Country singers like to talk about how they provide fans with a form of escape, but that just can’t be right. How are songs about everyday life supposed to help us escape from our everyday lives? Country music isn’t a way out of reality. It’s a way to get deeper inside of it.
But then I heard Brad Paisley — mainstream country’s most progressive utopian — sing an ode to small towns called “Heaven South” during Wednesday’s Country Music Association Awards in Nashville and everything felt upside down. “Turn on the news, you’d think the world ain’t got a prayer,” the song went. “But if you turn it off and look around, it’s just another day in Heaven South.”
So all of our planet’s problems will go away if we stop paying attention to them? I guess that’s one way to escape reality, but it was still disheartening to see Paisley, the CMA telecast’s co-host for the 10th consecutive year, acquiescing to Nashville’s disengagement reflex and encouraging listeners to “turn it off.” Especially at this year’s CMAs, where not one artist found the courage to say a single word about gun control after 58 fans were shot dead at a country music festival in Las Vegas last month.
And sure, nobody expected the CMAs to transform into a three-hour town hall discussion about the Second Amendment. But did anyone expect such monolithic quiet after such a catastrophic event? Apparently, the ghost of the Dixie Chicks’ career still haunts this town in terrifying ways. (In case you forgot, the colossally popular country trio spoke out against President George W. Bush at a concert in 2003 and were instantly boycotted by radio stations across the country, sending the entirety of mainstream country into a state of political paralysis that has lasted 14 years and counting.)
Now, a style of music that used to proudly address the real-life struggles of real-life Americans won’t go near the issue that everyone in our harried republic is struggling with. After last month’s massacre in Las Vegas, 26 more people were killed in a shooting inside a church in Texas — the setting of countless country songs. Yet, instead of singing about life in America, today’s country stars are singing about an apolitical no-place that doesn’t actually exist. I guess it’s called Heaven South, and apparently, you protect it by circling the wagons.
That was the plan at Wednesday’s CMAs. “Tonight, we’re going to do what families do,” co-host Carrie Underwood promised at the top of the telecast. “There’s a family in this room,” Miranda Lambert said after winning female vocalist of the year. “We’re a family,” Garth Brooks said after taking the night’s biggest prize, entertainer of the year. And so the brightest names in country music stood together in the name of standing together — which is basically what happens at this tightknit industry function every November. It was still the same annual group hug, this time just a little tighter.
Despite the circumstances, the telecast’s organizers were hoping for a business-as-usual night anyway. Last week, after CMA officials announced that they reserved the right to eject any journalist who asked an artist about their politics, Paisley immediately spoke out against that preemptive censorship, tweeting, “I’m sure the CMA will do the right thing and rescind these ridiculous and unfair press guidelines.”
And voila, they were promptly rescinded. But that didn’t embolden any of the artists to volunteer their thoughts on the state of the nation on Wednesday night, not even Paisley. “I love the way we’ve all come together,” he said during one interstitial segment, as if he might be warming up some spontaneous bombshells. Then he confessed that he’d “gone off script,” and returned to the business of introducing the next performer.
As for the night’s performances, many of them felt intentionally ordinary, save for Keith Urban singing “Female,” a new solidarity anthem intended as a response to the sexual assault and harassment scandals detonating across Hollywood. He wasn’t taking a risky position here, and the song’s lyrics aren’t the greatest, but the sentiment was welcome. Then again, we were watching a man sing about feminism at an awards show where there were no female nominees for the top prize.
But Urban had the right idea. Awards shows give you an opportunity to say something significant in an acceptance speech, but a great song tends to send a message much further, and some artists have already gotten to work on that front. In the days following last month’s shooting in Las Vegas, Maren Morris released “Dear Hate,” a ballad about the eternal fight between love and evil. Eric Church penned a song about survivor’s guilt called “Why Not Me.” And while both Morris and Church performed at Wednesday’s CMAs, they didn’t sing either of these new tunes. Why not?
It left Underwood to give the evening’s most somber performance, singing the hymn “Softly and Tenderly” during an “in memoriam” segment that honored the concert attendees slain in Las Vegas. In the song’s final phrases, she sounded as if her voice had suddenly vanished from her throat — there were a few short pauses where the words couldn’t get out.
And when it was finally over, you might have wondered about all the words that everyone else in the building had purposefully chosen to swallow throughout the night. Surely, today’s country stars have more to say about this nation, its leaders and its laws, and the fate of the people they’re singing to. But if those words aren’t coming out now, when will they ever?