painfully gratuitous for a show that hands out a whopping nine awards on air — especially if those awards are distributed to artists for things they did a year ago. And the endless string of performances is comprised largely of soul-killing mediocrity. And the end result, time after time, is exactly the same. Oh. FYI. Ladies and gentlemen, your Entertainer of the Year: Mr. Kenny Chesney (pictured).
So use your flip-flop to pop open a beer, check out the full list of winners here, Chris Willman’s backstage report here, and settle in after the jump as I run down the bests (sneak peek: Sugarland, Urban, Underwood) and many, many worsts (sneak peek: Phantom of the Swift). But please, drink responsibly. The least you can do is have some thoughts for the comments section, if we ever get there.
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1. Sugarland Yes, I am a broken record. I love this band. Full disclosure: I’ve kept in touch with Kristian Bush since doing a feature on the pair this summer, but I don’t think I’m crossing the personal bias line in pointing out that he and Jennifer Nettles write terrific songs. And last night, instead of trotting out “Already Gone” or “All I Want To Do” for another tired go-round, they went with “Love,” a big anthem rooted in U2’s “Beautiful Day” backbeat that showcased both of their distinctive voices, their charming live energy, and their hammy love of Beijing Olympic-style stagecraft (nice one, Paisley). As Nettles suggested while they were picking up that second straight Duo award: Go see one of their shows. In these dicey economic times, I guarantee an hour and a half of Sugarland is cheaper and more effective than therapy.
2. Carrie Underwood Yes, it was cheating to bring out the wife of a deceased soldier to introduce “Just a Dream” and get the waterworks going before she even sang a note. But this was a true showstopper, the emotional equivalent of Sugarland doing “Stay” last year, and official notice that we can now stop looking down on Ms. Underwood because of how she got here. The girl is learning how to use her voice for something other than blowing the doors off the joint every time she steps to the bedazzled mic — and then she went ahead and blew the doors off anyway. I didn’t breathe during this. (Bonus points for the classy way she alluded to Idol during her Best Female Vocalist acceptance speech, the cute shout-out to her mom, and admirably keeping up with Paisley during her hosting duties all night.)
3. Keith Urban Yes, the new song, “Sweet Thing,” is more of his jingly car-stereo pop, but on a night where mid-tempo snoozers were crawling around the floor like windup toys on their last legs, I needed the Aussie zip.
4. Kid Rock Yes, because I enjoyed this, I should be taken out and shot along with whoever allowed “Sweet Home Alabama” to be bastardized by “All Summer Long.” But who else would have brought out Lil’ Wayne, previously ranked a close second to William Ayers on my list of “People Who Will Not Be Appearing At The CMAs”? Regardless of what you think about the song or its presence on country radio, it is really hard to deny that Kid Rock is having way more fun than all of us.
5. Miranda Lambert “More Like Her” was the perfect song to prove the Chris Daughtry of Nashville Star‘s got a powerful, throbbing heart under all that kerosene and gunpowder and lead. Hang in there, honey — your time will come.
Awards of special merit: Hootie, a natural performer who really did write a very good country song in “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” (and okay, Hootie’s name is actually Darius Rucker); Lady Antebellum winning Best New Artist and being generally cuter than Puppycam; George Strait, because he is George Strait; and Paisley for obviously rewriting several of his jokes at the emcee mic, resulting in occasional brilliance. (“Left game controller,” heh-heh.)
Deep breath. You know what? I’m not even gonna list ’em. Let’s just go to my notes. Opening number! “Start a Band”! This was a wonderful guitar skills competition between Brad Paisley and Keith Urban. Also, it was kinda boring, in the same way that watching your boyfriend and his buddy noodling around at Guitar Center on a perfectly beautiful Saturday afternoon is kinda boring. Paisley and Urban are both incredibly talented noodlers. We know. Move it along!
Next up, Carrie Underwood’s shockingly evident support undergarments under Dress 1 (FAIL)! And Kellie Pickler’s incompetence as both a country music superstar and/or Pat Benatar! I give her props for bringing everyone to tears during last year’s performance of “I Wonder,” but she has now skidded back to zero on the cred scale, and from the look of Reba McEntire smiling through gritted teeth after enduring Pickler’s warblings on “Best Days of your Life,” I’m not alone in that thought. Also not alone: Any one of the poor folks seated in the first 15 rows who got mobbed by the line dancers who were doing their best to distract from the fact that Alan Jackson’s “Good Time” goes nowhere and does nothing except make me miss the crap outta the Chattahootchee.
