Don't Rock the Inbox: Issue #2 (CMA Special)
AKA Holy f*ck I hope Charley Pride doesn't get COVID while receiving a cynically strategic and long overdue lifetime achievement award edition
We both love country music and write about it (Marissa’s even working on a book about it!), but finding places to do the latter — especially in the thoughtful, inclusive, nuanced way we aim to — has become increasingly challenging. So we’re making something new: specifically, a bi-weekly newsletter with essays, interviews and reviews that reflect what’s happening now in country music, using that term’s broadest possible definition. Put a record on and enjoy Don’t Rock The Inbox! — Natalie & Marissa
In this issue:
CMA Recap: Straight from The Slack Discussion Room
Some songs we like listening to right now (and some we don’t)
Recommended reading and listening
CMA Recap: Straight from The Slack Discussion Room
Natalie: When it comes to the 2020 CMAs, I would say the term "post-mortem" feels extra appropriate. Before the show even aired, it felt more grim than normal (and a self-congratulatory corporate music pageant is pretty grim) — just so pointless and dangerous.
Marissa: Truly. That was what immediately struck me about that “no drama” post — when I saw it, I had the news on, listening to talk of surging COVID cases and weathering an outbreak at my child’s own school. This year has been incredibly difficult, and polarizing I guess, but it's also been incredibly tragic. The country music community has lost lives to COVID. We've marched in the streets for Black lives and Black liberation. It's one thing to say, maybe let's have a little escapism, but it takes a really privileged mind to be able to dismiss that as "drama." Not to mention that CMA as an organization has a history of trying to dictate their coverage through the media and manipulation thereof, so I could just see how that brewed in the marketing offices. "How do we make this a no-drama (read: no politics!!) show? It’s the week after the election!" Not saying there was a mandate. But there was clearly intention.
Natalie: I mean watching the show, it was really hard to believe that there wasn't a mandate on what performers and presenters could and couldn't talk about... like, no one said "COVID-19" for the course of the entire show, EVEN WHEN THEY WERE PAYING TRIBUTE TO JOE DIFFIE, WHO DIED FROM IT. Focusing on the music is something I suppose, but hundreds of thousands of people dead from a virus that may very well have been spreading on camera as we watched is pretty cowardly to ignore. Like you said, their "no drama" campaign was just salt in the wound of a very painful year.
Marissa: That was so surreal during the Diffie tribute — seeing everyone in there not wearing masks, the primary defense against the disease he died from! I kept thinking of the function of awards shows right now, and while I didn't expect it, I actually felt quite moved by the Emmys. There was something about seeing all those incredibly famous people in their homes, on Zoom, just like me! It felt like, "Oh, we're in this together, I guess." And the ACMs and CMTs carried out a similar vibe where we weren't in denial. The rooms were empty or they were outside, folks wore masks on stage. If country music is supposed to be about true life, I have rarely seem a moment when the CMA’s were living in so much denial (other than asking Mike Huckabee to be on their board, but I digress). Maybe it helped the people in the audience forget the weight of the world but it just made me remember that I don't get to see my family for the holidays. Anyway, in that respect I actually found Dan + Shay's performance to be one of the most effective and impactful because it didn't try to deny reality. I was like, "OH YEAH! That's an empty arena, because there is a pandemic. Thanks for the reminder, guys, and yeah sure don't blame you for not wanting to be in that room."
Natalie: For sure, I totally agree — I don't remember the CMTs feeling so out of sync with reality. I actually had hoped for better, because I watched the little CMAs-eve "Country Strong" special and found it...not completely horrifying. Sure, it mostly focused on how hard the rich country singers found quarantining in their estates, but at least there was some discussion of both the pandemic and the way the country and country music have been very belatedly confronting systemic racism. Now I see, though, that they were trying to get all the Serious Stuff out of the way (although I don't think it had the intended effect, of getting them off the hook) so they could ignore it completely during the show itself. They can talk about all the safety precautions they took until they're blue in the face, but without talking about the pandemic on the air, without performing those precautions with mask-wearing and fastidious social distancing, the CMA and the artists who were at the awards are culpable of feeding the notion — which is particularly prevalent among the very audience that watches the CMAs — that everything is just fine and those precautions aren't necessary.
