At last, the long drought that’s been devastating Tennessee has come to an end! But more on Kellie Pickler later…
At last year’s CMA Awards, when the announcement of a Carrie Underwood win was accompanied by Faith Hill mouthing the exclamation "Whaaaat?" in mock disgust (or real disgust, if you continue to disbelieve her), it was the pantomime heard ’round the world. This year’s telecast of "country music’s biggest night" didn’t produce any such water cooler or YouTube moment. Keeping in touch with the outside world from a spot inside the show’s press room in Nashville, I got the feeling there wasn’t much consensus about which performances were mesmerizing or mediocre. Watching the show on monitors between quickie press conferences by the stars, I received a stream of e-mail messages from friends viewing at home, many of them offering contradictory assessments. After the Eagles (making their first awards-show appearance ever) played their new single, "How Long," a pal mailed: "I was never a fan, but they have out-countried the rest of the country acts. A melody! Harmonies! Roll over Hank and tell… Rascal Flatts?!… the news." But at nearly the same moment, a colleague sitting next to me got amessage from his a weary wife: "I’m sorry, but any group that has acollective age of about 700 should not be doing a song that repeats theline ‘Rock yourself to sleep.’"
Then there was the odd coupling ofRascal Flatts and Jamie Foxx (pictured). One acquaintance said some sharp notesGary LeVox hit early in the tune sent her rushing to turn down the TV.Another friend acknowledged the imperfections in LeVox’s performancebut expressed newfound respect for his unexpected ability to keep upwith Foxx as their duet on Flatts’ "She Goes All the Way" veered towardR&B. The sight of tears copiously rolling down Kellie Pickler’scheeks as she wrapped up "I Wonder," her ballad about being abandonedby her mother, also produced polarized responses. "If I have to see hercry at the end of that song one more time, I’m going to snap," wroteone Nashville music-bizzer. But a manager friend with Music Row ties,whom I normally think of as cynical about these things, wrotespecifically to say: "I love that little Kellie Pickler!"
In the category of Best Acceptance Speech, we have a tie: betweenTaylor Swift, who won the Horizon Award for most promising new artist,and one-time major label artist turned tunesmith Jamey Johnson, who wasaccepting song of the year honors for co-writing George Strait’sfantastically funny and bitter divorce anthem, "Give It Away." GrumbledJohnson, dryly, "I want to thank my ex-wife, Ann…" A wave of laughterrolled in, before he added, "…for being such a good mother to our kid.She deserves half of this." (Even his co-writers later admitted theyweren’t sure whether Johnson was employing some expert comic timingthere, or whether the wave of laughs had afforded him time to think ofa good save at the last second.) On the more innocent end of theacceptance scale, Swift — 17, and still officially home schooled —announced from the dais: "This is definitely the highlight of my senioryear." Don’t hate her because she’s beautiful and has achieved herwildest dreams at an age when your wildest dream was 80-to-90 percentpimple containment.
Actually, let’s make that a three-way tie for Best AcceptanceSpeech, because Brad Paisley — an utterly deserving choice for the malevocalist trophy — had one of the quicker manic-depressiveturn-on-a-dime speeches I’ve ever seen. "I’d like to thank my wife,because she’s right over there," he said, with perfect comicdelivery (and indeed, Kimberly Williams-Paisley had just wrapped up hersegment as one of the telecast’s fleeting co-hosts, with lines like "Ifirst met Kellie Pickler on the ‘Check Him for Ticks and You’re Dead’Tour") — seconds before he got teary-eyed thanking his then-reluctantdad for carting him around to gigs when he was a barely-teenage whizkid in West Virginia. (This isn’t my idea — I have to credit USA Today‘sBrian Mansfield, working across the aisle in the press room — butPaisley and Williams-Paisley would make great co-hosts, in perpetuity,for this show… as long as that wouldn’t conflict with him getting theEntertainer of the Year award someday.)
