Backstage at the CMA Awards, as you might expect, there were a lot of jokes about how much power couple Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton might be celebrating their mutual wins in the hours—or days, or decades—to come.
Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush were talking to the press when they looked over at a monitor saw Blake Shelton's name announced as Best Male Vocalist, the biggest surprise of the night. "Shake it up, CMAs!" said Nettles. "Ooh, it's gonna be fun at their house tonight!" chortled Bush.
But the wins seemed to have a different effect than expected on Lambert herself. "I don't know what's going on," Lambert told the assembled, picking up one of her three trophies shortly after her fiancee got his. "I just told Blake, I think we need to go to church."
The couple's friends in Lady Antebellum saw more than just a night of partying or day in the pews ahead for Lambert and Shelton. "It's time for them to get married and have a kid," said Lady A's Charles Kelley, "and let's see how that kid sings!"
But the night's narrative wasn't just a Blake 'n' Miranda thing. Backstage at the CMAs, there were some conundrums to ponder. Like: How is it possible for Brad Paisley to lose in the Best Male Vocalist category for the first time in years... and then win Entertainer of the Year for the first time ever? And what kind of nerve did the CMA voters have, denying the news media our "Miranda Lambert sweep" story by giving Brad the top spot?
These were all happy conundrums, mind you. There was turnover in almost every category (excepting the inevitability of Sugarland's ongoing run in the Best Duo slot), so it sort of figured somehow that Paisley would be turned out in his usual category and then triumph in a much more crucial one. And for the first time in memory, there was absolutely no grumbling to be heard in the backstage areas or press room about any of the wins, or the telecast itself. The usual malcontents were strangely content on the occasion of what some were saying were the most credible and relevant CMAs ever.
Here's what some of the winners had to say after picking up their trophies.
Before the CMAs, I talked with visiting rocker Sheryl Crow, who said she wanted Paisley to win Entertainer of the Year because "he's the dad of my son's best friend. So I'd like to see Huck's dad win." But, more reasonably, she added, "I'd like to see Brad win Entertainer (because) he's never won, and it's time." Obviously, voters agreed. He'd spent a few years as the upstart nominee in that category, but now that the old usual suspects like Kenny Chesney and George Strait aren't even being nominated for Entertainer any more, he represented the chance to honor a relative veteran... as well as, arguably, the most honestly entertaining live entertainer in the genre.
Paisley broke up on camera, accepting the top honor, and was only slightly more composed when he came back an hour later to talk with the press. "When the flood happened, almost everything we had was ruined," he said, recalling the natural disaster that devastated Nashville in May. The set and lighting rigs were ruined, he noted, as well as all the guitars he'd collected for his about-to-commence summer tour. The fact that his crew managed to get everything reconstructed and running in three weeks' time made the tour particularly special. "if there was ever a year I wanted to win this, it was this one."
And he does consider the win a honor specifically bestowed on his live show and prowess. "This award can mean different things in different years," he said. "The pat on the back I hope I'm getting is thank you for going out and bringing this to so many people... Taking a night out of their life and giving them something back—that's what I'm proudest of, and I hope this has something to do with that."
He was okay with losing Best Male Vocalist. "I said I really hope Blake wins male. People said, why? Because people are tired of voting for me for that! I've had it for three years." As for the turnover rate at the CMAs suddenly being much higher than in previous decades, Paisley said, "I both love and hate the attention span with people. But if you use that to your advantage, it means I can wear more outfits... do more songs... have more fun."
Paisley premiered a new song on the show, "This is Country Music." It puzzled some that he would debut a tune that isn't on his brand new hits/live collection and isn't slated to be out till his next studio album hits in about six months. He described the anthem as "my love song to my fans who live these songs every day and this industry which produces this music which really does become a soundtrack to people's lives... It's probably bad timing in a label sense, since the album doesn't come out till spring, but I had to sing this for my fans and this music I love."
Paisley was supportive of Gwyneth Paltrow's show-closing number, the title song from her upcoming movie Country Strong, which she sang with Vince Gill. He admitted some doubts beforehand. "We all have to be honest," he said. "I don't know if I've ever seen her perform live, or if she has before. But she sounded as good as the record. I think that was the biggest reaction of the night, from the crowd." Though country radio has mostly taken a wait-and-see attitude on Paltrow's single so far, Paisley predicted, "I think we're gonna see that song fly up the chart now."
MIRANDA LAMBERT AND BLAKE SHELTON
"I didn't realize how heavy CMAs were!" announced Lambert, holding three up for some cameramen. (She was somewhat responsible for a fourth award, Song of the Year, but that went to the writers of "The House That Built Me" and not her.) "I've never won a CMA before... I really feel more level-headed than I thought I would, because I hope it's the beginning. I hope I'm here in 40 years handing out an award like Loretta (Lynn) handed one to me."
Naturally, she was excited for her fiancee's first win, too, and was well aware that he's been in this game a few more years than she has. "Seeing his face and what it meant to him was very touching."
Shelton addressed the long wait he's been through to get this recognition. "I've been sitting out there in that audience for 11 years—I counted 'em—and seeing three groups of popular artists come and go in that time. And I was never one of 'em. And to be one of them... I know this stuff is political," he said, "and that's my favorite thing about it right now." How's that again, Blake? "Because that's a hard thing to do in this town," he explained—"to get people on your side."
For once, Shelton was at a loss for wiseacre words. "I've used up all the smart-ass comments most of you have known me for," said country's most sardonic star and controversial Twitterer. "I don't have those tonight."
