Some Belated Thoughts on the 2017 CMAs

One of these days I’d love to make it to the CMAs and even if the 51st has been sitting on my DVR for a few weeks now I’ve been looking forward to watching on TV. The show’s about more than just the music that actually takes home the awards (some thoughts on last year’s CMAs here). I enjoy all the country stars taking turns performing – seeing them transition from their seated roles with family/spouse to performing up on stage and then back again makes them more interestingly human. And I like seeing these country performers recognize each other, especially when everyone in the audience is on the same page, singing along to a country classic – like Tulsa Time or Don’t Rock the Jukebox, a couple of 2017’s examples. I also like seeing great songwriters get recognized for their critical role in making country music.

In terms of live performances, one of the high points for me of this year’s show was Eddie Montgomery, Rascal Flatts and Dierks (H/T to him for getting in on this great performance) singing My Town in tribute to the departed Troy Gentry. She Couldn’t Change Me was among my first favorite country songs and there have been so many MG song I’ve loved over the years and Gentry will definitely be missed. I was surprised at how much I liked No Such Thing As a Broken Heart by Old Dominion, which made it onto my post-CMA Spotify playlist for further consideration. Luke Bryan’s performance and T-Swift’s no-show were lows.

Looking at some of the awards, Little Big Town was a poor choice for Vocal Group of the Year – especially stacking up against Rascal Flatts and ZBB, either of which should have handily beat them out. I suppose I should refresh my familiarity with LBT to understand why they keep winning awards/why people like them. I also didn’t care for the choice of Miranda Lambert as Female Vocalist of the Year. If ever Carrie or Reba are in contention I can’t see how the award goes to someone else, unless perhaps Jennifer Nettles or Martina McBride are involved.

One of the winners I actually felt pretty good about was Jon Pardi for New Artist of the Year. I’m not quite sure how the CMA determines who’s new since I remember listening to Missin’ You Crazy and Up All Night driving around in my good old Jeep in 2012-13 (especially since the radio stations were pushing his songs real hard then) but at least, of the folks nominated, I think he was the best choice. Pardi actually (co-)writes most of his songs and strikes a pretty good balance between Billboard pop country, traditional country and country rock. I was also pleased and surprised to see Jason Isbell’s name come up via nomination for Album of the Year even if he didn’t get the award. This nomination also led indirectly to my being aware that there’s a thing called the Americana Music Association with its own awards show which I’ll definitely need to check out.

Inductees into the CMHOF this year were strong. Alan Jackson is one of my absolute favorites – and based on live reactions clearly a favorite too of the CMA crowd – a rock solid performer who seems to increasingly represent the backbone of traditional contemporary country. And Jerry Reed with the classic East Bound and Down and Don Schlitz who wrote Forever and Ever, Amen, Deeper Than the Holler, The Gambler and too many other great songs to name.

Cheers to a fine show. As they say: next year in Nashville!

Country Music at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

I recently had the chance to go to Cleveland and one of the top items on my agenda was paying a visit to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

The “Early Influencers” exhibit was one of the high points, at the start of the main hall. I liked this for a bunch of reasons. In general, it was a great reminder of the organic development of music and how though we necessarily classify music into genres, individual artists branch out in all kinds of original ways leading others to follow and eventually spawning what in retrospect is identifiable as a different kind of music. More specifically, I think the exhibit did a nice job of showing some of the strands of music that were woven together to create R&R and some of the key early figures in this development.

R&RHOF - Hank Williams

I also really liked the special exhibit on John Mellencamp. He was one of my favorite rock artists growing up and, in contrast to the way the rest of the HOF was laid out, it was great to get a little more depth even if only on one artist.

R&RHOF - Mellencamp Small Town Lyrics

The Allman Brothers received a little bit of attention, including in this big room where they had full sets of band instruments and costumes (as well as some original lyrics). But I was a little surprised at the lack of coverage of other southern rock bands – I don’t recall seeing anything significant on Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band or The Doobie Brothers. And I didn’t see anything in the way of groups trending more towards country – like say Alabama or Charlie Daniels Band – whose inclusion in rock fold would have been far more natural than some of the groups that the HOF did include.

