This is not an easy time for country music, and few things made that as clear as last night's broadcast of the Country Music Association awards.
Five years ago, country music was seen as a real force in the pop world, an underdog finally ready to take its rightful place at the top of the charts. Somehow, though, country's conquest of the music world never quite took, and now Nashville finds itself on the outer reaches of popular music's suburbs, a place many listeners visit, but fewer and fewer want to call home.
And that failure made last night's 33rd Annual CMA Awards show feel more than a little awkward.
No matter how much the CMAs paid tribute to country music tradition, its winners tended to be those who updated the old ways: the Dixie Chicks, who won Single of the Year, Vocal Group and Music Video of the Year; Tim McGraw, who won Male Vocalist of the Year and Album of the Year; and Faith Hill, whose pop-friendly hit "This Kiss" was named Song of the Year.
Other winners included Shania Twain for Entertainer of the Year, Brooks & Dunn for Vocal Duo of the Year (their eighth win in a row), Martina McBride for Female Vocalist of the Year, Jo Dee Messina for the Horizon Award and Randy Scruggs for Musician of the Year.
Not a watershed year for traditionalists.
Host Vince Gill summed up the industry's ambivalence about the crossover aesthetic when he accepted the award for Vocal Event of the Year. "I just wanted a chance to speak about the record I made and the really traditional values of country music," he said, as audience members cheered loudly. Then, after acknowledging that the industry has moved forward to catch up with the latest pop trends, he added: "Don't lose sight of our roots. It's very important."
If only the show's producers had taken that advice to heart.
It wasn't just that the CMA set opted for a video-screen-studded cityscape over the expected amber waves of grain; the music itself seemed more about the rock mainstream than the country heartland. Why else would the show have had 'N Sync sharing the stage with Alabama in a performance that made it look as if the cute teen idols were collaborating with their creepy old uncles?
Somehow, I doubt if many 'N Sync fans rushed out to buy Alabama albums.
Then there was Jewel, whose rendition of "That's the Way Love Goes" with a grizzled, bearded Merle Haggard was the personification of When Worlds Collide.
It didn't have to be such a clash of cultures. Dolly Parton's induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame was both pure country and totally entertaining. Heck, her bluegrass rendition of "Mystery Train" was by itself worth sitting through all the overstuffed production numbers. Clearly, country music has more than a little life left in it.
Too bad the show and its producers felt the need to hedge their bets by playing down the down-home aspects of the music. Their show-biz emphasis was evident from the moment the show opened, as multiple winners the Dixie Chicks performed "Ready to Run" with staging that would have put the average Broadway musical to shame. Imagine a cross between "Peter Pan" and "Lord of the Dance," and you'll have a sense of how overblown the number was -- and how totally un-country.
Weirdly enough, Madison Avenue seemed to have more confidence in the universality of country music than Nashville did. Not only did the CMA broadcast feature numerous ads in which the reunited Judds sang the praises of Kmart's product line, but cosmetic giants Revlon and Cover Girl offered ads featuring, respectively, Shania Twain and Faith Hill.
No wonder Dwight Yoakam's rendition of "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" owed more to his Gap ad than to any country concert.
Gill, the CMA Awards' plucky, perennial host, did his best to bridge the gap between hip and hokey, but it was an uphill battle. After 'N Sync did the number with Alabama, Gill joked, "I've heard that ['N Sync's] Justin, Jason and Joey are learning how to bass fish, and [Alabama's] Jeff Cook is getting a nipple ring." To his credit, he actually made it seem like he thought the line was funny.
At times, Gill's TelePromTer-fed jokes were surprisingly raunchy, as when he managed to spin the "Y2K" computer peril into a sex joke (!). But for the most part, he managed to be corny in the best show-biz tradition. "We spent a half a million dollars on this set. We need some applause for this set," he said, pointing to the stage behind him. Being good sports, members of the audience applauded dutifully.
"Half a million dollars," mused Gill. "I could eat for a week on that."
Silly? Sure. But how many other pop stars would joke about eating that much?
Winners of 1999 Country Music Association Awards, announced last night:
Entertainer of the year: Shania Twain
Female vocalist of the year: Martina McBride
Male vocalist of the year: Tim McGraw
Single of the year: "Wide Open Spaces," Dixie Chicks
Album of the year: "A Place in the Sun," Tim McGraw
Horizon Award (for career progress): Jo Dee Messina
Vocal group of the year: Dixie Chicks
Vocal duo of the year: Brooks & Dunn
Music video of the year: "Wide Open Spaces," Dixie Chicks
Song of the year (for songwriter): "This Kiss," Annie Roboff, Robin Lerner, Beth Nielsen Chapman
Vocal event of the year: "My Kind of Woman/My Kind of Man," Vince Gill and Patty Loveless
Musician of the year: Randy Scruggs
International Artist Achievement Award: Shania Twain Pub Date: 9/23/99