For all its talk of wide open skies, the country genre is still trying to figure out its stars.
The opening of the Country Music Awards laid it all out on the table as only country music can. Kenny Chesney stood on stage strumming and singing along to “American Kids,” musing that kids these days are “a little messed up but all alright” with the help of some dancing, beanie-wearing weirdoes in the background. Next up was a duet of “All About That Bass” with country queen Miranda Lambert and Meghan Trainor. It was bizarre. It made you question every life choice you’d made to reach this moment.
Most of all, it made you wonder (possibly), what’s happened to country music?
Hosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood understandably opened with jokes about Postpartum Taylor Swift Disorder, Ebola, and the GOP victory (to thunderous applause). Paisley and Underwood even voiced the obvious question: who’s going to step into Swift’s tall, obnoxious dancing shoes?
Steven Tyler, the show’s opening presenter, even claimed that country is the new rock ‘n’ roll. We shouldn’t take everything Tyler says as fact, but he makes a good point, and surely unintentionally complicated the dilemma facing fans of country music. Its brightest star has left for a more hipster pasture. The genre has never been more popular or more diverse—in style, not skin color (obviously). It’s become the most explicit genre in music in terms of radio play and grip on fan base. It’s become the popular music of the time. It’s become rock ‘n’ roll. So it’s odd how it compromises—throws a bunch of Lana Del Rey wannabes in the background.
I feel the need to defend nearly every statement I have and am about to make, but please, put down the stones for another 600 words.
As I hinted at earlier, country is fairly diverse in style, though not content. Keith Urban pretty much shreds pop rock. Florida Georgia Line is basically a boy band. Lady Antebellum is basically an all-girl band, insult intended. Eric Church leans heavily on rock—my neighbors and five Spotify followers are probably sick of me blasting Church. I’ll also admit that I and the poor soul who lives above me have listened to Dierks Bentley’s “Drunk on a Plane” too many times this year.
I love country music—the way you love that knucklehead from high school. It reminds me of good old Missouri. There was a weird transition at my high school. Somewhere between junior high and junior year, country became sort of cool—whether you liked it or not. We have Taylor Swift to thank for some of that—but also a larger movement within the genre from slow ballads to more upbeat pop. But what’s frustrating isn’t the musical movement, it’s that country music can’t seem to see who is actually making good country music anymore.
Beyond all the glitz and pop stars dipping their toes in country, there were some really cool moments in the CMAs. Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow” won song of the year. “Follow Your Arrow” is a tune with a simple melody about doing whatever makes you happy, whether that’s girls kissing girls or smoking a bit of weed. That doesn’t seem too outrageous, but then again this is the crowd whose loudest cheer of the night went to the GOP. And she did it not through synths and theatrics but good songwriting. Not bad for a Taylor Swift “replacement.” Church didn’t win any awards but without question his The Outsiders was the most ambitious country album of the year. Then there was Church singing a ballad with George Strait (country legend) and Musgraves also singing a duet with Loretta Lynn (another country legend). Musgraves and Church represent both the new and the old. They draw on the genre’s greats and give it their own twist. They just make good music, music that takes risk stylistically and in content. But for whatever reason, country music gives its awards to Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line. Musgraves and Church were stuck singing old songs with old stars, which further proves my point that they’re the genre’s only contemporary tie to its past.
Instead of championing Church or Musgraves, country music turned to Little Big Town—who are nothing if not pleasant—and Luke Bryan, the Drake of country music without the ironic backstory.
Late in the show, we got a peek at what country use to be—and still could be—when they honored Vince Gill with the Irving Waugh Award, the second (along with Johnny Cash) to ever receive the award. You might remember Gill from last year’s CMA awards (or maybe not) for accompanying Swift on “Red.” Gill never wore a hat. He didn’t sing about trucks and beer. He just played guitar and sang about stuff.
Country music is just something you can hang out with. You don’t have to go to a dark place or thump your chest. When it’s at its best, it’s just with you—in the car, on the couch, with friends. At its best, it’s Friday Night Lights. At its worst, it’s pretty much Florida Georgia Line. And it seems like it’s going the latter’s way. Here’s to the good times.
Featured Image by John Wiley/ Heights Photo Illustration