Country music, much like any genre of music is bound to evolve as the years go on and new artist emerge to add their own flavor and make their mark on the world. Time Life's latest release, a massive nine DVD set covering the CMA Awards from 1968-2015 is a remarkable collection of live performances at the industry's biggest awards show and in the process, provides a fascinating timeline of the evolution of country music (at least from the 60s on). Running a little over 11-hours, the "CMA Awards Live" release is far from a comprehensive look at each year's hot acts and performers. Across the nine DVDs, a smattering of performances are included along with the occasional acceptance speech and then oddly enough, the ending credits for that year's awards ceremony. However, despite the 1968-2015 moniker in the title, not every year's awards are highlighted and as I'll mention later, oddly, some bigger acts of specific time periods are completely absent from the set.
I definitely have a bias when it comes to country music: my personal preference for the genre is from the 1970s and prior. That said, running through this massive collection of live performances, I found it utterly fascinating to see how the genre evolves from the all-time classic performances from the late 60s and early 70s including Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash belting out "Jackson", Loretta Lynn's iconic "Coal Miner's Daughter", and the Earl Scruggs Revue playing the bluegrass classic "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" to the acts of today who sound so far removed from their predecessors that the only inclination you're listening to country music is a Southern accent or cliched lyrics about Southern life. Likewise, the set does highlight the enduring legacy of a number of artists who changed with the times without ever giving up their core signature sound and image: Dolly Parton and Alan Jackson in particular make some memorable appearances over the years here and in particular when Jackson along with George Strait pay tribute to the late George Jones at the end of the set during the 2013 CMA Awards with a stirring rendition of Jones' "He Stopped Loving Her Today" it's stark reminder of just how much country has strayed from its roots over the years.
Apart from a few performances from genre stalwarts, the set becomes very hard to watch as the shift in sound from the late 80s to early 90s goes full on pop by the late 90s and beyond. The music that closes out the last few discs of the set are in many ways Bo Burnham's comedic commentary on modern country, the hilarious song "Panderin" come to life. While the energy of the performances are off the charts, the lyrical content falls flat and the music is overproduced. As Tom Petty (perhaps one of the greatest bridges between rock and country) said in an interview less than a year before his death, it often feels like "bad rock with a fiddle...it does seem to be missing that magic element that it used to have." One need only look at the few Taylor Swift performances on the disc and look at Swift's now mega stardom as a pure pop star to see that the Southern accent is often the only thing separating pop music and country music.
Ultimately, this set is going to have limited appeal to all but the most fervent and unwavering country fan who is a-ok with the changes to the genre over the years. Fans of old-school country will be satisfied with a great portion of the discs, while new-school fans will find that content likely unappealing. Lastly, despite having a wide variety of performances over the years there are some massive omissions: Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, and Faith Hill all immediately set off an alarm in my mind by their absence and I can't help but wonder what other acts I'm unfamiliar with and were popular standouts in their day also didn't make the cut. I don't understand why these three artists are MIA, I can only imagine a complicated rights issue, but either way you spin it, it makes this comprehensive collection just a little less comprehensive. At the end of the day, the "CMA Awards Live" release is a curiosity piece through and through.
The set is presented in its original aspect ratios which consists of 1.33:1 from 1968-2006 and 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen from 2007 and beyond. All but the 1968 segments are in color. That said, Time Life begins each disc with a warning that the best possible sources for footage were used and there are some audio and visual defects. The early shows in particular appear to be sourced from tape and lack any clear definition, realistic color, and have notable image damage and artifacts from tape. The most modern footage, all from HD broadcasts fair better with vibrant colors and contrast, but still suffer from average at best detail.
The English audio presentation varies throughout the years with the latest performances having solid stereo mixes, although a little flat overall in overall impact. The earlier footage often sounds tinny and muddled, with damage to the audio itself apparent in distortion and crackles. Given the broadcast nature of the productions, the audio evolves with the time and is genuinely what one would expect from any given time period.
The extras are spread throughout the nine DVDs and a tenth bonus DVD. All bonus features consist of brief two to three minute featurettes on a given topic or artist, while interviews with specific artists all average around 10-minutes. Overall, the bonus features feel like segments from a best-of retrospective one might expect to see as a 30-60 minute television special. Overall across the entire set there are ten interviews and 17 featurettes.FINAL THOUGHTS
As I mentioned above the "CMA Awards Live" set is a curiosity piece at best. On one hand I want to say it's worth watching once to see an evolution of country music over the years, but given the omissions of specific major artists and overall length, I feel a single or double disc set more tightly focused would be better serving the general viewing audience. Coupled with the less than stellar A/V presentation and mediocre extras, this set is really only for the most hardcore country music fans. Rent It.