During the backstage celebrity press briefings, it was puffballs andhuzzahs all the way. Only twice did anyone ask anything remotelytouching on controversy. A reporter asked the two members of Sugarlandto address perpetual rumors that they will break up for the sake ofJennifer Nettles going on to a solo career (the group already shed onemember, in 2006). Nettles pooh-poohed such talk. "Half of ‘em want tobreak us up," she said, "and the other half still (mistakenly) thinkwe’re married." Tracy Lawrence and Kenny Chesney came back to the pressroom to further celebrate their shared Vocal Event of the Year win fora Lawrence single that had Chesney and Tim McGraw doing cameos — anindependently released song that Chesney’s major label tried to getradio stations to stop playing, claiming that Lawrence, whose star hasbeen on the wane, hadn’t been granted rights to release a single thatwould compete with Chesney’s own. Chesney answered that he just hadn’tbeen aware of his label’s attempt to suppress the tune at the time, andthat was that. Lawrence looked like he wanted to say more about thematter, but went back to having some genuinely affecting I love you, man moments with his longtime pal Kenny.
As for interlopers from outside the mainstream country world, I’dlove to report back on what the Eagles said to the media before orafter the show — but as Don Henley told the Tennesseannewspaper, "We don’t do red carpets." Anyway, Jamie Foxx was thebiggest backstage charmer, starting with his addressing the elephant inthe room. "I was texting my homeboys, saying ‘I’m doing the CMAs.’ ‘You’re doing what?‘" (As in, truly, what?, not why?)This was not a random confluence of stars: He and Rascal Flatts singerGary LeVox lived together 13 years ago… and what an amazing R-ratedsitcom that would have been, if only reality-TV cameras had beenrolling at the time. Singing country music "is not a stretch for me,"Foxx swore… and, as proof of this, he cited listening to LeeGreenwood while growing up in Texas. We were about to accuse him ofbeing a lovable Kate Walsh-style carpetbaggerwhen he won us over by adding, "You guys are too young to rememberJohnny Carson. But when Mel Tillis [a new inductee into the CountryHall of Fame, briefly honored on the CMAs] guest-starred on JohnnyCarson, it was amazing." Damn. We got a Jamie Foxx/Gary LeVox duet whenwe could’ve had a Jamie Foxx/Mel Tillis duet?
Let’s talk about upsets. First of all, Rascal Flatts beating theDixie Chicks for Vocal Group of the Year, in Nashville… I mean, whosaw that coming? Okay, let’s be serious. Kenny Chesney seemsdestined to win Entertainer of the Year for as long as he keepstouring, and Carrie Underwood will probably win Female Vocalist foryears to come. But everything else is up for grabs. That includes theVocal Duo category, which for 14 of the past 15 years has belonged toBrooks & Dunn, who seemed embarrassed to be shuffling into thepress room each year. This time, it went to Sugarland, eligible in thecategory for the first time after having lost their third member. (Doyou suppose they offered that lost third wheel a huge buyout just sothey could transfer from the more competitive Group category to Duo,with their improved chances at toppling the overdue-for-a-fall B&D?Me, neither, but aren’t conspiracy theories fun?) A lot of thecategories where the dominant male vocalists compete — including, ofcourse, Best Male Vocalist — could go any way, with any of the usualsuspects. We’re seeing an odd pattern, where Chesney gets the topprize, Entertainer, every year but loses just about everything else.This year, that left Brad Paisley and George Strait to split thespoils; Paisley got Male Vocalist, Strait got Album of the Year. Eitherthese were close votes in all these categories, or CMA voters reallyjust are into sharing the wealth.
Oh, and Kellie? I can see why some folks are skeptical. But havingspent some quality time with her, my take is that this is a girl whoreally is that in touch with her emotions. It’s like the age-oldquestion of whether the best country songs truly come out of theheartfelt emotions of the singer and songwriter or are calculated toproduce that response in the listener. Are those mutually exclusive?Call me a sucker, but I’m sticking with the following professionalcredulity… Faith last year: didn’t mean it. Kellie this year: meantit.