[NASHVILLE -] I had no bloody business being here. None. But somehow I ended up on the red carpet at the Country Music Awards, microphone in hand, on the lookout for people to interview.
Off-brand? You bet. Fish out of water? Absolutely. Unqualified? I can say without fear of contradiction that was the most unqualified person anywhere on that red carpet. Yet here I was.
The assignment came via Vintage-TV, the British-based music channel that’s been operating in Canada for a little over a year (If you have Rogers or Shaw, you should watch. It’s a really good channel for people who love music without all the silly celebrity/lifestyle stuff. As I like to say, Vintage is “certified 100% Kardashian and Snooki-free.”)
With CMT Canada’s decision to stop showing country music videos this past summer, Vintage sees a hole in the market for carefully-curated blocks of country as part of its programming–and that includes the channel’s flagship interview series, Needle Time.
When the channel was extended an invitation to participate in Country Music Awards media activity, including artist interviews, they jumped at the chance. And since I am Canada’s Needle Time interviewer, my presence was required to conduct said interviews.
Great. If there’s a person who knows less about country music than me, I’ve never met them. And in all my years, I’ve never been asked to cover an awards show. But a gig is a gig and since I consider myself a professional who can tackle any assignment, I said I’d do it.
Hey, like it says on the Lululemon bag, you should do something that scares you every day. And lemme tell you something: Being airdropped into the centre of the country music world to be surrounded by cowboy hats and bedazzled everything scared the bejeezus out of me.
Honestly, though, I’m glad I got the assignment. I learned a quite a lot about a form of music (and the people who make it) that’s totally foreign to me. For example:
Country music people are incredibly, almost insanely polite. And I mean that in the most positive way possible. Not only does everyone have impeccable manners, but they display immense respect to those around them. Men addressed me as “sir” with a firm handshake and direct eye contact. Women called me “darlin’,” “sweetheart” and “honey.” Everyone had warm, genuine smiles and gave me their undivided attention. It seems that there’s a standard of etiquette to which everyone is expected to adhere.
Everyone knows everyone. I was repeatedly told that everyone is “family.” If they’re not collaborating which each other, there’s name-checking as compliments fly and credit is given for influences.
There’s a great respect for the elders. Even though many of today’s modern country artists sound similar to the California soft rock of the 70s (or even the southern rock pioneered by the Allmans or Skynyrd), everyone is careful to pay fealty to classic country performers like George Jones, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Glen Campbell, Chet Atkins, George Strait and, of course, Elvis.
Garth Brooks is God. Even though he has a reputation for being super down-to-earth sort of dude, the fact is he’s the second-highest-selling artist of all time, right behind the Beatles. Everyone loves Garth and wants to work with him. Even when he admitted to lip-syncing his Country Music Awards performance–he was feeling rough and his voice wasn’t the best–he was immediately forgiven.
Country music musicians are brand-friendly. They love their sponsors and love their corporate gigs. It’s all about revenue streams that will allow them to continue make music. What would be considered selling out in other parts of the industry is just normal operating procedure here.
They love the troops. Many of the artists I spoke to have done tours of FOBs (forward operating bases) of US soldiers stationed in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan or on aircraft carriers. Some of these shows are in front of less than a hundred people, all of whom have been away from home for months. Whenever I mentioned these gigs, they all became very animated and even teared up.
Nashville is the epitome of a “music city.” The creation and promotion of music is the main industry, a pursuit that pervades every corner of the city. There are murals on buildings and plaques marking buildings and other places of historic significance. I walked by a utility box, a boring old metal thing that house the controls for the traffic lights at that intersection. Not only was the box decorated with the names and faces of the country music stars, but it also had a speaker playing music to the street. How cool is that?
Nashville is more than just country music. Yes, country is the dominant genre, but there are thousands of musicians and songwriters working here who specialize in rock, alternative, soul, the blues, R&B and more.
A lot of what I thought I knew about country music was based on cliches and stereotypes. Snobby me. I was set straight on an almost hourly basis. Yes, there were plenty of cowboy boots, shout-outs to God and meta-redneck references, but none of that does justice to what modern country is all about.
The whole experience was fascinating and I’m glad I had the chance to be here. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to reboot my brain by going through my Sonic Youth collection.