Marissa: It's classic CMAs, and Music Row. I say this as someone who was banned from the CMAs and anything related for six years because they didn't like something I wrote. It's an organization that tried to prevent reporters from asking questions about Route 91 on the red carpet. They have asked fellow reporters to leave free events and tried to control coverage in so many ways it's a bit notorious in town. The AP bowing out is so symptomatic of this. It's not being a "liberal blue checkmark" or whatever to point this out, it's actually caring about the genre and how it's essential to have a free and functioning media in Nashville. We cannot just bow to these systems. And honestly the first — and last — time I covered CMAs live and in the pressroom, I realized that wasn't what this was about. You play their games. People came out at the press availabilities and they called on the same reporters who were like, “Congratulations on your win, Luke Bryan! How’s your new puppy?”
Natalie: Yeah, it's kind of the same as what we've seen with sports — all the preexisting bad things (and the money-grubbing they're borne of) are even more obvious because of these dire circumstances. The fact that performers were dropping out of the show because of positive COVID-19 tests literally up until it started was pretty surreal. For an organization that is supposedly about protecting and supporting country music, the CMA made the genre a laughingstock — even Carrie and Brad's cringey election jokes four years ago weren't this bad. I guess we should probably note some more of the stuff that happened during the show itself besides "Holy fuck I hope Charley Pride doesn't get COVID while receiving a cynically strategic and long overdue lifetime achievement award."
Marissa: I am not a praying person but last night I prayed for Charley Pride. You do not endanger our living legends like that! But yes. We should talk about some other things that happened, perhaps like me screaming seeing Jason Aldean, who has been posting election conspiracy theories along with his wife on Instagram stories, singing tribute to Charlie Daniels, who has been tweeting conspiracy theories from the actual grave? Or the good stuff, like Miranda Lambert and Maren Morris?
Natalie: QAldean and Charlie were truly a match for the ages. A Twitter pal pointed out that Charlie Daniels, Jr.'s MAGA tweets from his dad's account make it sound like all abortions are actually keeping Daniels' legacy alive, which made me LOL. Actually nutty that in a year where country music is allegedly Reckoning With Race Daniels got four songs? Five songs? While John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker and Billy Joe Shaver combined for ZERO, in a remarkable show of disrespect. Oh, and for some unholy reason Mac Davis wound up tributed with "In The Ghetto" — I love Darius and Reba, but what were they thinking...
Marissa: Honestly when I saw in someone's tweet that they were doing "In The Ghetto" I thought it was a Twitter quip. And then I realized it was real and I though...well, completely out of touch, tokenizing and ridiculous so actually that tracks. But yes, four damn songs to him - that could have been split between all the other lives we lost this year including John Fucking Prine, or would that have been too weird to have two people honored on the show who we lost to the Thing We Shall Not Mention?
Natalie: There wasn't even an In Memorium! IMO the whole show could have been an In Memorium, both for country legends lost and for the people killed this year because of the unprecedented pandemic...alas. I feel like it's important to note how the show did(n't) talk about racism: Yes, they had Darius (co-)host for the first time which is something (his Urban Cowboy joke was maybe the only good one of the whole night), but in practice that meant that they basically outsourced all the questions about race and country (in pre-show promo and whatnot) to him and Jimmie Allen, who was also heavily featured. The "Country Strong" thing had Jimmie and Darius sharing an emotional moment, but it felt pretty voyeuristic in context: Here are Black men crying so you don't have to feel guilty about watching the CMAs. It was stark how they were compelled over and over to address what is certainly a painful topic, while white artists got to avoid the subject completely — which made Maren's speech, dedicating her Female Vocalist of the Year award to Black women in country music (Linda Martell, Yola, Mickey Guyton, Rissi Palmer, Brittney Spencer, and Rhiannon Giddens), that much more important.