R&RHOF - Allman Brothers Band

While it’s not as substantively important, I was also underwhelmed by the plaques commemorating each of the artists that have been inducted into the R&R HOF. Recalling the Cooperstown-like bronze plaques in the majestic rotunda at the Country Music HOF, a bunch of small names on plastic laminate in a remote corner of the museum didn’t seem to do the artists justice.

One of the things about rock and roll I think is so interesting is how the music was situated in its time. Music produced in any genre has elements of reflection on and reaction to its time, but rock and roll seems unique for a few reasons. The time period in which I think we’d say the genre was conceived and came of age was marked by rapid social change and the genre itself pushed boundaries so far in so short a period of time. For rock, a core part of its raison d’etre was and is rebellion and nonconformity. I would have loved to learn more on how rock fans and performers thought about this at the time, though admittedly this sort of perspective that I think is interesting is probably hard to capture in a museum.  The HOF at least nodded towards this sort of thing in some of the video exhibits (e.g. on Elvis and American Bandstand clips of all different artists), an exhibit on opposition to rock and roll (it wasn’t as interesting as it sounds, basically politicians talking about how terrible rock is) and a bit on the Summer of Love.

Even if a downside was not getting into so much depth on individual artists or a broader social perspective on the music, overall the HOF was well worth the visit.  Most of the museum was just a collection of cool and interesting artifacts – old concert posters, original lyrics (probably my favorite of all), artists’ instruments and all sorts of knick knacks from the past 75 or so years of rock history. Great visit!

The 9 Categories of Country Music

A few years ago my friend Dan and I discovered the 9 categories of country music. These subject areas and themes are the ones most frequently appearing in the best country music songs, crafted and defined to be broad enough to apply across the spectrum of country music and specific enough to capture the important topics covered in a particular song. Our theory was that, at least as a rule of thumb, the more categories a song hits the better the song. This certainly isn’t a hard and fast rule – Wagon Wheel, one of the unquestioned contenders for qualitatively best country song doesn’t stack up particularly impressively on our quantitative metric. It’s certainly true that by focusing lyrically on even just a couple of these categories a country song can be great. Nevertheless, our theory is that there’s at least a very strong correlation between the number of categories a song hits and how good that song is.

In no particular order the 9 categories are:

  1. Love
  2. Hard Times
  3. Raisin’ Hell
  4. Nostalgia
  5. Musical Aspirations and Inspirations
  6. God/ religion
  7. The South
  8. America
  9. Modes of Transportation

I can’t recall hearing a country song that did not hit at least a couple of these categories, and probably the average is around 3.5 categories. Of course, one of the key issues in analyzing country songs for the number of categories represented is how strict or loose a construction to put on each of the categories. I hope to explore each of these categories in depth in future posts and what I mean by the level of construction will become more clear. But just to give a bit of color on each of the categories by way of example, consider the following lyrics from the lone song that our analysis has uncovered as hitting 8 of the categories, Kenny Chesney’s I Go Back:

  1. I go back to a two-toned short bed Chevy/ drivin’ my first love out to the levy (Love)
  2. And I go back to the loss of a real good friend/ and the sixteen summers I shared with him (Hard Times)
  3. And I go back to the feel of a fifty yard line/ A blanket, a girl, some raspberry wine (Raisin’ Hell)
  4. After graduation and drinkin’ goodbye to friends (Nostalgia)
  5. “Jack and Diane” painted a picture of my life and my dreams (Musical Aspirations and Inspirations)
  6. So I go back to a pew, preacher and a choir/ singin’ ‘bout God, brimstone and fire (God/ religion)
  7. I go back to the smell of an old gym floor/ and the taste of salt on the Carolina shore (The South)
  8. Not represented (America)
  9. I go back to a two-toned short bed Chevy/ drivin’ my first love out to the levy (Modes of Transportation)