Although he didn’t win anything, Tim McGraw (pictured) managed to provide two of the key highlights of Tuesday night’s Academy of Country Music Awards show, broadcast from Las Vegas. One of these peak moments had McGraw getting on stage for an unexpected performance of a brand new song that had audience members simultaneously wiping away tears (because of the moving nature of the song) and scratching their heads (because they were trying to figure out if they’d ever heard it before, and why he wasn’t shilling his current single). As for that other high point, McGraw didn’t even have to get out of his seat.
The latter bit was mostly the work of 17-year-old Taylor Swift, who has one of the genre’s biggest hits of the year with “Tim McGraw,” which has sold over 500,000 units as a digital download in addition to her 700K in album sales. Earlier that day, I found Swift in her makeup chair, where she discussed her plans for the evening: “I’m not gonna be playing it with a band. I’m gonna do it on an acoustic guitar. I’ve never met Tim” — not counting a phone conversation — “and he’s gonna be sitting in the front row. So I’ll be walking off the stage and playing it two feet in front of him. I think right afterward, I’ll be like, ‘Hey, I’m Taylor.’” Surely he would be in on it? “No, he doesn’t know,” she insisted. “It’s a complete surprise.” But what if, I suggested, always eager to propose the worst-case scenario, McGraw just up and bolted? “Hopefully, I’m not that scary. Hopefully.” If you’ve ever seen her, you can safely guess that McGraw did not, in fact, flee the scene in terror. (Actually, her 5’11” stature can be intimidating, but there are compensating factors.) Their oft-postponed introduction turned out to be a Great Moment in Awards Show Hokum.
Swift wasn’t the only one with a surprise up her sleeve(figuratively speaking; sleevelessness becomes her). Just beforeshowtime, McGraw and Faith Hill had done the red carpet together(actually, at the ACMs, it’s traditionally an orange carpet, in honorof… I don’t know what). “I know what he’s performing, but we want itto be a surprise,” she told me. Hill was set to perform a new single,”Lost,” that she recorded for an upcoming best-of just last week, so noone would’ve guessed that McGraw would debut a new tune, too, much lessone that hadn’t even been put down on tape yet. But toward the end ofthe three-hour telecast, McGraw appeared sans introduction and sang awar-themed ballad that only the next day were we able to confirm istitled “If You’re Reading This.” It’s in the form of a letter intendedby a soldier to be opened by his widow upon his death, with lines like”Lay me down in that open field on the edge of town” and “If you’rereadin’ this, I’m already home.” At the end, the lights went up on acrowd of people gathered behind the singer, some holding up pictures offallen soldiers, while the legend “Families of Fallen Heroes” appearedon screen overhead. A scan of the front row showed fellow artists likeMartina McBride drying their eyes, but you could see the puzzled lookson other faces: Did he really just give up a shot to push his newalbum, in primetime? Honest, spontaneous sentiment trumping careerism?No wonder we were all a bit confused.
I wasn’t sure what to make of another tribute, this one offered byRascal Flatts. Their quasi-gospel tune, “He Ain’t the Leavin’ Kind,”ended with photographs of all the Virginia Tech massacre victimsprojected on screen, followed by a printed message of sympathy signedby “Rascal Flatts.” Reasonable enough. But the first part of the songcomplained about the infamous case a few years ago where the 10 Commandments were removed from a judge’s courtroom in Alabama, completewith video footage of pro-Commandments protesters being arrested.Should sympathy for the Virginia victims really be conflated with acontroversial conservative political position? The conjoining of theseunrelated and highly charged causes felt awkward, at the very least.
Thank God, then, for the kind of greatness that all Americans canagree on, by which, of course, I mean the sublimity that is BradPaisley’s “Ticks.” That and Miranda Lambert’s “Famous in a Small Town”certainly lead our list of 2007’s best country songs, no matter whatthe nominations show this time next year. And, perhaps notincidentally, Paisley and Lambert were among the half-dozen acts (outof 20) who performed completely live; the other 14 had live vocals butband members miming to pre-recorded backing tracks. (Here’s a roll callof the brave six: Lambert, Paisley, Brooks & Dunn, Vince Gill,McGraw, and of course, the solo-acoustic Swift.) Though they didn’tquite qualify in that totally-live category, Big & Rich also tooksome chances and mixed it up, inviting R&B star John Legend — whoguests on “Eternity,” a different song on their about-to-be-releasedalbum — to join them as a duet partner and (live) pianist on “Lost inThis Moment,” their current single. But for rocking out, there was nobeating Gill’s climactic raveup, “Sweet Thing,” which climaxed with aguitar solo lasting exactly 90 seconds. (When was the last time youheard a minute-and-a-half rock guitar solo on TV in any context? Justcurious.)
Opening the show with a brief monologue, returning host RebaMcEntire riffed on the “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” mantra,noting, “It sure didn’t stay here last year when I made a few jokesthat were talked about everywhere” — presumably referring to some gagsshe made at the Dixie Chicks’ expense that didn’t go over universally wellin ‘06. Playing it safer this time, McEntire was saddled with some of thegroaningest — albeit completely inoffensive — one-liners conceivable.(Example: Britney Spears has a new country band called “RascalFlattop”… The all-male list of nominees for entertainer of the yearreminds her of West Hollywood… Brooks & Dunn’s trophy room “ismore crowded than Angelina Jolie’s supper table”… Oy.) For the loveof God, Reba is a gifted comedienne who had a successful sitcom onanother network for several seasons; can’t CBS shell out just one nighta year to supply the poor woman with some professional comedy writers?
Reba also participated in what should’ve been, and nearly was, aperformance highlight: a duet with Kelly Clarkson on “Because of You,”the leadoff single from the host’s forthcoming duets album. McEntire,the most consummate of consummate professionals, was completely onpoint, as always… but Clarkson was strangely muted, as if she thoughther role was to be a backup harmonizer, not full vocal partner. We’llsee if things seem more equal when the studio version of the singlehits radio this week.
The winners? You care? No, really? Not surprisingly, Kenny Chesneywon the top entertainer of the year prize again; also not surprisingly,in a typical example of spreading the wealth, Chesney gave up thelesser best male vocalist prize, this time not to Keith Urban but tofirst-time winner Paisley. Carrie Underwood, picking up three awards(best album, best video, best female vocalist), was hardly a surprise,though it was a slight shocker that, for single of the year and bestsong, her run of smashes was passed over in favor of George Strait’sgreat, droll, sad-sack divorce anthem, “Give It Away.” Other winnersincluded: Rascal Flatts, best vocal group; Brooks & Dunn, for vocalduo, vocal event, and a charitable honor; Lambert, best new femaleartist; Rodney Atkins, best new male; Little Big Town, best new group.
No one takes the ACMs quite as seriously as the CMA Awards in November(to the extent that any of these are taken seriously). But as KelliePickler enthused to us on the orange carpet: “This is more laid backthan the CMAs — more casual, and a lot more fun, because we’re inVegas!” Of course, those who did win will be hoping the public memory of what happened there won’t completely stay there.