Back at the end of the millennium, Alan Jackson and George Strait won the CMA Award for Music Event of the Year for their duet, “Murder On Music Row,” which lamented the decline of traditional country music and the rise of corporate- and sales-driven crossover-friendly country music.
A decade later, Alan Jackson and George Strait appeared on the 2010 CMA Awards and were only a couple of the few acts who actually performed songs that sounded like country music at all. Gwyneth Paltrow was there to sing a song from her latest movie, “Country Strong,” and she was just the anchor of a list of performers at the 2010 CMA Awards that seem to have little or nothing to do with country music and its distinctive sound.
Some people are country traditionalists and/or purists. They like old-style country songs with a classic country sound, steel guitars and subdued music, simple lyrics and distinctive vocals. But many of this year’s guest appearances on the 2010 Country Music Association Awards were anything but country, and the show was a clear reflection of how far from traditional country the Nashville scene has gone in recent years.
Besides Paltrow, there was Kid Rock, who has performed alongside several country and Southern rock acts in the past but chose to sing his anthem, “Free,” from his upcoming new album. American Idol winner and pop sensation Kelly Clarkson showed up to help Jason Aldean sing their hit duet, “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” which sounded more like an ’80s pop ballad than country.
And if listening to pop/rock stars and Oscar-winners sing tunes that barely remind a person of country music (or, better yet, there were the country singers who performed who didn’t sound country at all). Taylor Swift, last year’s Female Vocalist of the Year, sang “Back To December” from her new album. A piano-supported song, it sounded more like an Avril Lavigne number than anything one would expect to hear on a country music station.
There was one moment that took the pop-to-country route when Reba McEntire, one of country music’s greatest stars, performed Beyonce’s “If I Were A Boy.” Beautifully rendered, it was Reba at her best, and if one didn’t know better, one would have never known it was a pop mega-hit before it was arranged around an acoustic guitar for Reba’s latest album, “All The Women I Am.”
Folk/pop star Sheryl Crow joined in a salute (with the night’s big winner, Miranda Lambert) to one of country music’s most enduring legends, the incomparable Loretta Lynn.
Even the Single of the Year went to a song that would have been perfect as a ’70s pop hit. Lady Antebellum’s “I Need You Now” took home the honor and may be on its way to being possibly the biggest crossover hit ever. The song is literally everywhere…
Lest one think that the entire ceremony was nothing but Hollywood stars trying to be country singers and pop/rock stars horning in on what is billed as country music’s biggest night, it must be noted that there were a few traditional country performances that kept the show grounded. The aforementioned Alan Jackson (with the Zac Brown Band) and George Strait were joined by more traditional performances by Kenny Chesney, Miranda Lambert, and Brad Paisley. The latter sang, appropriately enough, “This Is Country Music.” And in fairness to Gwyneth Paltrow, who sang just before the Entertainer of the Year Award was presented to the humble Mr. Paisley, it must be noted that, unlike the Aldean/Clarkson and Kid Rock performances, Paltrow’s song did have a more traditional country sound (and she actually did a nice job singing it, with country legend Vince Gill backing).
Perhaps country music wasn’t murdered on Music Row all those years ago after all. Maybe it was simply changing to accommodate larger borders. Maybe Jackson’s song “Gone Country,” with its message of reinvention of composers and lounge singers, might better describe the country music reflected in today’s seemingly all-inclusive and far-ranging styles. It isn’t as traditional sounding as some may like, but if you listen attentively, you can still hear the inspiration of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash in there… somewhere… occasionally…
But watching and listening to the 2010 CMA Awards performances made one thing clear: Today’s country music ain’t Merle Haggard or George Jones, that’s for certain.
“44th Annual CMA Awards,” CMAAwards.com