Marissa: Absolutely. And it's also fair to note that the CMA is an organization that has a made no visible efforts to push towards diversity and equality. Last year they vaguely gestured to the “women issue” by letting a bunch of women sing old songs, also co-hosted by Reba? The ACMs has a task force, CMTs as well. Neither are even anywhere close to perfect but have at least lit the fire of an attempt while CMA proceeds to ignore the elephant in the room and while doing so, they are letting that elephant literally stamp out the careers of Black country singers since the dawn of country time. And I mean, Darius is great, and I love Reba, but these are not vibrant choices for awards show hosts. But yes, Maren's speech was important and wonderful and I really hope leads some folks — or, more importantly, money — to those artists. And the small bit of hope I take from Maren's wins is that she has been consistently starting to stick her neck out, and hasn't been expelled from Nashville yet. She's still winning awards, and being recognized, and played on country radio. It's something.
Natalie: For sure — it's a bummer that she was the only one (I guess Keith Urban gets half credit for his horny tribute to frontline workers), but her willingness to take risks no matter how many people call her "not real country" is promising, and I hope helps others use their platforms more. As far as performances, she sounded good, Miranda sounded good, Chris and Morgane Stapleton had a great pre-taped rendition of "Starting Over" (which may have actually sold me on that song). The Little Big Town tribute to Kenny Rogers was nice, too.
Marissa: Imagine the performance we could have had if Mickey Guyton finally made the cut as a new artist, after, you know, 800 years in Nashville. A Black woman singing a song about her experience as a Black woman on the CMAs! Imagine that (I can't, LOL). But yeah, I thought the Stapletons sounded great, I loved how Miranda rearranged "Settling Down" and I also love how she brought her own booze vehicle. If Miranda ever did an acoustic tour, when and if those things happen again, I might lose my shit and rent a VW bus and just follow her across the country screaming. She's a legend and we will never honor her properly. Which I guess could bring us to talk about Entertainer of the Year. Let me preface this by saying I have a really hard time talking about this category because I love Eric Church so much and I also love Miranda and I am both happy Church won but sad Miranda did not (and Carrie, of course, was also deserving). What I would like to do is travel back in time, take that shit from Garth, give it to Church and then let Miranda take this year. Curious how you feel. But also, I think they should have added a special Entertainer of the Pandemic Year category. No one was on the road for much of the voting time so shout out those country artists who worked their asses off to bring us live streams all year, like Lauren Jenkins and Brandi Carlile and Margo Price. But I guess that would have forced them to acknowledge the pandemic — yucky!
Natalie: Yeah, "Black Like Me" would have been huge — again, Mickey made the cut for pre-show stuff to ...talk about racism, but of course they won't acknowledge her actual music. Sigh. Miranda needs entertainer of the year, full stop; I like Eric Church alright, but was pretty disappointed by what he brought to the table last night. How do you have a song at radio about all the things country singers refuse to sing about and then...not sing it when you have a national platform, and not even mention any of those things when you have the mic? I expected more from him.
Marissa: Yeah I mean look at what he did at ACMs — he played "Stick That In Your Country Song" and he also recited lyrics from Johnny Cash's "Ragged Old Flag." Eric Church didn't change. Same Eric Church! But different awards show. Makes ya think, doesn't it! Also, as someone who likes "Whiskey Glasses" and thinks Morgan Wallen is generally talented and fun, I found his performance pretty lifeless, he had more energy singing and COVID kissin' on Instagram than he did at the awards. He's young and truly needs to grow up a little.
Natalie: Fair point — Wallen is making it tough to be Wallenhive, a group I generally consider myself part of. I think that kind of covers it? Just desperately hoping that all the old heads who went to the show didn't get infected with a deadly virus?
