Country Music Experts Weigh in on Gwyneth Paltrow’s CMA Performance

When Gwyneth Paltrow decided to debut the title song from her upcoming film ‘Country Strong,’ her first-ever live musical performance, she could have slipped unnoticed into some small Nashville bar and worked out the track surreptitiously. Instead, she chose to close last week’s Country Music Awards, the biggest platform in the genre, and duet with veteran Vince Gill.

It was an audacious move, but one that paid off. Ken Tucker, managing editor for Country Weekly, was in the crowd during her performance. “As soon as she finished, the standing ovation started from the front where all the artists, producers and industry people are seated,” said Tucker. “It’s one thing to do something that you can do multiple takes on like acting or recording in a studio, but this was in front of a sold out arena with millions of people watching from home and the first 10 rows filled with country’s biggest stars, and she pulled it off. She was right up there with the other singers.”

Despite technical difficulties at the track’s onset, Paltrow garnered unanimous acclaim both within and outside the country music community for her authenticity and powerful vocal range. “She was very intense in her delivery, ” noted Jeff Remz, editor and publisher of online magazine Country Standard Time. “At first, she was getting her footing, but 30 seconds into the song, she seemed to be more comfortable. She did a solid, credible job of keeping a country vibe. She was closing her eyes and digging in deep to the song.”

This was a performance that Paltrow clearly did not take lightly, as the actress admitted to grilling Faith Hill and studying Beyoncé concerts to prepare for the performance. Paltrow learned to play guitar specifically for the movie and contributed four songs to the film’s soundtrack.

When it came down to release the single to radio, however, RCA Nashville, the label distributing the soundtrack, downplayed the actress’s involvement. In initial pressings to radio, the label omitted Paltrow’s name to prevent listeners from forming any preconceived ideas, opting to use Kelly Canter, the name of her character in the film, instead.

“When the label sent me ‘Country Strong,’ they asked me what I thought of this girl,” said Carol Hughes, music director and DJ for country music station KFDI. “I said, ‘She’s not bad, but who is she to get Vince Gill to sing back-up? There’s a lot of people that actually want to be country musicians that don’t put out a song that good.” Hughes admits that the response to the song was “good, not great.”

“It’s a good song,” says Hughes. “But it’s not racing up the charts or anything.”

Despite the performance, Paltrow has been vocal about not wanting her role as a washed-up country singer to lead to a second career in music. Tucker points out that unlike pop radio, which prizes the ephemeral, immediate hit, country radio may have been hesitant to play a song from an one-off singer. “Country radio wants to feel like there’s like a payoff,” says Tucker. “They want to invest in artists.” The typical fledgling country singer will log countless hours on tour and at radio stations getting their name out, an issue Paltrow hasn’t had to deal with in years.

The actress’s musical roots go back a decade, when she appeared as Huey Lewis’ daughter in the 2000 karaoke film ‘Duets’ and contributed three songs to the soundtrack. ‘Country Strong’ is her first foray into country music.

While her desires for a second career are slim, her well-received tracks on the ‘Country Strong’ soundtrack and CMA performance indicate that Nashville may be ready to welcome her if she wants. “I think she would be well-received because of how she did and how seriously she took it,” says Remz. “She’s not claiming she’s a great guitarist or the greatest singer, but she pulled it off with credibility and absolutely had a traditional country vibe. She’s clearly taking it seriously and she can sing well. Based on her four songs [on the soundtrack], it’d be interesting to hear a whole album.”

Your move, Gwyneth.

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