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Cowboys Vs. Cowgirls: What The CMAs Say About Country Music Today

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Country music has long been a genre of contradictions. Since the inception of the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards in 1967, the industry rooted in working-class culture and small-town values has become steadily more commercial, pairing Nashville’s elite producers and songwriters with stars groomed for platinum-certified careers. The historically male-dominated field has given rise to the likes of Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, two of the strongest female personalities to ever emerge in popular music. The same fanbase that disowned the Dixie Chicks in 2003 for publicly criticizing George W. Bush still claims Lynn as “The First Lady of Country Music,” despite the liberal tinge of so many of her songs, most notably 1975’s “The Pill,” a comic ditty celebrating the wonders of birth control. Mainstream country, still deeply identified with the American South, is nevertheless a haven for artists from places as far-flung as Canada (Shania Twain) and—even more perplexingly—Australia (Keith Urban).

Judging by the 2013 CMA nominations, this year is no different. Like all major awards shows, the CMAs—which air at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 6, on ABC—recognize only the top-selling artists, and a quick glance at the nominees for Entertainer of the Year gives a pretty good picture of the state of things: four white men (Blake Shelton, George Strait, Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan), all reassuringly handsome, all clad in either a cowboy hat, flannel or both; and Taylor Swift, whose crimson lips and hipster glamour seem positively daring next to the dull conventionality of her cohorts.

Their music reinforces this tension. Shelton reached number one on the U.S. “Billboard Country Airplay” chart this year with “Boys ‘Round Here,” a cocky number rhapsodizing a quintessentially redneck lifestyle, while Strait, Aldean and Bryan all charted with remarkably similar songs about seducing women in trucks and/or on backroads (“Give It All We Got Tonight,” “Night Train” and “That’s My Kinda Night,” respectively).

The latter are blandly listenable, but “Boys ‘Round Here” is designed to prick your ears. The song, which features spoken-word verses, a synthesized beat and an auto-tuned refrain, seems determined to pander to the widest possible demographic. The infusion of what one might call “hip-hop lite” into an otherwise countrified milieu is a calculated bid to cater to younger, more urban tastes, while the lyrics, a mélange of hillbilly stereotypes, are designed to appeal to a large swath of country’s fanbase, from the religious to the rural to the hard-partying:

The boys 'round here/ Sending up a prayer to the man upstairs/ Backwoods legit, don't take no shit/Chew tobacco, chew tobacco, chew tobacco, spit.

More bizarre yet is the music video, which depicts Shelton popping wheelies in a monster truck and befriending a group of black men from the ‘hood, grills flashing and flat-brimmed caps pulled low. As country music begins to acknowledge its unpopularity among minorities, what might have been a gesture of goodwill comes off as tone-deaf, thanks to Shelton’s insistence on caricaturing black people in the same way that he fondly, if somewhat cynically, lampoons his own audience.

Swift, by contrast, exercises commercial savviness with far more finesse. A bona fide crossover artist, she is easily the most successful of the nominees, and her two biggest hits this year, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” and “I Knew You Were Trouble,” debuted on the “Billboard Hot 100” and shot to the top. Both songs, with their electronic flourishes and dance club aspirations, stand in stark contrast to the twangy, rock n’ roll-inflected sounds that dominate the country stations. Yet the rest of the album, “Red,” features a guitar-driven aesthetic, with confessional, impressionistic writing widely praised as some of Swift’s best. And for good reason—though she abandons the sly, punning tendencies of her country music brethren, she puts her own stamp on the genre’s penchant for metaphor and storytelling.

Skip over to the list for Single of the Year and you’ll find variety in an otherwise homogenous genre. True, the duo Florida Georgia Line with “Cruise,” and Tim McGraw with “Highway Don’t Care,” featuring Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, carry on the trend of driving-themed love songs. (McGraw’s album is titled “Two Lanes of Freedom,” and features a song called “Truck Yeah”—trucks are a tried-and-true trope, it seems.) But right alongside them is Darius Rucker with his cover of “Wagon Wheel” by Bob Dylan and Ketch Secor.

As only the second African-American to ever win a CMA Award, in 2009 for Newcomer of the Year, Rucker is already an outlier. But in a genre dominated by behind-the-scenes songwriting teams, “Wagon Wheel” stands out as much for its unusual conception: Dylan recorded the chorus in 1973, and Secor added verses and popularized the song with Old Crow Medicine Show in 2004. Rucker’s version is perfectly enjoyable, though it lacks the mild eccentricity of Old Crow Medicine Show’s bluegrass treatment or the edginess of Dylan. And, of course, it falls squarely into the love-and-trucks category so popular among its kin.

Represented twice in the Single of the Year category, and six times overall, is breakout star Kacey Musgraves. The first single off of her debut album, “Same Trailer Different Park,” is a mid-tempo, gently wistful tune lamenting the stifling nature of small-town life titled “Merry Go ‘Round.” Musgraves co-wrote another Single of the Year nominee, “Mama’s Broken Heart,” performed by Miranda Lambert, which makes a clever case for a woman’s right to act unladylike during a breakup.

Throughout “Same Trailer Different Park,” which is nominated for Album of the Year, Musgraves favors a subtler sound than many of her contemporaries, and scrutinizes the values most romanticized in mainstream country: blue-collar jobs in “Blowin’ Smoke,” small towns in “Merry Go ‘Round,” settling down in “It Is What It Is.” Yet her willingness to complicate country music’s clichés represents not so much a rejection of the genre as an affirmation; the stories are complex but relatable, and sung to lovely tunes.

Musgraves’ most unconventional song, and the one that puts her squarely in the tradition of Loretta Lynn, is “Follow Your Arrow,” a wry, uplifting number that speaks directly to her female fans.

“So make lots of noise,” she sings in the chorus, “Kiss lots of boys/ Or kiss lots of girls/ If that’s something you’re into.” Musgraves’ two co-writers on the song, Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, are part of a small but growing contingent of out gay country artists. What would have seemed shocking only a few years ago now goes by with barely a blink from the establishment.

Make no mistake: the mainstream country music industry overwhelmingly rewards artists for playing it safe, and the 2013 CMA Awards nominations are no exception. Yet they also suggest that there is something to be said for standing out. As Musgraves and her writing partners prove, there is still richness to be found in the genre’s most worn-out themes, if only you dare to question them.

This program aired on November 1, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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