It’s not quite right to say that Sturgill Simpson upstaged Wednesday night’s CMA Awards, or exposed them as embarrassing and obsolete. The 2017 edition of what is exhaustively described as “country’s biggest night” had a palpably heightened gravity and tension, even if it remained the same old star-studded Nashville award show, hosted for the 10th straight year by industry-feted goofballs Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood. Most of the night’s big winners (from Little Big Town to Chris Stapleton) deserved it, and a few performances—including the opener, in which Darius Rucker led a massive, joyful sing-along of his old band Hootie and the Blowfish’s 1994 smash hit “Hold My Hand”—were legitimately affecting. It sure beat watching the VMAs, at least.
But it was awfully fun to have an outlaw-adjacent country singer of Simpson’s caliber skulking around outside the arena, broadcasting a 48-minute busking session on Facebook Live. For the first hour or so of the CMAs, you could click over during commercials (or a boring Luke Bryan performance) and find Simpson singing “Turtles All the Way Down,” or chatting with a rose-hawking street vendor, or taking goofy questions about his mustache or what he’s been listening to lately (Angel Olsen, Run the Jewels, and ELO). Simpson had his guitar case open, with handwritten signs reading, “I don’t take requests but I take questions about anything you want to talk about … because fascism sucks,” and “Struggling country singer ... anything helps, (all donations go to the ACLU). God bless America.” Early on, the guy filming Simpson asked what speech he’d give if he won a CMA Award, and this was his response:
Nobody who won a CMA this year gave a speech one-tenth that incendiary, of course. This year’s most compelling moments either directly addressed or indirectly evoked the October mass shooting at a Jason Aldean concert in Las Vegas; Aldean is a country superstar and frequent CMAs luminary, though he was nowhere in sight Wednesday night. But nobody was about to call for an assault-weapons ban in response. Moreover, last week the Country Music Association kicked up a brief controversy when it threatened to revoke the credentials of journalists covering this year’s show if they asked artists any questions about “the Las Vegas tragedy, gun rights, political affiliations or topics of the like.” The backlash was swift—including from Paisley himself—and the CMAs reversed course a day later. But a few calls for national unity and country-family togetherness were the best you got in terms of political content.
Simpson, a classic-leaning crooner whose tastes lean toward soul music and psychedelia, is no longer an industry outsider, exactly: On Facebook Live, his 2017 Grammy for Best Country Album sat prominently in his open guitar case. And the CMAs in recent years have made extravagant overtures to critically acclaimed Real Country Music stars of his ilk. Two years ago, the show played a huge role in turning the gritty and fantastic singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton into industry royalty; he picked up his second statues for Album of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year on Wednesday night. Even Jason Isbell, an often pointed critic of Nashville’s status quo, got an Album of the Year nomination, though he ditched the ceremony itself in lieu of a luxurious European tour.
If you’re wondering what your rider looks like when the Germans find out you’ve been nominated for a CMA award, feast your damn eyes folks pic.twitter.com/VoJ025yvXT— Jason Isbell (@JasonIsbell) November 8, 2017
But the Country Music Association, to its detriment, hasn’t gotten around to honoring Simpson yet. Watching him on Facebook Live, it wasn’t clear if he was legitimately aggrieved at this continued snub or delighted to have an indifferent industry monolith to rail against. “I’ll never make a record watered down enough to go mainstream,” he noted at one point, and while that’s a little cute—feted mainstream stars like Stapleton and Miranda Lambert are hardly watered down these days—he still made for useful and delightful renegade counterprogramming. (Here’s a partial transcript of his further remarks.)
The CMAs themselves had plenty of mindless fluff. Keith Urban sang an awkwardly woke new song called “Female,” and Garth Brooks picked up the night’s biggest award, for Entertainer of the Year, shortly after a blatant bout of lip-syncing. But any eye-rolling derision that stuff might’ve generated was wiped away by Carrie Underwood, who sang the gospel hymn “Softly and Tenderly” during the In Memoriam segment and on pure vocal power alone delivered one of the best and most startling award-show performances in recent memory.
Defining yourself in opposition to this show will always be a shrewd play if you’re an authenticity-minded country singer. But that strategy works best if the show itself is a worthy adversary that delivers some compelling moments of its own. I’m glad Simpson was skulking around outside the building. But I’m equally glad Underwood was holding court inside it.