They long ago ceased to have anything do with music and more to do with trying to emulate the Emmys or Oscars. Three hours may be fine for the public; that doesn't mean it's fine for me. I don't watch the other shows either. All the glitz and glamour becomes boring and frankly, all these shows are padded to make them run longer than they would otherwise. They barely acknowledge newly-inducted Country Music Hall of Famers anymore, which says a lot.
There was a time when the CMA Awards were worth watching, though. I have to think back a few decades, however, to remember an example. And here it is: the 1975 CMA awards, which took place that October, October 13 to be exact.
There was a lot of backstage tension that year. The Nashville establishment was upset and frankly jealous about the success of "Outlaws" Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Music Row bigwigs were betting against for demanding and getting creative control of their records. What upset them more was the fact that at last, their singles and albums were selling--selling big. Their records hadn't been selling well when Nashville producers ran things. The producers tried to get Jennings and Nelson hits. But neither worked well with Nashville production formulas, which were as dull then as today.
CMA folks became more anxious when told Waylon and wife Jessi Colter would attend. Awash in paranoia, CMA officials backstage were nervous. Waylon had walked out a few years earlier when they cut his performing spot.
Waylon later wrote about the 1975 encounter in his autobiography. He showed up with wife and fellow Outlaw, singer Jessi Colter, herself up for an award. He went solely for her. CMA officials, he said, were antsy about her attending.
"They were suspicious of me as well," he continued. " 'Waylon,' they greeted me as I walked in, 'you're not here to stir up trouble, are you?' "
When he won the Male Vocalist of the year award (Jessi won nothing), Waylon's longtime friend Glen Campbell, the presenter, joyfully announced his name, adding, "It's about damn time!" This prompted umbrage from some churchy types irate that their idol, clean-cut Goodtime Glen, used "damn" on the airwaves. No telling how many complaints the FCC got on that.
At the end, the CMA's Entertainer of the Year was announced. The presenter was Charlie Rich, the Silver Fox, a star for hit ballads like "Behind Closed Doors" and "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World." Rich's alcohol problems were well known and many assumed they were borne of his years of frustration over failing to achieve stardom. Well now he had it, and he was onstage, on national TV drunk on his ass. He opened the envelope, pulled the name card out, lit the envelope with a lighter and announced in a voice oozing sarcasm that the award went to "My Friend--Mr. John Denver!" To this day, no one knows if he was protesting the award or just being ornery in his cups.
Try and find that video! Rich did not return to the CMA Awards, and probably lost not an hour of sleep over that. A Memphis guy, he never had much use for Nashville in any case.
Denver's simplistic folky tunes masquerading as country ("Take Me Home, Country Roads" and "Thank God I'm A Country Boy") were popular indeed. Nonetheless, they were merely a few stupid hoedown melodies and use of the word "country" in the lyrics, merely gave the songs a superficial flavor. What's more they weren't even very good.
Denver did not play primarily to a country audience. Neither did Olivia Newton-John, who a year earlier had been inexplicably given the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year award sole on the basis of two crappy, lightweight pop songs ("Let Me Be There" and "If You Love Me, Let Me Know") that had tiny trace elements of country and hit the Country Top Ten. At the time that provoked outrage from a good bit of Nashville including George Jones, Tammy Wynette and even Dolly Parton.
Then as now, the CMA was highly political, fraught with insecurity about the image country music presented to the world. They still smarted about the stereotype of "hillbillies" even though a slew of performers, Eddy Arnold, Ray Price and Lynn Anderson to name a few had transcended that image though "Hee Haw," a veritable hillbilly stereotype, was country's top-rated syndicated TV show. Go figure.
Anything they could do to reach out and make the mainstream see that Nashville was valid. The summary of their feelings: "We country folks are good. We're not narrow-minded! We're urbane! We give our awards to you non-country types who make shallow songs with the term "country" in them should show you we're open! Please, please, mainstream America, RESPECT US!!!
Actually, they've had that respect for quite a while, but apparently they haven't gotten the message that they don't need to keep overcompensating. More's the pity.
After the show, there was anger around the CMA over who left things get out of control, as well as the fact Waylon had won an award he'd clearly earned but that few insiders felt he merited. Even fan publications received outraged reader mail. Country Music Magazine printed one letter griping about the proceedings, one zeroing in on Waylon's long hair and beard, complaining "(The CMA) should have given him a bath instead of an award." Hey, he wore a tux, damn it! These types didn't mind Waylon but were upset he was no longer clean-shaven with his hair pomped like the Fonz.
Naturally, the CMA, which stands up for the good of music purportedly to be about real life, wasn't going to allow reality to happen again unless it was carefully scripted. Ever since then, the shows have been meticulously scripted and the "humor" has the spontaneity of a performance of the "1812 Overture."
Still, there've been occasional breaches. In 1999, CMA functionaries asked George Jones, the Greatest Living Country Singer by everyone's estimations, to cut his scheduled number, "Choices," which was nominated for Single of the Year, to a mere 90 second snippet. He refused. Angry and cold sober, he didn't appear. Alan Jackson, Jones's friend and disciple, said nothing as he began performing his scheduled song, "Pop A Top," (not one of his songs but a 1967 oldie by Jim Ed Brown) only to interrupt it, sing part of "Choices" and walk off. See for yourself.
Note that Jackson received a standing ovation for his trouble, from those who knew what went down. Rest assured, the powers that be have made good and certain that doesn't happen again, either.
Conceived as Nashville's and country's "face to the world," these awards shows have one primary goal: to offer up music as a secondary part of hours of shallow, empty showbiz glitz. Those priorities have been messing Nashville up for quite a while now. As for the ACM, it's a Hollywood-based organization that began with the noble goal of recognizing West Coast-based country artists (LA and Bakersfield especially) who were perceived as being slighted by the CMA in Nashville. Their initial awards were very California-oriented. Of course, the West Coast is less of a country hotbed today.
Yet the ACM lives, mainly so Dick Clark Productions can produce the empty, superficial annual ACM Awards, the counterpart to DCC's equally vapid American Music Awards.
I'm interested in music. I care about music. And love them if you will, that's not what the CMA Awards and ACM awards are about, and they haven't been for a long, long time.
Watch them if you choose. For me, starting at a blank screen three hours would be about as fulfilling. .
Besides, Mythbusters and South Park are on Wednesday nights. I know South Park isn't real, but then neither are the CMA (or ACM) Awards.