Carrie Underwood, Eric Church and the Next CMA Entertainer of the Year
There's no one who does what Carrie Underwood does live, which could work for or against her in this month-long debate over who should win the CMA award for Entertainer of the Year.
It's tempting to compare CMA Entertainer of the Year nominees on the strength of their resumes or the power of their live show, and in years when both Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean are nominated, it's fair to do so. The experiences both men give are similar, but neither is up for the honor this November.
In 2019, Eric Church and Underwood are the two most debated artists — neither has won before, both had career-defining years and both have hungry, socially active fanbases, to say the least. But it's an apples and avocados comparison.
The 36-year-old "Cry Pretty" singer played Nashville on Friday (Sept. 27), delivering a massive song list of hits and new songs from her CMA-nominated Cry Pretty album plus covers weaved into hits and a simply stunning six-woman medley of 10 classic country empowerment songs. Her show is a visual marvel only comparable to what Taylor Swift used to do before going full pop. The floor-length, eye-shaped stage hides 15 elevators capable of raising her and her band to the many screens that rise and fall depending on her needs. It's all so detailed and precise.
Church fans may say it's scripted, and to them, it is. The "Springsteen" singer does the exact opposite. He fills his two-plus hours with hits and deep cuts seemingly played as he feels them. It's loose, raw and spontaneous, but no less energetic. Alone this country superstar fills massive stages and then (this year) he does it again the next day. The Double Down Tour was a tremendous undertaking, and that he pulled it off with sellout after sellout speaks to the power of his fans and his show, not to mention his music.
If both were in the humor business instead of the country music business, Church would be the Second City improv troupe and Underwood would be the movie Bridesmaids. You go to one wondering what you'll see and the other knowing how it ends.
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Taste of Country was there for one of Underwood's first shows in Alabama and then again in Nashville, and very little changed. The set list was the same, although Underwood did take a little more time to thank her hometown fans last week than she did in May. "Southbound" opened, "Love Wins" closed and in between she roared through some of the most powerful ballads and cinematic story songs of the last 10 years. The amount of air she pushes out live is really something spectacular. The "Just a Dream" to "Dream On" (Aerosmith cover) mini-medley defies adjectives and metaphor.
Church's show at Nashville's Nissan Stadium in May was structured similarly to those he played before and after, but there was enough differentiation in his set list plus an extra song here or there to make it unique. Of course when you're keeping your band on the ready like that precision video elements aren't possible, but that's fine in this setting. Apples and avocados. Underwood and Church.
The point here is that the CMA's ultimate prize isn't about who's best or even most popular. It's much more personal. Cotton candy vendors walked through the aisles before Underwood's set, something that speaks to the low-end age of her fans. Church sips whiskey and tips his hat to Waylon Jennings' "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" in "Lotta Boot Left to Fill." How can either artist or their fans be upset if the other wins? Neither is competing in the same sub-genre of their business.
Chris Stapleton, Garth Brooks and 2018 CMA Entertainer of the Year Keith Urban are the other three nominees for the Nov. 13 show on ABC, and the smart money is probably on Brooks (because that's always smart money) or Urban (because change the incumbent always has an advantage), but Church and Underwood underline where the genre is right now.
Really you could pin this debate to the larger conversation about how to define country music and the role women play in 2019, and people will, no matter what the outcome is. In a perfect world they're co-winners, but that's a short leap to handing out participation trophies, which starts another debate that we'll save for the future, or never.
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