Sometimes having a music blog lands you in the unlikeliest of places.
Through happenstance and sheer luck I found myself as a member of the press for the 50th annual ACM Awards show held at the behemothic AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Locally known as Cowboys stadium or, more derisively, as Jerry World in reference to the team’s zillionaire owner Jerry Jones.
When I told friends that I was attending the event their response was almost across the board “why?”
This is understandable. As a blogger for Americana and roots music what could I possibly see in the glitzy world of commercial country?
My response was that I wanted to understand. I wanted to see the world from the inside in it;s biggest event, even if I didn’t love every song that was performed on the stage.
That stage sat at the end of the cavernous space. One that visually and acoustically swallowed the most dazzling light-show or amped up musical production. It was almost a perfect metaphor for an industry that often takes a rare cultural resource of a simple and beautiful song and renders it into something irrelevant, peripheral and disposable.
But this music has ties to the same folk and roots music that I hold dear. So how did manifest in to a Colonel Tom Parker wet dream?
When Chet Atkins, legendary guitarist and producer, was asked to define the adult pop leaning Nashville sound which he was helping to architect, he reached into his slacks pocket, shook the loose change, and said, ‘That’s what it is. It’s the sound of money.”
Atkins was on the forefront of a of a sea change for music row. He is also the pioneer of a school of thought (or rationalization) that country music has to change in order to survive. But that has always begged the question; change into what and what is in the end that that change will ensure to survive?
Music Row is not a culture preservation institution, it’s a business. But implicitly in brand and often explicitly in the subject matter of the songs it releases heritage is held as an ideal of not a practice. Small town values are referenced as beats are dropped and bands rock out to pyrotechnics on stage.
This cultural dissonance, and no discernable evidence of “country” elements in the music, has no place in the endless spring break that is today’s country music.
But it’s a free country with lots of music to choose from with an with an Internet to find it. The Academy of Country Music Awards is a trade show for cultural artifacts. Like any business they abhor risk, and there was nothing left to chance on sunday night’s extravaganza. The stars where all household names and the songs were all performed so the fans could sway and sing along.
And if you wanted “real” country music you could turn off the program and “put on some Sturgill’ as more than one person tweeted to me that night.
Some random takeaways:
As scripted as the music and performances where the action in between appeared unguarded and genuine. Sometimes cringingly so. But so what? It was authentic cutting-up and goofiness brought huge stars to a place where people could relate.
Contemporary society and culture is rank with cynicism. Performers and bands hide behind irony in fear that they might be accused of standing for something. Mainstream country might come off as hokey as The Cracker Barrell, but the hopeful romanticism is intoxicating. People want to believe in something and they want to believe you believe.
Don’t take yourself too seriously. Townes Van Zandt would famously tell corny jokes between masterful songs, many of which can make you feel like opening a vein. That brutally honest song might need some levity as an emotional palate cleanser or you’re going to exhaust your audience.
People paid to see you and deserve a show. You don’t need flames and smoke machines, but if you’ve seen the balls Drive-By Truckers show or the frenetic whirlwind of Old Crow Medicine Show prove you can have quality music and something extra worthy the price of a ticket.
I’ve seen a few of music row’s biggest stars in intimate settings with an acoustic guitar singing Hag or George Jones. These people are really good at what they do and many love the same songs we do. But they have a job and momany, many mouths to feed.
Comradery is in full force. In an industry where a friend one day can opportunistically stab you in the back the next, a familial congeniality and protectiveness was palpable. You need no more evidence than the Randy Travis introduction and Taylor Swift’s speech.
That camaraderie and protectiveness is displayed by fan loyalty. Typical music fans are fickle but in country music they identify strongly with the music and are fans for life. They really don’t care what your you or I think and it’s arrogant to say they don’t have the right to love this music.
Reba has a knack of taking a stand and bring you along with her. Her response to a question regarding women in country radio that “I hope woman don’t get so discouraged that they quit. We’ve had the good old boy stuff for a while.” was my most retweeted from the event. And nary one negative response.