CMA Awards played it safe at precisely the wrong moment

Mikael Wood
Los Angeles Times

Donald Trump is “a fascist.”

“Nobody needs a machine gun.”

“Gay people should have a right to be happy … without fear of getting drug down the road behind a pickup truck.”

Even viewers hoping for talk of politics at Wednesday night’s 51st Country Music Assn. Awards couldn’t have expected to hear comments like these.

And indeed they probably didn’t hear them — unless they were also keeping an eye on Facebook Live, where singer Sturgill Simpson streamed video of himself busking outside Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena while country music’s most prestigious awards show went on inside.

A winner this year of the Grammy Award for best country album, Simpson is hardly a nobody in Nashville; his views are shared by many in the country establishment the CMA represents.

But perhaps more than in any other genre, country artists have public and private stances on hot-button issues, and at a moment of unending controversy — over gun rights, President Trump, you name it — those with starring roles on Wednesday’s production, broadcast live on ABC, reliably played to the music’s conservative base.

“Tonight we’re gonna do what families do,” Carrie Underwood said in her opening monologue. “Come together, pray together, cry together and sing together too.”

Healing: Underwood, who hosted with Brad Paisley, was making clear that the CMA Awards weren’t going to ignore current events, as the trade group had advised journalists covering the show to do in a widely criticized (and quickly rescinded) set of media guidelines regarding last month’s mass shooting at a country festival in Las Vegas.

Yet she was also assuring viewers that the CMAs would emphasize healing over outrage.

Which is a perfectly understandable approach, of course — and one the show made good on intermittently, as in Miranda Lambert’s gorgeous “To Learn Her,” with its soothing echoes of Patsy Cline, and Underwood’s dignified “Softly and Tenderly,” which she sang during an In Memoriam segment that honored the victims of the Las Vegas massacre along with late musicians such as Don Williams and Glen Campbell.

Other highlights included Little Big Town’s ethereal take on Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” — with the song’s writer, Jimmy Webb, on piano — and a soulful “Broken Halos” by Chris Stapleton, who took home the prizes for album of the year and male vocalist of the year. (Garth Brooks was named entertainer of the year, while Lambert won female vocalist of the year.)

As usual, the CMAs roped in appearances from a couple of pop carpetbaggers in One Direction’s Niall Horan, who joined Maren Morris for her “I Could Use a Love Song” and his “Seeing Blind,” and Pink, who did her rootsy-enough “Barbies.”

But if both sounded fine, they also couldn’t help but make you think about how safe the show was playing it after the absurd backlash sparked last year when Beyonce turned up to jam with the Dixie Chicks.

Bland: The CMAs felt too timid in other ways as well, particularly the opening number that had Darius Rucker leading a cast of dozens through — wait for it — his old Hootie and the Blowfish hit “Hold My Hand.”

It had a vaguely reassuring message, yeah, but the bland folk-rock song was woefully unequipped to meet the moment — a Band-Aid on a boo-boo, essentially, in place of the dressing required by a serious wound.

And then there was Keith Urban, who’d made waves online earlier Wednesday when he announced that he planned to perform a song written in direct response to Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual harassment of more than 50 women in Hollywood (where Urban’s wife, actor Nicole Kidman, works).

The tune, called “Female,” is about as complex as that pitiful title suggests.

“When you hear somebody say somebody hits like a girl / How does that hit you?” Urban sings, “Is that such a bad thing?”

At the CMAs, though, the dumb if well-intentioned song felt even flimsier as Urban performed in front of a video screen flashing words — “soul survivor,” “holy water,” “Virgin Mary,” “fortune teller” — that suggested the makings of another commercial from the tone-deaf empowerment merchants at Dove soap.

Surely this isn’t how Urban and Kidman talk about the Weinstein scandal at home.

Maybe somebody should show the guy how to use Facebook Live.