It’s safe to say that this is the first year in which the most
important people at the Country Music Association Awards were an
African-American man and a teenage girl, but so it went Wednesday night at the
43rd edition of the awards, celebrating a year of increasingly porous borders in
Engagement is the only option, it was clear at this show, broadcast from the
Sommet Center in Nashville on ABC, and hosted by the country stars Brad Paisley
and Carrie Underwood for the second year. New faces abounded, dynasties ended,
and cross-pollination was the new normal.
The phenom Taylor Swift swept the four categories in which she was nominated,
including Entertainer of the Year, making her the first female artist to win
that award since 2000.
The show got questions of inclusion out of the way early: the first two
performances were by Ms. Swift — at 19, the youngest ever nominee for
Entertainer of the Year — and Darius Rucker. Mr. Rucker won New Artist of the
Year, the first African-American so honored, was nominated for Male Vocalist of
the year, a category no African-American had won (or been nominated in) since
Charley Pride in 1972.
In what was presumably a ploy to make him appear part of the country crowd, Mr.
Rucker spent half of his performance in the audience — almost without fail, his
was the only black face visible.
But Mr. Rucker fit in in every other way: he performed “Alright,” about the
humble pleasures of the simple, stable life. “Don’t need no concert in the
city/I got a stereo and ‘The Best of Patsy Cline’ ” — never mind that Mr. Rucker
was in fact singing at a concert in a city.
Ms. Swift’s relationship to the genre is more complicated and is likely to
become more vexing in the coming years. She’s a commodity bigger than country
itself, and it was happy to exploit her while she remains willing. She performed
twice on the show, singing “Forever & Always” and “Fifteen,” and she was
mentioned just before every commercial break: “Taylor Swift takes on the big
boys for Entertainer of the Year!”
She won that, as well as Album of the Year for “Fearless” (Big Machine), her
second album, Music Video of the Year (“Love Story”) and Female Vocalist of the
Ms. Swift’s antagonist Kanye West, who stormed her acceptance speech at the MTV
Video Music Awards in September, provided the butt of some jokes, but managed,
for this night, to stay away from Nashville, or at least this stage.
“Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be Kanye,” Mr. Paisley, who won Male
Vocalist of the Year, sang during the opening monologue, then was joined by Ms.
Underwood: “Let ’em pick guitars and drive them ol’ trucks/ Cause cowboys have
manners/ They don’t interrupt.”
If Mr. West had shown up, he would have fit in, though. This year’s performances
boiled down to who could bring the most impressive plus-one: Vince Gill sang
with Daughtry on “Tennessee Line,” Kenny Chesney was joined by Dave Matthews on
“I’m Alive,” and for what was billed as their final C.M.A. performance, the
soon-to-be-split Brooks & Dunn were joined by Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top on “Honky
Jamey Johnson, whose “In Color” won Song of the Year, crept his way through
“Between Jennings and Jones,” a traditional ramble about outlaw country on which
he was joined by Kid Rock, the onetime white rapper who’s remade himself as a
Nashville bad boy.
This crammed-tight show featured nine awards (three others were presented
off-camera) and more than twice as many performances, including standout turns
by Mr. Paisley, Sugarland and Zac Brown Band and shaky moments by Ms. Swift, Tim
McGraw and Lady Antebellum.
The coming sea change in country could be seen in several categories, especially
ones that have long been associated with a single artist: each one has five
nominees, though often that has seemed like too many, with minor figures
routinely nominated to fill the extra slots, like decoys in a police lineup.
But not this year. Lady Antebellum won Vocal Group of the Year, breaking a
six-year stranglehold by Rascal Flatts. (It also won Single of the Year, for “I
Run to You.”) Sugarland won Vocal Duo of the Year for the third year in a row;
before that, Brooks & Dunn won 14 of the prior 15 years. Even though Sugarland
is the category’s new bully, frontwoman Jennifer Nettles was gracious in
victory, offering Brooks & Dunn the stage — they declined — and telling them,
“It’s an honor to be in your category.”
Or at least, what was their category. Turnover was this night’s theme, as
exemplified by Ms. Swift’s acceptance speech for Entertainer of the Year. “Every
single person in that category let me open up for them this year,” she said, of
the far older, far more established men she vanquished. “Thank you so much to
y’all. I love you.”
There’s no screaming on the first great song of the bailout
era. No audible rage. No tears. Instead, on “Shuttin’ Detroit Down,” the country
star John Rich, singing evenly, sounds perfectly levelheaded, as if he’d thought
through his position thoroughly and acquired the peace of the righteous:
I see all these big shots whining on my evening news
About how they’re losing billions and it’s up to me and you
To come running to
“The song is not depressing,” Mr. Rich said last week, in an interview in the
rooftop bar of a hotel in Gramercy Park. “The song is defiant.”
And for contemporary Nashville, shockingly topical. Mr. Rich, 35, conceived and
wrote “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” in late January, in a fit of pique after watching
news accounts of the $1.2 million office remodeling by John Thain, the Merrill
Lynch chief executive. Within two weeks it had been recorded, mastered and
released to country radio stations, as well as added to his new album “Son of a
Preacher Man” (Warner Brothers Nashville), which had already been submitted to
It reflects not only Mr. Rich’s songwriting gifts — he collaborated on the
verses with the longtime country singer John Anderson — but also his acumen in
gauging and channeling the mood of the country, aggressively striking a note of
conservative populism rarely seen in any genre of pop since country music’s
response to Sept. 11. (The video, which features Mickey Rourke and Kris
Kristofferson, will be released shortly.)
