Is It Just Me, Or Was It Just ‘Meh?’
April 4, 2016
In spite of a record-tying night for Chris Stapleton (six wins in one night) and a record-setting one for Miranda Lambert (seven straight Female Vocalist of the Year Awards), the consensus takeaway from people I talked to and followed all evening was that the 51st Annual Academy of Country Music Awards were good, not great. And when you have a three-hour, nationally televised showcase for the format – which you continuously promote as “Country’s Biggest Party” – good just isn’t enough. No, I’m not jaded, nor am I here to sling the snark, as so many people nastily do live on social media during the show. I love this music and our format; I’ve been part of it for going on 40 years, and I’m damn proud of that. However, I expect big things from the ACMs, because the show has traditionally blown my socks off year after year. But not this time. And while we should congratulate and celebrate the winners – who deserve all the accolades they get – we shouldn’t be ecstatic about the show just because it was on national TV. It was mainly “meh,” and I think Country music and our artists deserve so much better.
I was perched in the command center, i.e. my living room sofa, with a big screen, laptop, cellphone, and iPad – monitoring email, texts, calls, and socials – to get real time reaction on the ACMs. I’d been in Las Vegas earlier in the week but came home Saturday, because I prefer watching these awards shows at home, like millions of other people do. In the MGM Grand Garden Arena, where the ACMs are held, you can easily get sucked into the atmosphere and the moment – and that’s fine; it’s a magical, surreal, wonderful experience. So are drum solos, but they’re always better when seen live, too. Watching the telecast at home separates you from all that, and – I think – gives you a more realistic perspective about what’s actually going on.
As hosts, Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley were solid, and I hope they remain a team next year. We’re talking small degrees here, but they lacked the same natural chemistry Luke and Blake brought. Each also had just as many, if not more, costume changes as any female co-host during the show, at one point both sporting stylish leather jackets. I loved the opening segment, with Dierks, Jason Aldean, then Thomas Rhett and Carrie Underwood all taking credit for Chris Stapleton’s success. That was clever and very funny, but it also had some strategy behind it, as it served to introduce some viewers – who may not be core Country fans – to Stapleton. And it was prophetic, as Stapleton wound up being the biggest winner of the night with six awards.
Only Garth Brooks and Faith Hill have accomplished the same, single-evening feat, so that puts Stapleton in elite company. But here’s the thing: usually, the biggest winner of the night at ACM or CMA awards is the face of the format in that given window. And that’s still not the case for Stapleton, in spite of critical praise and a million-plus sales for his brilliant “Traveller” album. The good news is that Stapleton can be that face. He is completely likeable, while appearing totally unfazed and unimpressed with all that is happening to him. He quickly gave the mic to his Song of the Year co-writers, Barry Bales and Ronnie Bowman, when they walked up to accept for “Nobody To Blame.” Ditto the Album of the Year award. Stapleton and Producer Dave Cobb could be the inspiration behind Tim McGraw’s new single, “Humble and Kind,” as each of them gave short, modest speeches that made them seem almost embarrassed for their personal success.
There are so many live performances squeezed onto the show that many actual ACM awards are squeezed off it, including Stapleton’s Best New Male Vocalist Award. So where was the signature, oh-wow, takeaway, water cooler performance or “moment” of the night? I don’t hear consensus on that. Yes, all the performances were solid: Carrie Underwood and her new, mad drumming skillz on “Church Bells” was a standout, as was a ganjo-shredding Keith Urban on “Wasted Time,” and Sam Hunt’s subdued but effective “Make You Miss Me.” Many people I was chatting with found Hunt’s look – all-white clothing at an equally all-white piano – reminiscent of Garth Brooks’ “Red Strokes” video – except for the shower of red paint at the end.
That Little Big Town did “Stay All Night,” an album cut off 2014’s “Pain Killer,” on a nationally televised award show is further evidence of just how deep and strong that album is. The group’s Kimberly Schlapman later had the line of the night when LBT won Vocal Group of the Year, saying, “Thank you to Chris Stapleton for not being a group!” That was rivaled only by Thomas Rhett, who, while accepting Single of the Year honors for “Die A Happy Man,” said "And ... holy crap! God!” Which he quickly followed up with, “That's a bad sentence."