Marissa: Protect Mickey Gilley and Charley Pride!!! Yes, I think so. I'd tell you about what happened in the virtual press room if I were actually extended an invite inside. But at least they kept that virtual. Also shout out to Caylee Hammack's dancing, nice to see someone at least having a good time.
Natalie: Next year, hopefully we can critique the CMAs in all the usual ways instead of fearing for its participants' health. Basically, RIP John Prine.
Some songs we like listening to right now (and some we don’t)
Brothers Osborne, “Back on the Bottle”: Co-written with one of my favorites, Hayes Carll, “Back on the Bottle” is a juicy, Jay Joyce-y country-rock hybrid that epitomizes everything this duo is about, which is loud guitars, baritone twang and generally giving very few shits about what works on country radio - MM
Lee Brice, “Soul”: In a year with an abundance of nauseating boyfriend country songs, somehow Lee has come up one that might just take the gag-worthy crown: What does “You’re Mozart in the sheets” even mean?! - NW
Kelsea Ballerini, “Hole in the Bottle”: word is there’s a Shania Twain version of this coming out tomorrow, but I want to continue to pour high praise onto this honkytonk jam from someone who is repeatedly tormented for being “not country enough.” - MM
Billy Ray Cyrus, “Mama Said Knock You Out”: Hear me out — this works way better than it has any right to. Far from being your standard acoustic rap song cover (which: blegh), Cyrus makes his country take on the LL Cool J classic sound organic and genuinely new. - NW
Cole Swindell, “Every Single Saturday Night”: Snap tracks and “red lips on White Claw” make this song one you should probably listen to only one single time, and then never again after that. - MM
Tiera, “I Found It In You”: The kind of straightforward, catchy pop-country jam that seems like a no-brainer for radio. In a just world, it would get a shot! - NW
Sarah Allison Turner, “Intervention”: This just feels fresh, in spite of its pretty standard subject matter (Jon Pardi’s “All Time High” is a personal favorite in the “Your Love Is My Drug” category) — give me more layers of guitars and fiddles that sound vaguely sinister, I can’t get enough. - NW
Kelsey Waldon, “They’ll Never Keep Us Down”: Yes! This! This cover of Hazel Dickens’ 1976 track is just plain great-sounding anticapitalist bluegrass — “They’ll never shoot the union out of me” is a rallying cry we can get behind. - NW
Kree Harrison, “That’s How Hearts Get Broken”: Kree’s Chosen Family Tree has thus far been a lifer on my sleeper country albums list this year - it’s a modern twist on familiar nineties sounds with a soulful spin and her absolutely pristine vocals. - MM
Emily Nenni, “Long Game”: I’ve recently become somewhat uncomfortably obsessed with Emily Nenni, the diehard kind of country singer you want to line dance to while praising how much room she leaves for the steel guitar to take its time and take its space. - MM
Recommended reading and listening
Fighting to Be Heard: The Story of the Black Country Music Association by Jonathan Bernstein in Rolling Stone
One name, two musical acts and a story of privilege: How the Lady A controversy captured the state of the music industry in 2020 by Emily Yahr in the Washington Post
How Gillian Welch and David Rawlings Held Onto Optimism by Hanif Abdurraqib in The New York Times
“No Drama” CMA Awards Instantly Torn Apart by Drama by Wren Graves in Consequence of Sound
Darius Rucker on Color Me Country with Rissi Palmer on Apple Music
Candid Cam, by Olivia Ladd on Country Queer
Chris Stapleton on Starting Over and Country Music’s Image by Craig Jenkins in Vulture
The 54th Annual CMA Awards, Oh Balls by Ashley Spurgeon in Nashville Scene
O Brother, Where Art Thou? review by Allison Hussey in Pitchfork
The United States of Dolly Parton by Lauren Michele Jackson in New Yorker
At least someone remembered John Prine…