It’s no secret that country artists campaign during awards season. Or that the biggest cluster of potential Country Music Assn. votes reside in Nashville, the business center for the genre.
Still, Blake Shelton certainly didn’t orchestrate all of the opportunities he had last week to accentuate his qualifications to repeat being the CMA’s entertainer of the year. Shelton was officially named a finalist for the CMA’s biggest trophy during the morning of Sept. 10. That night, he collected the Gene Weed Special Achievement Award during the Academy of Country Music’s annual ACM Honors at the Ryman Auditorium. The next day, he was at Miranda Lambert’s side during a party celebrating “Mama’s Broken Heart.” On Sept. 14, he closed the week by headlining the Bridgestone Arena for the first time.
(Three of the five entertainer finalists, in fact, play the Bridgestone before the trophies get handed out. Taylor Swift has a three-night stand beginning Sept. 19, and Luke Bryan makes his first headlining appearance at the venue on Oct. 21.)
How important are the CMAs? Shelton owed last year’s victory and last week’s Gene Weed honor in large part to his role on NBC’s “The Voice,” which allowed him to showcase his wit, charm and savvy before a national audience. Yet when the network rolled out its fall schedule, Shelton had the audacity to call and complain to the NBC brass that it had booked an episode of “The Voice” the same night as the CMAs, Warner Music Nashville president John Esposito told the crowd at a Bridgestone after-party.
TV, of course, runs the country. Presidents book speeches around the prime-time schedule, and the networks pretty much dictate the awards schedules to the CMA, the ACM and the Recording Academy, among other entities.
Shelton, according to Esposito, essentially told the network that he had to be at the CMAs, meaning he would miss an episode of “The Voice” on Nov. 6. NBC supposedly rejiggered the schedule just to accommodate him.
Each of the entertainer finalists has a distinct niche carved out. Swift is a high-production cheerleader for young women; Bryan is a party boy; Jason Aldean is a rebel spirit, a country singer who fronts a rock band; and George Strait is a no-frills veteran who oozes class and lets the music do the talking.
Shelton, befitting a TV personality, is extremely chatty during his show, alternately cocky and self-deprecating while mixing a ballad-heavy set list with comedic usage of four-letter words and a playful affinity for alcohol. His plastic cup, which we are to presume is loaded with liquor, symbolically gets its own chair onstage.
As the night goes on, he rather slyly makes a case for country’s hipness. The ultra-country steel guitar was high-pitched and loud during “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking,” three fabric silos formed a backdrop for the set, and Shelton pointed out the prison theme in “Ol’ Red,” making sure you knew that tradition was in vogue. He took that stance while also name-dropping his compatriots on “The Voice” -- Adam Levine, Cee Lo Green and Christina Aguilera -- and covering “Footloose,” demonstrating how well the genre can co-exist with other parts of popular culture.
Meanwhile, the ACM Honors provided something of a gut check for Shelton. He wasn’t the night’s only recipient, of course -- Lady Antebellum, Guy Clark, the late Hank Williams, the Judds and Aldean were among a litany of trophy winners. But it was another winner, ACM co-founder Tommy Wiggins, who inadvertently helped Shelton gain some perspective on his current place in the genre. Wiggins received the Mae Boren Axton Award -- ironic because it was Axton herself who encouraged Shelton to move to Nashville in 1994. The Ryman event was loaded with country acts he admired when he was an outsider -- Steve Wariner, Vince Gill, Wynonna Judd and Highway 101 members Cactus Moser and Paulette Carlson.
“When you get going in this business,” Shelton said, “you don’t take the time to stop and look around and realize how lucky you are.”
Winning an award amid all of those people brought it home.
“It’s cool to think sometimes that I got to be one of them,” he said, “even if it’s just for a minute.”