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Op-Ed: Sturgill Simpson’s Guerrilla Performance Was Just What the 2017 CMA Awards Needed

Sturgill Simpson 2017 CMA Awards
Christopher Polk, Getty Images for NARAS

On Wednesday night (Nov. 8), while the 2017 CMA Awards were going on inside Bridgestone Arena, Sturgill Simpson grabbed a guitar, his Grammy Awards Best Country Album trophy and his phone and headed into downtown Nashville. Shortly after the annual awards ceremony began, Simpson started a Facebook Live video and broadcast himself busking in front of Bridgestone Arena, taking no requests, but answering fans’ questions, and raising money ($13 by the end of the night) for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Following a year marred with tragedy (Manchester, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, and, sadly, etc.) and political goings-on that can succinctly be described as “totally crazy,” Simpson’s decision to busk outside the 2017 CMA Awards was more interesting, more timely and more on-point than anything that went on inside Bridgestone Arena.

CMA Awards co-hosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood and the evening’s winners and performers preached unity and love — wonderful sentiments, no doubt, but 100-percent expected. Because 2017 was a year full of loss, the tributes came what seemed like one after the other, culminating with Underwood’s heartbreaking “in memoriam” performance of “Softly and Tenderly” that ended with the names and photos of the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting victims displayed and the country star (and pretty much everyone else) in tears.

Outside, meanwhile, Simpson railed against Donald Trump (he called the president “a fascist f–king pig,” and called his supporters “ignorant f–king bigot[s]”), called for gun control and slammed homophobia and racism. At one point, he stated, “Hegemony and fascism is alive and well in Nashville, Tennessee.”

"Sturgill Simpson’s decision to busk outside the 2017 CMA Awards was more interesting, more timely and more on-point than anything that went on inside Bridgestone Arena."

Those are strong words — but does Simpson have a point? Underwood’s moment was truly stunning, but it was expected; the other tributes were, too, and, to be honest, everything felt … well, a little bit too vanilla and heavy-handed. And let’s not forget, the Country Music Association came under fire just a few days before the 2017 CMA Awards for including a paragraph in its guidelines for media members that prohibited questions about the Route 91 shooting, gun control and politics.

Mainstream country music and its artists — the music and the artists who were by and large the ones being lauded at Wednesday night’s ceremony — often come under fire for “playing it safe” when it comes to both politics and music. Both fans and more left-of-center artists are among those lobbing the complaints, of which Simpson has delivered his fair share.

Just last year, Simpson took the country music industry to task for not “walk[ing] it like they talk it.” Specifically, he was referring to the Academy of Country Music’s establishment of an award in Merle Haggard‘s honor while not recognizing what Simpson calls “actual country music” during their awards show.

“[M]ore and more everyday, people are waking up to the situation and they are pissed,” Simpson said at the time. “Perhaps country music, especially Nashville, should wake up too before it’s too late.”

It’s easy to draw parallels between that situation and how CMA voters nominated Jason Isbell‘s The Nashville Sound for Album of the Year in 2017, yet he remains largely ignored by mainstream country radio. But music-related criticisms will never fade; for every person who thinks Florida Georgia Line and their mainstream country counterparts ain’t country, there’s someone who thinks Simpson and his Americana-leaning friends ain’t either (and besides, musical taste is subjective).

Simpson’s words are more broadly applicable, though. So many people — celebrities and otherwise — are finding the courage to speak up about their beliefs and come forward to expose injustices they’ve experienced, yet country artists mostly remain quiet.

Agree or disagree with what he did and said on Wednesday night, at least Simpson made a statement.

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