Last week necessitated a return visit to Nashville in order to celebrate the 17th birthday of my youngest daughter, Rosie. Coming so soon after relocating to New York, the experience was, to say the least, surreal. The buildings in and around Music Row that once suggested magnitude, now seemed sparse in comparison to the Castilian configurations that form the geography of Manhattan. That’s not to suggest that tall is better, but, dare I say it, the whole place looked almost Lilliputlian.
Whilst it was a joy to spend time with family and friends, the thing that stood out in my mind was the evening I spent at the 2009 Country Music Television Awards. Unfortunately, it was for all the wrong reasons. The venue for this back-slapping bacchanalia was the Nashville Arena, better known locally as the Sommet Centre. All credit to those who succeeded in turning what is normally an ice-hockey rink into a Hollywood sound stage, for it was the resultant setting that stole the show. So why would this be, you might ask?
Well, those dedicated folks who tuned in across the country expecting to chow down on their favourite genre, didn’t actually get to see or hear any ‘country’ at all. Not even a soupcon. So desperate are the Music Row mavens to shift their acts into the mainstream, they have finally succeeded in squeezing every last drop of identity out of the format. Historically, the pursuit of crucifying country music is by no means new. Whenever a gravy train pulls into town, as it did in the case of Garth Brooks and the Dixie Chicks, then the industry wastes no time in pillaging the cargo.
Par for the course you might say, considering that the primary objective of being in business is to realise a profit. But you have to blink and wonder at just what the objective is, considering the current way in which the format is being presented. Right now, it would appear that ‘coupling up’ is the thing to do. This would explain why viewers had to stomach a string of pointless pairings instead of getting to see their favourites in their own right. The facade simply brought new meaning to the word disparity.
Taylor Swift for instance, a charming young lady who unfortunately cannot balance her good looks with a quality vocal performance, was teamed with of all people, Joe Elliot, the frontman from Def Leppard. If that wasn’t incongruous enough, then how about the once traditional duo Sugarland being augmented by members of the band, the B-52’s. I’m sorry Music Row, but this was definitely a bridge too far. The prospect of a rock lobster being dressed as a country clam still keeps me awake at night.
Without a fiddle, a dobro or even a steel guitar in sight, the spotlight then shone on that great traditionalist, Kid Rock. Say what? Yes, Kid Rock. The backstreet brigand from Romeo, Michigan, was on hand to receive a chunk of silverware for coming top in the ‘Wide Open’ section. And what a catch-all phrase that is. ‘Wide Open’, meaning you can stick anything you like in there and call it country. On this basis, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Marilyn Manson gets an invite next year.
And so it went on. When the absurdly-named Dierks Bentley proceeded to mount the podium, it was as if the guy was aching for a gig with the Kings of Leon. After his poor misguided soul was superseded by Taylor Swift, who’d returned in the company of rapper, T-Paine, it was clearly time to leave. Once again it needs to be ascertained that we are still talking about this year’s Country Music Television Awards, not the 2009 Slumdog Bass, Drums and Big Beat Blast.
As mentioned earlier, the star attraction turned out to be the show’s scenic backdrop. No one could fail to be impressed by what was the most amazing hi-tech lighting display ever known to man. How telling though that the production company had to hire several hundred pretty girls to rave in front of the cameras, whilst the true cornfed crowd was safely tucked away in the bleachers. Equally tacky was the fact that the gags elicited by compere, Bill Engvall, had to be bolstered by a cacophony of canned laughter.
How ironic all of this is, when you consider just how long it took the city to recognize Elvis Presley after blaming him for tainting country music with rock n roll back in the fifties. If Nashville insists on hitching its wagon to this kind of ambiguity, then the wobbly wheels of country music are in grave danger of falling off. Needless to say, I am now once again ensconced in the barefaced honesty of New York City.