Eric Church’s vinyl-scratching performance of “Record Year” was bold, but the way things have gone in the last six months, maybe he should dedicate it to Stapleton, who’s clearly having a much better 2016 than David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Scott Weiland, and Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister. (Too soon?)
I suppose I’m glad Nick Jonas didn’t suck the air out of the room like most Pop stars do – intentionally or not – when accompanying Kelsea Ballerini, but was he really necessary? Can he actually play guitar? Or was it just great to have his name on the promos? The same could be said for Katy Perry – about not stealing the stage. I mean, how? Perry sang a medley of Dolly Parton songs with Parton, whose irresistible charm and personality proved that nobody sucks the air out of the room when Dolly is in it, not even one of the world’s biggest Pop stars. Before bringing Dolly out, Perry was introduced by Kacey Musgraves and looked like she had also been introduced to Musgraves’ wardrobe closet, sporting a loud cowgirl outfit. To Perry’s credit, she looked thrilled, happy – and in awe – to be standing next to Parton.
Perhaps one of the most emotional, moving moments of ACM week was never seen on the awards, even though it involved an actual award winner. At Friday’s (4/1) “Party For A Cause” show in downtown Las Vegas, Kelsea Ballerini was surprised onstage at the very end of her set, when ACM CEO Bob Romeo presented her with the trophy for her Best New Female Vocalist win. Ballerini lost it, bawling uncontrollably and unable to speak for a moment. She had earlier told the crowd that she attended last year’s ACMs just to watch as a fan. Holding the trophy, with tears streaming down her cheeks and thanking her mom in the crowd, Ballerini said singing was all she ever wanted to do and that this was a dream for her. It was a moment that had heart, soul and honesty. The kind everybody would be talking about this morning on the radio, at work; everywhere. The kind last night’s ACMs lacked. Too bad television viewers couldn’t have shared a moment like that. Oh, and you know what else she did? Ballerini thanked Country radio.
Entertainer of the Year Jason Aldean is the only televised winner who gave radio a shout out last night, and his doing so is impressive for a couple of reasons. First, the Entertainer of the Year prize is largely about what happens on the road – selling tickets, the actual show, and the overall, live experience. Unlike Song, Single or Album awards, which rely heavily on radio support (in our format), the recognition for Entertainer is mainly incumbent upon the artist. Second – and this always happens – because the Entertainer of the Year is the final award of the night, the winner is usually rushed in accepting, because the show has run out of time. That’s counterintuitive when you think about it: the biggest award of the entire show – that we wait all night for, and which the big-voiced, network announcer keeps telling us is coming soon and that we must stick around to see – gives the winner the least amount of time to savor it and thank all those who are on his or her list. And yet, Aldean had the presence of mind to do what no other artist did last night – thank radio for playing the music.
I know artists that win are excited, probably nervous, and there’s a red light blinking, telling them to wrap up. But it’s been commonplace for them to give radio props for supporting their music with airplay. Country radio, more than all other formats, plays such a vital role in artist development, and that relationship has been as close to symbiotic as possible over the years. In some ways, I don’t fault Stapleton for leaving out radio, because I doubt it was intentional. But as much as radio will always be in my DNA, I’m not sure radio deserved a thanks from Stapleton. Programmers have been ambivalent about his music since the first single, “Traveller.” Only after a breathtaking and press-generating performance on the CMAs did most get on board – somewhat begrudgingly – with “Nobody To Blame.” And even last night, in the minutes just after the ACMs, when Stapleton had just won a record-tying six awards in a single night, you had some radio people posting on social media questioning his worthiness of those awards, claiming they still don’t “get it,” and saying it’s an inside, industry thing.
Well, what it is, is low hanging fruit. He just won a shit-ton of awards and knocked it out of the park on national TV. So Country P-1s – and people who might be interested in Country – might still be expecting to hear Stapleton on a local Country station. You don’t have to love the taste of the fruit, but if you’re in the produce business, it’s probably smart to pick it and take credit for growing it.
So, is it just me? Or was it just meh?