Not even Billy Ray Cyrus’ ongoing inability to read a teleprompter convincingly could spoil seeing Jennifer Nettles break up the sausage party to win Best Single for “Stay,” after which my euphoria lasted through Carrie Dress 2 (elegant!), Miranda’s simple loveliness, and the exuberance of the Lady As. It was then promptly killed by the realizations that 1) I’d pay almost any amount of money to hear Martina “Pipes” McBride sing a song about giving up on your dreams and staying in bed all day feeling sorry for yourself, just to break up her inspirational monotony, and 2) Rodney “No, Really, Please Buy a Chevrolet” Atkins is totally the Rick Astley of country music. In light of these two realizations, Rascal Flatts winning Best Vocal Group was such a minor inconvenience that I actually chuckled at Jay-Dawg’s crack about his jacket being made of “Mamaw’s curtains.” (Note: that guy’s name might not actually be “Jay-Dawg.”) At this point, we’d been here an hour, and they’d handed out three awards. Right on pace, turbo!
I will go easy on Taylor Swift because if I went hard on the little dead-eyed darling and her ridiculous ballroom dancing fairy tale fiasco (your move, Twilight), I’d probably never get my rage back under control. So she can’t sing, has exactly zero stage presence, and has now used the same My-Costume-Change-Will-Blow-Your-Mind gag on two straight awards shows. That’s fine. She’s very pretty and sells a lot of records, and makes pre-teen girls happy. Carry on, my wayward waif. I’ll be over here, getting my thang on with Lil’ Wayne, who — based on the way he gave up on that guitar-playing stunt halfway through “All Summer Long” — clearly knows his limitations. I will also hang out with George Strait, because even when he’s drafting off Kenny Chesney’s island vibe, he’s still the greatest country singer of my lifetime.
Carrie Dress 4 almost made me put my eyes out with a Twizzler (belly cutouts = EPIC FAIL) until I saw Reba take the stage with Brooks & Dunn. I got excited, and then I went ahead and smacked myself in the face repeatedly anyway because how dare they bring Reba McEntire on stage and put her next to that Muppet-haired Ronnie person who always looks like he’s had one too many Aleve and not turn her mic up properly??? “Cowgirls Don’t Cry”? This one did. (Seriously, though, I heard that song on the radio the other day and I liked it. Until last night. This, CMA producers, is what we call “a problem.”)
I didn’t like Brad Paisley’s “Waitin’ on a Woman” as much as I probably should have, but I think once you’ve put a song on three straight albums, I’m allowed to be waitin’ on you to play something else. Strong block followed of Urban, Underwood, and Sugarland, while James Otto seemed like a sweet kid who should not be taking hair tips from any of the following people: Billy Ray Cyrus, Ronnie Dunn, or that one dude in Little Big Town. And if I’m to believe that Kenny Chesney and his nervous tic motion of the head to the left are what makes for a 97-time Entertainer of the Year, I should hope he’d come packing more than Bob Marley’s backing band, now fronted by the reggae equivalent of that Filipino dude Journey found to impersonate Steve Perry. I’m sorry, Wailers lead singer Elan Atias. You seem very talented (and that does appear to be your real name) but I am not on a cruise, and I’d like to be entertained by Kenny Chesney, who I have been sitting here for close to three hours to see. I know many, many people love Kenny — but I can’t stop respectfully wondering how much rum is involved in that affection, because I just don’t get it, and I’m trying to get it, and a bar-band rendition of “Three Little Birds” is not helping me get it. Was Trace Adkins really that good on “You’re Gonna Miss This,” or was Kenny really that pointless? You tell me. Right about now I’d probably have watched Julianne Hough dance, just to have something new to do with my brain.
We ended with the night’s Big Special Guest(s), Shania Twain, who did not sing, but instead gave Kenny his EOTY award, got ogled, and disappeared into Canada for what I hope is not another six years of winter. Please come back, Shania. While you’re at it, bring Garth Brooks, Faith Hill and, I dunno, Alabama with you. Open your mouths and turn these disposable, auto-tuned posers to dust that blows into the upper recesses of the Sommet Center, never to be heard from again. I know that’s mean to the disposable posers, and doesn’t give enough credit to the talented folks still holding it down with all their might. And I know that the crossover success of people like Shania and Garth and Faith is greatly responsible for the Pickle(r) we’re in now. But if this was country’s biggest night (until May)… that don’t impress me much.
Um, yeah. I shudder to ask: What did you think, PopWatchers?
2008 CMA AWARD WINNERS:
Entertainer of the Year: Kenny Chesney
Female Vocalist of the Year: Carrie Underwood
Male Vocalist of the Year: Brad Paisley
New Artist of the Year: Lady Antebellum
Vocal Group of the Year: Rascal Flatts
Vocal Duo of the Year: Sugarland
Single of the Year: “I Saw God Today,” George Strait; produced by Tony Brown and George Strait
Album of the Year: Troubadour, George Strait; produced by Tony Brown and George Strait
Song of the Year: “Stay,” Jennifer Nettles
Musical Event of the Year: Robert Plant and Alison Krauss,“Gone Gone Gone”
Video of the Year: “Waitin’ On A Woman,” Brad Paisley featuring Andy Griffith; directed by Jim Shea & Peter Tilden
Musician of the Year: Mac McAnally –- guitar