Wednesday night featured the 52nd annual Country Music Awards, which gave us all the glitz and glam that Nashville and country music could offer. The night’s big winners featured some familiar faces—Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, Chris Stapleton, and Kenny Chesney. The Entertainer of the Year category was once again dominated by male artists, while seven-time female vocalist of the year Miranda Lambert performed yet another nominated song from the CMA stage.
Despite the repeat winners, the battle for the soul of modern country music was on full display at this year’s award show. Luke Bryan opened with a rousing performance of “What Makes You Country,” but I’m not sure his definitions helped clear anything up, since every song after that took us in a different direction.
While we saw classic country performances by Nashville legends like Ricky Skaggs and Garth Brooks, more and more artists took the stage with songs that look, feel, and sound more like pop music than country. Thomas Rhett’s “Life Changes” is endearing and fun, but it’s a country hit that seems designed to cross over to pop radio. A performance featuring dancers and a high school marching band didn’t help, either.
The contrast was clearest in the middle of the show. Up and coming Texas band Midland delivered a cover of Jerry Reed’s “Eastbound and Down,” followed by the most recent hit from cross-over powerhouse Florida Georgia Line. While Midland gave us a honky-tonk-worthy version of a classic theme song (sporting attire that would have made Burt Reynolds proud), Florida Georgia Line rolled on stage looking like they were auditioning for Boyz II Men in 1992. With some of the weakest vocals of the night, their performance of mega hit “Meant to Be” with Bebe Rexha felt out of place in award show that often features some of the best musicians in the business.
Nashville has a long history of elevating the role of the house band, and cultivating career musicians and songwriters. Today, this seems to be true for only half the artists on stage. This pressure to mainstream seems particularly strong for country’s female artists.
With the exception of Pistol Annie’s “divorce anthem,” the women of country are shifting their sound almost across the board. Kelsea Ballerini may have a powerhouse voice, but her CMA performance had no band in sight, a team of back-up dancers, and a backing track that would put Britney to shame. Even Kacey Musgraves, who upset big players to take home the Album of the Year award, needed to mainstream her sound to get there. Unlike her earlier albums, “Golden Hour” (which, for the record, I loved) has heavy pop influences, particularly in the title track.
For those of us who fell in love with Musgraves’ sound in her earlier productions, this is a big jump from her guitar-heavy roots. But that’s what it took to get her on the CMA stage for a big win this year. In contrast, Chris Stapleton’s rough country sound won him three more CMAs this year, including Song and Single of the Year along with the Male Vocalist of the Year title.
Country music has survived identity crises before, and it’s altogether possible that this latest round of pop-country mashups will fade or bands with a bro-country feel like Brothers Osbourne or Luke Combs (who both took home awards this year) will bring the house band feel back. Until then, the CMAs and country music could suffer more dismal ratings as they struggle to differentiate the genre’s sound and soul from everything else on the radio.