Some Thoughts on the 2016 50th Annual Country Music Awards

The Country Music Awards are awesome. If there is any group of celebrities I actually want to celebrate it’s country music stars, particularly because these are pop culture folks, yes wearing tuxedos and fancy dresses on the red carpet but at the same time hokey and one imagines comparatively humble and kind.

As in recent years, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood were the perfect MCs, witty but not trying too hard and topical but not political. Their routines are always creative, and funny in just the right way – we’re not laughing at anyone and if we even feel like we’re laughing at jokes we feel like we’re just laughing together because the routines are purposefully silly.

From a production perspective the CMAs bring everyone into the fold. The show opened with a wonderful (if far too short) tribute to the late, great Merle Haggard, and nice medley that featured Charlie Daniels’ fiddle positively smoking, and a reminder that any song Carrie Underwood sings (in this case Stand By Your Man) becomes hers for that moment. Of the performances delivered, my favorites were Brooks & Dunn with Brand New Man, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood’s snippet of Jackson and I don’t care what anyone else says: Beyoncé fit right in on that stage. Daddy Lessons is a country song and a nice one at that, and Beyoncé’s performance was great – upbeat and enthusiastic, and of course with her impressive vocals – strong horns and harmonica giving the song a nice New Orleans feel. I also enjoyed Chris Stapleton and Dwight Yoakam’s rendition of Seven Spanish Angels (more so than Stapleton’s Tennessee Whiskey performance of 2015). I’m also a big Reba fan and her 9 to 5 Dolly Parton tribute cover was spot on. Also appreciated were fun appearances by Peyton Manning, Olivia Newton John and Matthew McConaughey.

Focusing in on the awards themselves, the first live category of Best Single was disappointing. There were actually two songs in this category I felt were arguably deserving of the award: Chris Stapleton’s Nobody to Blame and Maren Morris’s My Church, but the award went to what is in my opinion the worst nominated song Thomas Rhett’s Die a Happy Man.

The CMAs had a chance at redemption but My Church didn’t make Song of the Year either, arguably an even more appropriate award for this song. Note to Reader: this award is a favorite of mine since I don’t think songwriters get nearly enough recognition. Lori McKenna, this year’s winner is a fine and deserving songwriter, though I don’t think Humble and Kind is her best effort. My Church features fine lyrics (co-written by Morris) beautifully delivered, with religious redemption serving as a nice metaphor for country music and importantly and more specifically listening to country music on the freedom of the open road on the radio, and attendent features of religion serving as a nice delivery vehicle for references to country music legends. I was pleased that they at least gave Maren a bit of stage time for the song, and what a wonderful accompaniment of Preservation Hall Jazz Band (!), and Morris was definitely the right choice for New Artist of the Year. Looking back to some of the legends who have won this award in past years, I think Morris was the only credible choice among the nominees. I have some nice things to say about Cole Swindell, which I hope to get to one of these days perhaps in a post about Pop Country, but with Chillin’ It, Hope You Get Lonely Tonight and Ain’t Worth the Whiskey from Swindell’s 2013/2014 album I don’t really think of him as a new artist any longer.

On Album of the Year, I didn’t have strong feelings among the nominees but I think Mr. Misunderstood was a good choice (Storyteller would also have been a good choice) and appreciate that Church has at least co-writing credits on every song on this album (though Morris was in her own right a co-producer of Hero). For me the most conspicuous note here was the absence of ZBB’s Jekyll + Hyde from the nominees (also probably a contender for this award in 2015) – what’s going on here?

Miscellaneous Notes on a Few Other Awards:

The gents in Brothers Osborne do have solid vocals (re: Vocal Duo of the Year), though it’s hard to put them in the same tier as Brooks & Dunn or Sugarland. These guys combined do not have the pipes of Jennifer Nettles. The Vocal Group of the Year award was a travesty. Little Big Town has a couple things going for it, including the significant vocal contributions of all members of the band, but this award clearly should have gone to Zac Brown Band. Clearly. It’s hard to argue with Carrie Underwood as Female Vocalist of the Year – particularly in a year when Jennifer Nettles, Reba or Martina McBride didn’t make the finalists. Ditto for Chris Stapleton as Male Vocalist of the Year, though again I’m not sure how Zac Brown doesn’t at least make the nomination list for his individual vocals notwithstanding that he performs as part of ZBB.

Just a faint rumor of Garth Brooks releasing a new album would probably have been enough to garner him the award for Entertainer of the Year, and while I haven’t had the good fortune to see Garth live, the performances I’ve seen of his are obviously spectacular and combined with a strong first single from his new album, this fairly gets GB the win here.

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