Yes, it was still 2013, and it was still a modern country music awards show, and so traditional and independent-minded country music fans still had plenty to look sideways at if they were brave enough to watch. But that doesn’t mean that the 47th Annual Country Music Association Awards wasn’t a retrenching of the roots and substance in the genre’s most important institution, and a sign of hope for country fans who’ve simply been asking for years for balance to be reinstated into the mainstream country format.
Luke Bryan, who was the big winner at the ACM Awards in April, was completely shut out. So was Jason Aldean. Florida Georgia Line wasn’t, but this was understandable because of the historic success of their song “Cruise,” but they were bested by Kacey Musgraves in the New Artist of the Year category. And in the end, George Strait, King George, bested everyone by taking home the most coveted trophy in country music, the CMA for Entertainer of the Year.
Was it a parting gift for Strait after announcing his final tour? Of course it was. But it doesn’t mean it wasn’t deserved, and it doesn’t mean it isn’t sweet, both for George, and for traditional country fans, even the ones who may not mark themselves as big George Strait supporters. Strait’s win marks the first time in a decade a true country artist has won the trophy. Alan Jackson, George Strait’s duet partner for “He Stopped Loving Her Today” during a stirring George Jones tribute, was arguably the last traditional-leaning artist to win the award in 2003.
Which leads us to the performances of the 47th Annual CMA Awards. Along with the somewhat abridged, but heartfelt George Jones tribute, there was a tribute to Kenny Rogers, who was presented with this year’s Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award—an award that was founded last year. Lo and behold, a steel guitar made an appearance early in the presentation during Kacey Musgraves’ set, despite the disappointment of the lyric “roll up a joint” in her song “Follow Your Arrow” being censored out. Taylor Swift of all people, offered a stripped down acoustic set that featured Vince Gill, bluegrass maestro Sam Bush, Alison Krauss, and not just as backing musicians. Both Gill and Krauss took turns on verses, no doubt stimulating not a few younger fans to take to Google to figure out who these artists were, facilitating that important initial spark of discovery.
Even Luke Bryan, whose performance of “Country Girl (Shake It For Me) on the 2011 CMA Awards seemed like the pinnacle of indecency for a country awards show at the time, offered a somewhat stripped down, heartfelt performance that featured songwriter Chris Stapleton. In fact, there wasn’t really any performances that seemed gratuitously over-the-top. Apparently there was a moratorium on choreographed backup dancers for the 2013 CMA’s, and about the only pyrotechnics aside from Eric Church’s over-the-top performance of “The Outsiders” were some sparks streaming from beneath the wheels of a simulated boxcar during Jason Aldean’s song “Night Train.” Even the cross-genre moment was when the well-beloved Dave Grohl joined the Zac Brown Band on drums—a stark contrast from the rappers and Kid Rock’s of the world that have somehow become regular fixtures of country award shows recently.
What does this all mean? For one, it means there is a reason to be positive. Whether it is because of the collective crying out about the disenfranchising of country music’s traditional and independent fans through events like Blake Shelton labeling them “Old Farts and Jackasses,” or whether it is the tangible demographic data that shows that country fans as a whole want more traditional country in the country format, someone, somewhere is listening, and some of the change fans have been clamoring for in recent years is finally being enacted.
All that has been asked for is balance—a place at the table for alternatives to pop country—and though the ratio may still be somewhat out-of-whack, some balance was reinstated during the 2013 CMA Awards. If there was another winner during the event beyond the award winners, it might be CMA producer Robert Deaton. Deaton told the Tennessean on Nov. 1st, ““I think the biggest thing I want to strive for is balance. I’m talking about balance of who we are as a music and a genre because we are a lot of different things, you want to be current but you also want to pay tribute to the shoulders that we stand on.” And Robert Deaton backed up those words in the presentation. As much as the censoring of Kacey Musgraves may be a black eye of the 2013 CMA’s, it was done to make sure families and traditional viewers were not offended.
Furthermore, the proof that balance works is in the ratings pudding. The ratings for the CMA Awards was up by 21 percent over last year’s telecast in viewers and 24 percent in the key demographic. The growth was particularly big among young males, with ABC touting a nine-year high among men 18-34.
In September, Saving Country Music published 12 Reasons To Be Positive About Country Music in 2013, and the 47th CMA Awards was yet another one to add to the list. However slowly, however incrementally, and however offset by the continuing lows of some of country music’s mainstream males, things are changing. It had been years since true country fans felt a reason to stand up and cheer and had a reason to feel represented at the CMA Awards. But the 47th installment offered a few of them, and one very big one.