Last night’s Country Music Association Awards were an exercise in exquisite poise, a celebration of 50 years of country history that also honored the music’s modern landscape and made inroads to contemporary pop music. For many, that last piece meant Beyoncé. Queen Bey was announced as a performer the day of the show and popped up two-thirds in with a stunning big-band presentation of Lemonade’s “Daddy Lessons” that blew the visual album’s gripping Southern gothic version clear out of the bayou. (More on that in a bit.) This year’s CMAs were a more delicate balancing act than other shows of its nature care to offer; consider the VMA’s constant overdrive or the BET Awards’ pendulous swing from trap to gospel and back every year. The CMA ceremony’s lightest touch was reserved for politics, in part because smart country stars know just how many conservative fan dollars are paying for the cheese on their burgers. Beneath a veil of judicious appeasement there were layers of protest and subtle activism, though. Three of the night’s performances made a case for unity amid a climate of historical Election Week division.
Beyoncé’s “Daddy Lessons” remains the talk of the night for inviting the Dixie Chicks in as backup, and while many will receive the performance purely as the great crossover collaboration that it is, it’s important to remember the history. The Dixie Chicks are country-music superstars who were cast out of the kingdom for daring to use their platform to challenge George W. Bush’s warmongering in 2003. CDs were burned; Toby Keith and Merle Haggard took public issue. The group’s 2002 album Home lost every award it was nominated for at the next year’s CMAs. Their double platinum 2006 album Taking the Long Way didn’t get nominated at all but took home the coveted Grammy for Album of the Year.
Beyoncé knew exactly what she was doing pairing up with that group on that stage days before the Clinton-Trump showdown; the “Daddy Lessons” chorus line about taking out bad men hit hard delivered from a stage full of women who put their livelihoods on the line to speak their minds to an audience peppered with a few Trump friends and sympathizers. What’s more, the music traced a common thread between jazz, blues, soul, and country that sweetly made fools of anyone grumbling about Beyoncé’s place at a country-music show. In a perfect world, the recorded rehearsal of the performance blows up and forces country radio to play Beyoncé and come crawling back to the Dixie Chicks in one fell swoop. (Note that at press time* the CMA’s social-media accounts were being accused of quietly scrubbing posts promoting the performance; they have since been reshared.)
Elsewhere in the evening, Eric Church and Tim McGraw called for grace in turbulent times. McGraw forced a moment’s reflection with his Damn Country Music peace anthem, “Humble and Kind.” The unspoken implication of McGraw being swarmed by children holding candles at the song’s climax is that whatever we do, the next generation is watching. (The kids were students of Nashville teacher Ben Ellis who gathered outside his home to lead a worship service through his window in the final weeks of his battle with cancer.) Eric Church did Mr. Misunderstood’s “Kill a Word,” and as with Tim McGraw, Beyoncé, and the Dixie Chicks, his chorus (“You can’t unhear, and you can’t unsay / But if it were up to me to change / I’d turn ‘lies’ and ‘hate’ to ‘love’ and ‘truth’ / If I could only kill a word …”) felt doubly necessary amid the week’s political proceedings. The message in each was subtle enough to scan as good life advice instead of crafty politics, but respect is due to all for challenging an audience without relying on open confrontation, for leading with musicianship and humility, and for looking past the middle of next week and toward the four years we have to live together under whichever candidate wins the White House. I’m ready for peace and quiet, too. Are you?
*Update: The Country Music Association has since issued a statement saying, “CMA has not erased any mentions of Beyoncé’s performance on the CMA Awards,” with the exception of a five-second clip that was removed prior to the broadcast, because it had not been properly approved ahead of time.