A bright red tomato was the winner in a sea of soggy lettuce. Carrie Underwood, ever one of country music's richest storytellers, pierced the blackness of last night's CMT Music Awards with a searing rendition of her current Top 5 radio single (on course to become yet another mountain topper) called Little Toy Guns. And despite radio consultant Keith Hill's cutting comments two weeks ago regarding female placement on the airwaves—“If you want to make ratings in Country radio, take females out,” he infamously lambasted in an issue of Country Aircheck—Underwood walked away with three buckles, including the night's top honor, Video of the Year for the gospel-soaked blockbuster Something in the Water. As a song that reaches as far back into country's vibrant history as the days of The Carter Family (known for their tightly-constructed harmonies and luscious musicianship and whose impact has influenced gospel, country, bluegrass, pop and rock), it marks a shift in the mainstream. She co-wrote the song with fellow taste-makers Chris DeStefano and Brett James, with long-standing producer Mark Bright at the helm, and ultimately demonstrated how a religiously-constructed song can be a dominate force in the overall country conversation, surpassing the unhealthy (and destructive) barrage of binge drinking and party mishaps. Underwood's equally relentless vocal stands tall, too, as her best work of her career and injects terrestrial radio with a necessary sucker punch to the genitals, in a manner of speaking.
Last night's two and a half hour showcase of bro-syrup and funky, throwback grooves framed together a disheartening snapshot of what is a viable art in 2015. While Jake Owen did his best to tackle Real Life—and coming off his criminally mistreated, Top 15-plateauing What We Ain't Got, this new three minute pizza slice is seriously under-baked—Kenny Chesney toasted (again) to American Kids; Sam Hunt hosted a boisterous House Party (while also snagging Breakthrough Video for his debut #1 romp Leave the Night On); Keith Urban sizzled to the rhythm of his new John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16 release; and Florida Georgia Line smirked as they stormed the stage to accept yet another win (for Duo Video, going to their faux emotional Dirt). With only a few moments buoying the blundering proceedings inches above VMAs territory—Reba, Zac Brown Band and Eric Church were saving graces—the show severely manhandled it's rising singers. A slew of promising newcomers—including Maddie & Tae, Kelsea Ballerini, Frankie Ballard and A Thousand Horses—were relegated to 30-second slots as the show headed into each commercial. As a result, it could be rather easy to mislabel the current crop of music-makers as downright disastrous.
Then, Carrie Underwood, the only current female radio staple in attendance, took the stage and wiped the floor with the men. Stepping into a dazzling floor length gown (with just enough sex appeal for a glowing mother), the Oklahoma native ripped Little Toy Guns to shreds, leaving discarded bullet cartridges smoking across the stage (figuratively, of course) and a crowd in awe of the glory they just beheld. If you consider Underwood's brand of modern country too saccharine or not on par with Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, that's fine, but to not bestow her with any credit whatsoever would be a disservice to not only her but the genre she holds so dear. There's simply no mistaking the sheer gutsiness and ferocity of that voice, and fortunately for us, she struck a creative trigger with her last full player, 2012's gripping Blown Away. Not only did it spark a forceful, gritty energy within her vocal chords, but she also dished out two of her finest recordings, the title track and the southern gothic-inspired, R&B-flaked Two Black Cadilllacs. After a year-long hiatus from churning out hits, it was clear Underwood's new-found sense of dynamics, confidence and pulsating creative drive revved up even more with Something in the Water and the electric rocker Little Toy Guns. As the closing performance of the CMT Awards, the pyrotechnic-laced Guns was a resounding affirmation that she's back and better than ever. Additionally, it speaks to the much larger issue of females in country and the need to have even more like her on that stage. After two (out of three) adorable trips to accept her accolades—she also swiped Female Video for Water and Collaborative Video, for Somethin' Bad with Lambert—her nearly pitch-perfect portrayal of the brutal nature of words vibrated across the arena and into the TV screens at home. In only three minutes, she commanded the stage and reminded us all what it means to represent the format in a way that is striking and passionate. There's no shame in fusing rock and pop elements into tradition (as she has done since the beginning of her career in 2005), but it's the way it's done that matters. Blown Away, Two Black Cadillacs, Something in the Water, Little Toy Guns, Just a Dream, Wasted: these are all tracks that well serve the format in their massive scale of themes and lay a rock-solid foundation heading into the future. Underwood does so effortlessly, but there's never a moment when she forgets what country is and has always been about: stories. Forget what you think you know about country music in 2015 and really listen to what she is saying in her work.
Underwood's star power was a focal point throughout the evening, too. Earlier on, the opening monologue—pieced together by sports broadcaster Erin Andrews and Hollywood star Brittany Snow—tipped its hat to Underwood (including a Girl Crush-reinvention into Carrie Crush, with an assist by the Belmont Bellas). It was clear right then that one of Nashville's most alluring tomatoes was going to be unstoppable against her side-lined lettuce comrades. Sure, two of the genre's formidable male opponents Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean lit up the stage with their latest hits, but the intensity didn't quite slice through the way they had hoped. With no performances allotted to Kacey Musgraves, Lambert, Little Big Town or even the outlier Brandy Clark, the show plodded along drearily. The Alan Jackson and Steven Tyler skit was a chunk of comedic gold but even it couldn't overtake the overall bro-tone of a musical extravaganza that has shifted through hosts as hard as you do rummaging through the bin looking for fresh lettuce at the local grocer. The befuddling cameos of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Arnold, David Spade (as Joe Dirt introducing Urban's performance) and Justin Bieber did little to break up the night, only heightening Music City's fascination with celebrity and not with country itself.
For her part, Underwood has blazed a trail of triumphant proportions, opening up opportunities for aspiring female truth tellers and vocalists to be heard—the path would be far narrower without her involvement. With the boldness that comes in her work, fresh singer-songwriters and musicians could be inspired to take bigger risks and shoot from their pens, hitting the heart and moving the genre forward into exciting territory. Despite proclamations from Hill and other radio programmers, females are the steak and eggs of the format and give listeners something healthy and life-affirming into which to partake. The statistics are clear: females do want to hear other females. Underwood has spoken quite candidly about the gender disparity in the past year, but actions (like her CMT Awards clean sweep and show-stopping closer) speak far louder than words. Country music is more than prepared to support and champion female talent, led by Underwood and her authoritative voice.
It should be noted here that while the show is fan-voted, the Underwood domination implicates a greater trend that country music listeners are itching for more females from which to choose. It's a delicate balance, of course, given the singer's loyal nation of followers known as Care Bears and their attack on polls, but it's a far more refreshing result than the politically-motivated ACMs and CMAs. While even those shows have seen some surprising results (such as Musgraves' dethroning of Florida Georgia Line for Best New Artist in 2013), we still have miles to go before we sleep. But the fans have spoken. For the sake of country's future: please, radio, get it together. We want tomatoes.
[PHOTO CREDIT: Jason Merritt/Getty]