Separating the music from the noise: A preview of the ACM awards

This weekend, the Academy of Country Music will hand out a variety of awards. The single of the year category, however, is particularly interesting because it showcases examples of country music both at its best and at its worst. The five nominated songs showcase the profound depths that country music is able to reach while also showing the silliness that the genre can produce. In light of this, it is worth thinking about the individual merits of each nominated song. 

Better Man: Little Big Town. This tragic song is told from the perspective of a woman who left a man she once loved. She believed that the relationship had failed but that it was not necessarily doomed from the outset, saying “I wonder what we would’ve become/If you were a better man/We might still be in love/If you were a better man.” This song is slow and regretful and leaves the listener wishing that the couple had found a way to resolve their conflict. The singer does not present her situation as desirable but does not see any other option to save their relationship as her counterpart was not willing to put work into it, saying “I gave you my best and we both know you can’t say that.” This song reminds its listeners that love must be actively maintained. These two probably fell in love under romantic circumstances and hoped that those feelings would lost forever. However, without the man and the women both being willing to put in work, the relationship fell apart. This is an important message that is passed on through a pleasant song which is worthy of recognition as one of the better country songs of the year.

Broken Halos: Chris Stapleton. If someone who didn’t speak English listened to this song they would probably imagine themselves sitting alone in a smokey bar and slowly drinking whiskey. Stapleton’s low, gravelly vocals and the slow melody evoke a strong sense of loneliness and regret before one even hears the lyrics. Listening to the lyrics, however, provides some context for the strong emotions that are so clearly evident. Stapleton laments that he has “Seen my share of broken halos/Folded wings that used to fly/They've all gone wherever they go/Broken halos that used to shine.” The lyrics do not provide specific details about what Stapleton has seen nor does Stapleton ponder the meaning of the events he is describing saying, “We’re not meant to/know the answers/They belong to the by and by.” Stapleton’s performance paints a haunting picture of a man crippled by sadness and regret and makes this song well worth its nomination.

Drinkin’ Problem: Midland. This song probably fulfills most stereotypes about country music better than just about anything else currently on the radio. It tells the story of a broken man who turns to alcoholism to medicate his sorrow “It's a broken hearted thinkin' problem/So pull that bottle off the wall/People say I got a drinkin' problem/But I got no problem drinkin' at all.”  There doesn’t seem to be a lot of profound meaning in this song but it is musically well done and enjoyable to listen to.

I’ll Name The Dogs: Blake Shelton. In contrast to the previous songs on this list, this one tells a happy story. It is the story of a young couple planning their life together. Shelton wants to be the provider, promising that “I’ll find the money.” He doesn’t treat money as something good, but only something useful to building a life together with the ones he loves. Together, they plan to have a family, as Shelton proposes that “You name the babies and I’ll name the dogs.” The heart-warming lyrics of the song, however, are held back by the banal music that accompanies them. About thirty seconds into the song it becomes obvious that Shelton is simply repeating the same chords over and over again. This repetition fails to give the song any kind of distinctive sound and the result is that it is much less memorable than it could be.

Body Like A Back Road: Sam Hunt. The best thing about this song is that is it less than three minutes long. There is little in this song, either musically or lyricly, to suggest that it belongs in the genre of country music. The lyrics are centered around a strange comparison between his girlfriend’s body and a back road. Although these two things lack apparent similarities, they are compared to each other because they are both places Sam Hunt enjoys spending time. We learn little about this girlfriend other than the fact that Hunt “know(s) every curve like the back of (his) hand.” The song celebrates Hunt’s lust and nothing more. Musically it is equally uninteresting, sounding like a hip-hop song made by someone who can’t rap. It is, however, extremely catchy has this has made it popular on the radio and possibly the best known of these five nominees.

Conclusion: Award shows should be about more than recognizing popular artists. They should be a celebration of excellence, even if the best songs are not the most popular. The Academy of Country Music has an opportunity this weekend to reward an artist such as Chris Stapleton or Little Big Town who took the time to produce high quality, thoughtful music, while many of their contemporaries mass-produce catchy radio hits. Let’s hope they do so.