IT'S CMA AWARD SEASON
There was a time when the Country Music Association awards were the only game in town, and that town was Nashville. For a serious country fan (when country wasn't cool, but was at least country) the CMA's were akin to the Fourth of July.
When I was a pre-teen I couldn't wait for the NBC (and later, CBS) broadcast. I'd park myself on the floor in front of our big console TV and snarl at anyone who dared try to change the channel. Seeing my favorite artists dressed all fancy in long gowns and tuxedos was a far cry from watching their taped performances on Hee Haw. If not for that cornball show, country singers would only exist in our imaginations or on Saturday afternoon syndicated programs like The Bill Anderson Show or The Porter Wagoner Show. The only times the big three networks featured a country act was when they were "sort of" country, like Glen Campbell or heaven forbid, John Denver. No twang allowed!
But there, on my screen, were Merle Haggard and Connie Smith and Dolly Parton and Charley Pride. That's not to say that the networks that carried the awards were perfect. Whereas now the Entertainer of the Year award is the last announcement of the evening, in the sixties the last award presented was to the newest Country Music Hall of Fame inductee. Unfortunately, in 1968 by the time the presenter got done extolling the latest initiate's achievements it was about nine seconds before ten o'clock. Since it took Bob Wills eight seconds to make his way to the stage, all the viewing audience saw was a single-second shot of his smiling face before the program cut to the local news. Rather a disrespectful ordination. But the networks were disdainful of country music fans, since the only things we bought were straw brooms and buckets of coal.
Nevertheless, sitting cross-legged on the floor, I could barely contain my excitement. Who would win Entertainer of the Year? Would Merle Haggard sweep? In 1970 he kind of did, and my superior musical taste was affirmed.
There were a couple of categories back then that were eventually retired -- Comedian of the Year and Instrumental Group of the Year. Turned out that no one actually cared about those markers except the individuals involved, although don't get me wrong -- backup bands were exalted for a time. Merle Haggard's Strangers, Buck Owens' Buckaroos, Bill Anderson's Po' Boys; all of them released albums, all of which I owned and loved. On the other hand, I was never a fan of cornball humor, although my dad got a kick out of some of the gags on Hee Haw. I only watched Hee Haw for the musical performances and cringed at the hokey skits. Each recitation went something like, "This city slicker stopped by the store the other day and he asked me if I had any foie gras, and I said, 'Well, I ain't sure what fwaa gwaa is, but did you know your gol'dang tire is flat?'" Every joke involved the hillbilly one-upping the supercilious stranger, sort of the way we country fans disdained country haters, but didn't dare voice. Still wasn't funny, though.
They did add a new category, the Horizon award, in 1981. It turned out to be hit-or-miss. The first recipient was Terri Gibbs, who had one chart hit and was never heard from again. On the other hand, other winners were The Judds, Randy Travis, Travis Tritt and Mark Chesnutt. In 2007 the name was changed to New Artist of the Year, although I think "horizon" had more cachet. Video of the Year was added in 1985 when CMT and TNN became hot commodities. I loved country music videos. They weren't as innovative as the ones featured on MTV, but they didn't need to be. This was country, not a Jackson Pollock canvas.
1968 was the first year the awards were telecast and it struck me, a twelve-year-old, that I, too, wanted a say in who claimed those glass bullet trophies. Somehow I learned that in order to qualify as a CMA member, one must be involved, in some manner, in the music industry. Easy enough. I would apply for membership as an employee of a radio station. Really, all they asked for was my fifteen-dollar money order and I was in. They sent me a first-round ballot that essentially listed every single singer and song that existed in the previous twelve-month period. Just in case the compilers missed anyone, there was also a write-in space. Once that first ballot was tabulated, the potential nominees dwindled to ten in each category. The third and final ballot was the biggie, where I had to make a final decision among the top five vote-getters. I treated it like a mixture of acetone and a blow torch. As long as I made the exact right selection in each category, the world as we knew it would survive. Few of my choices actually triumphed, because unlike me, those other music professionals had really bad taste. Johnny Cash? Come on.
My most memorable CMA broadcast was 1975's, when this happened:
In hindsight, yes, Charlie Rich was drunk, but his gesture spoke for all of us. A friend, the one who'd immersed me in country music in the first place, told me one day over the phone that she really liked John Denver. I was appalled. That effete folky guy? Who was her favorite female country artist, Roberta Flack? Those, like me, who still revered actual country music saw Denver for who he was, an interloper. (I've since softened on him.)
As time moved on, I gave up my coveted CMA membership. I was only a bona fide member for about three years before other pursuits claimed my attention (and my negligible dollars), but I continued to watch the broadcast faithfully until 2001. Now I have no idea what goes on. Are they still televised? Or does one need to stream them on YouTube? That would kind of dilute the glamour.
I scanned this year's list of nominees and I only recognized a few of the names. I did find it amusing that "Fast Car", originally released in 1988, was nominated for both single and song of the year. I promise I will check out all the names and songs and I will post critiques soon.
I owe the CMA's at least that.