Chris Willman
April 17, 2007 AT 12:00 PM EDT

Oh no — it’s happened again. You probably remember the controversy after the Grammys, when Nashville was abuzz that Rascal Flatts and Carrie Underwood (pictured) were compelled by the producers to perform Eagles songs instead of their own. Last night at the CMT Awards, the Flatts boys were again subjected to the same kind of coercion. Fans were asked to call in and vote for which of three songs they wanted the chart-topping trio to open the show with — and viewers forced the band to cover Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway.” The indignity! All together now: This must not stand!

Things got better on the show, but not before they got a little worse. You know you’re not a redneck if you agree with me that, after three years of Jeff Foxworthy as host, it might be time for the CMTs to find a fresh face, somebody who isn’t quite so intent on reinforcing every single country stereotype. I will admit to having found some of Foxworthy’s shtick amusing in the past (a confession that could well get me excommunicated from Los Angeles). But Foxworthy’s current gig as host of Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader gave him carte blanche to start this year’s show with a spoof about how stupid hillbilly country stars are. Blake Shelton, who has a bit of the droll comic about him by nature, played along gamely in this laugh-free sketch.

addCredit(“Carrie Underwood: Peter Kramer/Getty Images”)

Too bad, then, that Foxworthy had no one to bounce off of for thegenially patronizing monologue that followed. First he insultedStonewall Jackson, who’s suing the Grand Ole Opry for agediscrimination, saying, “It’s about audience demand…. Him suing theOpry is like Rosie O’Donnell suing Victoria’s Secret for not using heras an underwear model.” Perhaps Foxworthy has never actually been tothe Opry, or he’d know the crowds there actually whoop it up the mostfor venerated old-timers… but why let reality get in the way of anageist chuckle? Then it was time for the predictable slap at the DixieChicks: “I understand the songs on that album are great, but I listento country radio, so I haven’t heard any of ’em yet.” Fair enough —although Foxworthy must not watch CMT, which even recently has beensupportive of the Chicks. And then, “Their big song was ‘Not Ready toMake Nice,’ which was perfect, because we’re not ready to care.” Well,speak for yourself, bonehead.

The antidote for this, and the reason the CMT Awards finally pulledahead in karma points, was the rewardingly lengthy presentation of theJohnny Cash Visionary Award to Kris Kristofferson, who was graciousand/or overwhelmed enough to spend his entire acceptance speech talkingabout Cash, not himself. Watching Kristofferson up there with RosanneCash (who hosted the presentation), you had to think of the GeorgeJones song that asks: Who’s gonna fill their shoes? Of course, whenJones sang that song, he was really talking about country’s honkytonkers and traditionalists — and, in fact, some great young ‘uns havecome along to fill that particular niche, some of them even representedon this show, like Dierks Bentley and Josh Turner. But as forsuccessors in the subgenre of honestly poetic singer/songwriter types,like Kris, Rosanne, and Rosanne’s dad? We’re still waiting on that nextgeneration.

But even as we bemoan the lack of obvious future Johnny CashVisionary Award winners, there’s still plenty to celebrate incontemporary mainstream country as it now stands. And the CMTs hadstrong performances by Sugarland, Keith Urban (on tape from DownUnder), and others. The classiest performances were saved for last, inthe form of Bentley’s “Long Trip Alone” and Martina McBride’s “Anyway,”both fantastic ballads that brought back a time when a countrygentleman (or gentlewoman) could compete with the rowdies and rednecksthat, for better and worse, have lately had more of a lock on theformat.

Of course, it was Carrie Underwood’s night, and whether you adoreher or could do without her, this is one area where the CMTs manage tobe much more relevant than the CMAs. God forbid that the moreestablished awards would put a woman like Underwood or Gretchen Wilsonup for the top entertainer of the year prize, even if she did sell acouple more million records than anybody else in the genre that year.For those pro-voted awards, there’s the unstated rule that you have to”earn it” by having been a top draw for a decade, which ensures thatthe CMAs will never quite completely reflect what actually happenedthat year, the way the Grammys have occasionally been able to withtheir recognition of newcomers in top categories. No such ridiculousrestrictions for these fan-voted honors, and Underwood and her videoswalked away with three buckles. Her performance of “Before He Cheats”was a bit uncharacteristic, to say the least — silver hot pants!Near-dominatrix heels! — and she still seems too convincingly sweet tototally pull off that cleverly written payback lyric. (Does anyonereally believe that there’s a leather seat somewhere with “C-A-R-R-I-E”carved in it?) But if America’s sweetheart wants to play America’svengeful wraith for four minutes, it’s okay by us. And the fact thatthe most popular female singer in the nation has stayed true to hercountry school may be worth a valiance trophy, if not quite a visionaryone, all by itself.

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