But even though Mr. Rich’s subject matter is au courant, his tropes are familiar
country tugs of war: urban versus rural, modern versus traditional, white collar
versus blue. The most bracing moment on “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” comes not when
Mr. Rich points a finger at those “living it up on Wall Street in that New York
City town,” but when he reflects on the little guy: “Well that old man’s been
working in that plant most all his life/ Now his pension plan’s been cut in half
and he can’t afford to die,” his voice dropping a half-step on the last word to
indicate where the real locus of tragedy resides.
Mr. Rich sees the song as being in the us-versus-them tradition of “Okie From
Muskogee,” the 1969 semisatire of country life by Merle Haggard, with whom Mr.
Rich recently crossed paths.
“He put his hand on my shoulder, and he looked me dead in the eye,” Mr. Rich
recalled. “He said, ‘That new song you have out now, that reminds me a whole lot
of “Okie.” As a songwriter, that is officially the highest compliment I’ve ever
But in many ways “Detroit” has less to do with “Okie” and more to do with the
left-wing protest music of that era. That it comes from the other side of the
aisle seems a minor detail. “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” is skeptical of big business
as well as big government — “D.C.’s bailing out them bankers as the farmers
auction ground” — keeping a song that’s postpartisan, at least on the surface,
consistent with right-wing thinking.
This isn’t Mr. Rich’s first dalliance with Republican talking points. Last year
he stumped for Fred Thompson before throwing his support behind Senator John
McCain and recording a rally song, “Raising McCain,” a far less imaginative
slice of propaganda. (“He got shot down/in a Vietnam town/fighting for the red,
white and blue.” )
Now that Republicans are underdogs, it’s a particularly good time to be a
conservative agitator, and Mr. Rich is seizing the moment. His next single will
be “The Good Lord and the Man,” about his grandfather, whom he said had been
awarded six Purple Hearts in World War II:
When I see people on my TV taking shots at Uncle Sam,
I hope they always remember why they can
’Cause we’d all be speaking German, living under the flag of Japan,
If it wasn’t for the good Lord and the man.
“I mean it completely literally,” Mr. Rich said.
Still, these songs — “A couple of sledgehammers,” he called the two singles,
with evident glee — capture only one side of Mr. Rich’s personality. “Son of a
Preacher Man" is an eclectic, if often sober album, spanning vintage big-band
country comedy (“Drive Myself to Drink”), dramatic self-confrontation (“Another
You”) and shameless romance (“I Thought You’d Never Ask,” which Mr. Rich wrote
to propose to his future wife, Joan).
Mr. Rich has a lovely, crisp high tenor, though it’s deployed to better effect
anchoring his partner Big Kenny in Big & Rich, the duo that emerged in 2004 and
helped bring a dash of outlaw sensibility back to Nashville. (Mr. Rich had
earlier played in the successful country band Lonestar but was kicked out as the
group moved toward a more adult-contemporary sound.) Since then, Mr. Rich has
positioned himself as a reliable disruptor, culturally and politically.
And he makes for a charming sermonizer. Speaking of his disbelief at government
enabling of corporate arrogance on the Fox News’s “Glenn Beck Program” last
week, he quipped, "Why don’t you just come to my house and slap me while you’re
That appearance was part of an album-release media offensive that included turns
on “Glenn Beck” and “Hannity,” where he answered one question with a recitation
of the first verse of “Detroit,” and gave Sean Hannity a T-shirt that read, “If
you don’t love America ... why don’t you get the hell out?”
But he also took part in an unlikely comic skit on “Late Night With Jimmy
Fallon” in which he gamely poked fun at rural pieties.
That last bit was the most telling, in that it implicitly asked which is the
real cliché: the redneck, or the big-city comedy writers who think rednecks are
all the same? Mr. Rich didn’t seem to mind toying with both sides.
Politics aside, Mr. Rich can be refreshingly undogmatic. As the host and
avuncular mentor on the CMT series “Gone Country,” he shepherds once-weres from
other music genres or entertainment careers in their quests to become country
singers. And on the most recent season of “Nashville Star,” a country-music
competition similar to “American Idol,” he was vocal about the need for
Nashville to embrace Hispanic singers who can connect with the growing Hispanic
population in the United States.
Mr. Rich, once the outsider scratching at the door, has now become something of
a gatekeeper, and his idea of border policing suggests dashes of progressivism
sprinkled throughout his conservative landscape.
“Everybody Wants to Be Me” is the most attitude-thick song on Mr. Rich’s new
album, all about the long climb to the top. “Everybody wants to be me,” he
charges, “but they don’t want to bruise, and they don’t want to bleed.” The
camera’s expectations can overwhelm, he warns: “They take my country-boy views,
make them big-city news and I just take it on the chin.”
Where “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” is calm and considered, this song is
un-self-consciously exuberant. As martyrs go, Mr. Rich is the happiest, most
complicit one around.