When someone asked about him and Miranda supplanting Tim McGraw and Faith Hill as a king and queen, Shelton said, "That's another one of the generations I was talking about. I'm sure Tim and Faith never set out to be 'the country couple.' They met because of what they do... That's kind of Miranda's and my situation. It's unique and odd that my career and hers are blowing up at the same time... That's not what's important career-wise. But personally, it's the biggest part of this," he said, referring to their great fortune in being able to share the same triumphs. "A commercial break came after she won an award tonight. We just sat and stared at each other. I mean, what the hell do you say? 'I'm proud of you'? 'I'm proud of you'? Because that's not enough... It's: I love who you are. You have all that stuff thrown together. You don't talk about it, you just sit there and absorb it."
I spoke with Blake before the awards and asked what was next for him, now that he had a greatest hits album out this week. "I'm retiring," he announced. "My publicist gets mad when I say that!" he added—as, indeed, his long-suffering but understanding PR rep listened in and imagined the headlines. "No, the good thing about a greatest-hits is taking a break from everything. I'm at a point where things are really good and I finally feel like I'm a little bit more in control of my own destination and not at the mercy of everybody." (He's alluded to struggles with his label in years past.) "I'm gonna take a couple months and make the right decision next. And whether that means putting out a full album or a six-pack or just a digital single, who knows. It's changing really quickly. It don't matter to me as long as it's the right songs."
"I think I'm probably in a position to really rock the boat more than I have," he added. "When you get in the situation I'm in, there are two decisions you can make. You can play it safe or use this moment and take a chance. And if people have learned anything about me at this point, it's that I'm gonna take a chance whenever I get a chance. I mean musically. I want to come with music that's not safe, and make this count, and go for broke and see what happens," he told me. "I'm really excited about next year."
So, no coasting, I asked? This seemed to cause him to suddenly reconsider. "I'm ready to coast," he declared, "I'm getting old. Miranda's burning it down. She's my retirement, anyway."
Lady A couldn't have been happier with Miranda's wins. "The Revolution album is a masterpiece," said Hillary Scott, adding, "She's one of my best friends."
There was a lot of that love to go around. When a reporter noted that their album and Eminem's had been neck-and-neck for a while as the bestselling releases of 2010, Scott quipped, "He's my best friend."
But seriously: No one much doubted that "Need You Now" would win Single of the Year. But the trio didn't have much faith in it when they first composed it. "When we wrote that song, we kind of put it away for a couple months and had no idea we would get back to it," said Dave Hayward. "But (producer) Paul Worley deserves a lot of credit for shaping that song and the sound of that song," he pointed out, also crediting the musicians who played on it for coming up with some of the signature elements that turned a bottom-drawer song into an immediate classic.
Prior to the telecast, I asked the members of Lady A—who also won Best Vocal Group (the surest thing of the night)—about their current tour. They almost immediately sold out good-sized halls like the Nokia Theatre in L.A., which, given their current ubiquity, almost surely would have happened even if they didn't have a top ticket price of $45—a huge bargain in today's concert economy.
"Everybody has been hit with the way the economy has been over the past few years," said Scott, "and frankly, we wanted to give people an incentive, if they haven't seen us before, and come out and not feel like they're losing their wallet over it. And a lot of our fans are young, like college-age, and some even in high school. We wanted to make it feasible for them."
At those prices, Lady A might have been able to hit the arena circuit and not just do theaters—but they didn't want to be too presumptuous. "This is our first headlining tour," Charles Kelley pointed out, "and we don't want to come out in too big of a setting and not feel like we're prepared. If we were lucky enough to do that in the next year or two, we'd feel more prepared, but we're not there yet. We've got a ways."
"And that's okay with us!" added Scott. "We take it a day at a time." And a couple of awards at a time.
Backstage, a reporter asked if Nettles and Bush might have actually been rooting for Brooks & Dunn to beat them in a surprise upset in the Best Duo category, since this is the former longstanding winners' last year of eligibility. They weren't willing to pretend to be quite that magnanimous.
"They've been supportive of us from the beginning," Nettles said of Brooks & Dunn, noting that Ronnie Dunn had even come out to their live album-launch telecast recently to sing on "The Last Country Song." "At the same time," she added, "it's every man for himself out there, you know what I'm saying? And they've had a good ride of it."
The duo's new album, The Incredible Machine, has been a strong seller out of the gate in its first three weeks. But there have definitely been those questioning how much of the album can reasonably be counted as country, given their open emulation of rock heroes like U2 on many, if not most, of the songs. Even the most traditional country song on the album, the No. 1 hit "Stuck Like Glue," has a reggae breakdown in the middle... which many radio programmers took it upon themselves to edit out.
Nettles took a defensive tone. "I think country music is very elastic, and I think it's interesting that people have asked questions about that elasticity," she said. "Like: Do you think you can push this too far?" But, she asked in return, "Is county supposed to be less tolerant? Is it supposed to be less innovative?... When the Rolling Stones brought in gospel singers as backup singers, did people go, 'Have you gone too far? Are you going to make a gospel record?'" Sugarland's approach to country, she declared, "is showing that it's fresh and young and new and not stodgy, if you will."
Not so fresh and young and new—but never, ever stodgy—is Loretta Lynn, country's once, future, and forever queen. She was a winner only in spirit, as Lambert and Sheryl Crow joined her for a version of "Coal Miner's Daughter" (as similarly heard on a newly released tribute album) that was the night's sentimental highlight.
When Lambert got her award from Lynn, she said, "The woman who paved the way for all females in country music ever is standing here handing me my award. And I'm proud that I can now call her my friend... I'm gonna keep going for the other women in this industry. I promise."
Needless to say, the feeling was mutual. Backstage, Lynn said of Lambert: "You ought to know by the songs I've written that I love her singing. Gunpowder and lead—that's what she sings about. She's a cracker. Sissy (Spacek, who played Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter) is, too."
"I'm her evil twin," said Spacek.
"You mean I'm the good one?" asked Lynn.
"You're the good one!" Spacek confirmed.