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Somehow, the CMA Awards recklessly ignored the COVID pandemic during a show devastated by it

Reba McEntire and Darius Rucker
Reba McEntire and Darius Rucker hosted the 54th CMA Awards in Nashville.
(ABC)

Think of Wednesday night’s 54th CMA Awards as country music’s premier super-spreader event — not for COVID-19 (though that certainly may have been in the air), but for the cheerful insistence that everything is going great, y’all.

Before the annual show, broadcast live on ABC, acts such as Lady A and Florida Georgia Line kept taking to social media to say they’d had to bail on scheduled appearances due to COVID diagnoses; Rascal Flatts tweeted during the show that it was dropping out after an unspecified member tested positive.

Yet you’d never have gotten the sense that a health crisis was raging (or that American democracy was under attack) by watching the festivities inside Nashville’s Music City Center, where smiling, unmasked artists and their lucky plus-ones mingled in a supper-club-like atmosphere as the Country Music Assn. presented one carefree performance after another — including Darius Rucker’s laughably simplistic “Beers and Sunshine,” in which Rucker longs to put his head in the sand along with his toes.

This was by design, of course. Last week the CMA said on Twitter that the show would be a “no drama zone,” stirring memories of the time in 2017 when the organization tried to forbid journalists covering the event from asking entertainers about that year’s mass shooting at a country festival in Las Vegas.

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After criticism from artists including Margo Price and Rhiannon Giddens, the CMA backpedaled on the no-drama promise. But then the group got into it with the Associated Press when it said the wire service couldn’t disseminate images from the show that “included the faces of guests seated in the audience,” according to the AP.

Are viewers of an awards show entitled to a break from bad news? Sure, I guess — though it’s unclear to me how a musical community that prides itself on its truthfulness can honorably go all escapist right when the truth matters most. But if the CMA was attempting to protect its members from being photographed in an embarrassing simulation of the Before Times, then maybe it shouldn’t have convened such an embarrassing simulation.

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At the very least, the organization — which said it was following CDC guidelines regarding testing and social distancing — could’ve utilized its prime-time platform to have somebody — anybody — onstage encourage folks at home to wear masks.

Clearly, though, that valuable message would’ve conflicted with the vibe of a show that paid tribute to the movie “Urban Cowboy” on the non-occasion of its 40th anniversary yet couldn’t make time to memorialize the unflinching John Prine following his death from COVID in April. (For what it’s worth, though, Old Dominion’s rendition of Johnny Lee’s “Lookin’ for Love,” from “Urban Cowboy,” sounded fantastic as a dreamy, Fleetwood Mac-style TikTok skateboarding jam.)

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Dearly departeds who did merit a CMA salute included Kenny Rogers, whose “Sweet Music Man” was performed with characteristic finesse by Little Big Town, and Charlie Daniels, toasted in a lively show-opening medley featuring Dierks Bentley, Brothers Osborne, Ashley McBryde and Jason Aldean. None mentioned the election disinformation that Daniels’ team has been pumping out on his verified Twitter account over the past week.

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Jon Pardi did right by Joe Diffie, another COVID casualty, in a sly “Pickup Man.” And though Rucker and Reba McEntire, who co-hosted the show, sang well in a version of Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto” meant to recognize the tune’s writer, the late Mac Davis, you couldn’t help but cringe at the song’s outmoded view of inner-city deprivation.

But then, avoiding the unfortunate complexities of our era seemed to be something of a theme here, as seen in blithe, uninspired performances by the likes of Thomas Rhett, Brothers Osborne, Miranda Lambert, Eric Church, Gabby Barrett and Morgan Wallen, the last of whom was named new artist of the year just weeks after being booted from a coveted slot on “Saturday Night Live” because he’d been spotted partying in defiance of “SNL’s COVID protocols. (Other big winners included Luke Combs, who took album of the year and male vocalist of the year, and Maren Morris, who won song of the year and single of the year for “Bones” and was named female vocalist of the year.)

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Even the moments that worked — Ingrid Andress’ teary “More Hearts Than Mine,” Jimmie Allen’s sweetly joining 86-year-old Charley Pride for “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’,” an intimate “Starting Over” by Chris Stapleton and his wife, Morgane — just made you wonder why the CMA proceeded with the show in this fashion, given that Tennessee is reporting a 26% spike in new cases, according to the New York Times.

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Couldn’t the Stapletons have done their thing remotely from home? And didn’t anyone consider the wisdom of inviting a man Pride’s age into a potentially dangerous environment?

More to the point, was any of this worth even the slightest risk to someone’s health? In fairness to the artists, performing in a less-than-jam-packed room — not to mention one populated by peers and executives rather than fans — can make it hard to muster the enthusiasm needed to get over on TV. So what’s the argument for doing it?

Reality did make a welcome intrusion in a few instances, as when Morris accepted one of her prizes with an impassioned shout-out to the “amazing Black women” — among them Giddens, Linda Martell, Yola and Mickey Guyton — “that pioneered and continue to pioneer this genre.” (After the show, the singer Cam broke out the scare quotes to warn Black country artists that “white ppl in country music are about to reach out with ‘good intentions.’”)

And then there was Church’s fleeting reference, perhaps the only one all night, to the mess that President Trump is happily making of the election. “Politicians are about division, music is about unity,” he said after being named entertainer of the year — a prestigious title many had predicted would rightfully go to a woman (either Lambert or Carrie Underwood) for the first time in a decade.

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For a reliable pot-stirrer like Church, it wasn’t much. Sadly, it had to do.


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