An Awards Ceremony Worth Watching – Country Music and Its Revelations

Kane Brown performs Leave You Alone at the 57th Academy of Country Music Awards on March 7, 2022 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.John Locher/The Associated Press

The TV ratings are infallible. Among other undeniable facts they share is the decline in the popularity of awards shows. There are reasons for this: too many award ceremonies, too much advertising during the broadcasts and the fragmentation of the audience into factions. The award ceremony in the big tent for everyone no longer exists.

So why, you might be wondering, is CBS airing a three-hour music awards show on Monday nights? (You don’t actually have to ask, I’m just doing this for you.) Because it’s about country music, that’s about it.

Now I have no problem with country music. If you’d like, I could come over and recite the lyrics to most of Hank Williams’ songs. But you probably don’t want me to stop by, so let’s move on to the state of country music today.

It’s not what it used to be, and that’s a good thing. It was time to split country music awards evenly between two camps: the hats and the no-hats. Bitterness abounded. No, seriously, it did. Garth Brooks, Clint Black and Alan Jackson were sneered at as “hat acts”. On the other hand, Travis Tritt famously remarked, “I don’t think you should wear a hat if you can’t ride a horse.” And he didn’t pronounce it “hoss.” He then deepened his point by stating he couldn’t even find a hat that fit and covered his voluminous hair.

Ouch. As you may have noticed, few women were involved in this dispute. Then things got pretty quiet around the time Shania Twain emerged from her villa in Switzerland, got up in a skintight catsuit and vampire makeup to appear in the video for her immortal toe-slapper, i will be good. Heady days my friends, really heady days. CBC TV even aired a prime time special called Shania Twain: Catching up. Heady days but simpler times where the “g” is left out of everything except “gonna” and “getcha.”

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Anyway: The CMT Awards (Monday, CBS, 8:00 p.m.) promises a good night’s sleep of cheesy strangeness and, make a note of it, an invaluable glimpse into America’s cultural ambiance. Though live from Nashville and likely with a certain dose of cheesy chatter, the show is essentially about giving awards to music videos made for Country Music Television (CMT). Yes, images and iconography galore.

Country music is now so elastic and open that it’s inclusive; Hurtin’ songs, hobo songs, mountain music, urban music, a touch of rhythm and blues, hip-hop, dub beats, rap and lots of joy, anger and painful grasps for inclusion. If you’re curious about how America fares in its tangled culture struggles, you’ll find plenty of pointers here.

The show, hosted by singer Kelsea Ballerini and movie star Anthony Mackie, is country music’s only fully fan-voted awards show. The most nominated artist is Kane Brown, a multiracial guy from Tennessee who throws everything from hip-hop references to the occasional Spanish lyrics into the country mix he performs. He’s typical of what’s happening, part of a wave that includes Blanco Brown’s often extraordinarily flexible music. If you want to see why Joe Biden became the first Democrat to win Georgia in a presidential election in 28 years, watch Blanco Brown’s videos and listen to the eerie mix of country, hip-hop and rap that he cooked in Atlanta.

These include Black Pumas, an Austin, Texas-based “psychedelic soul” band that crosses into country by performing with black country singer Mickey Guyton, whose sound is steeped in R&B. According to a CMT release, Black Pumas wanted to do this musical collusion because “given the political climate, our management and CMT came together and decided that the collaboration was something the public needed to hear.”

There will be many collaborations on the show. First Jason Aldean with Bryan Adams, Jimmie Allen with Monica and Little Big Town, Walker Hayes with Thomas Rhett and Riley Green. Additionally, Wynonna and Naomi Judd will be reuniting and performing for the first time in years.

The CMT Awards is unlikely to be a blockbuster event in terms of TV ratings, but CBS is doing the show for a complicated set of reasons, both in terms of ratings and cultural relevance and its core audience as a network. It might be worth your time. Then come back to me and we go honky tonkin’, yep, honky tonkin’, ’round this town.

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