In Linda Chorney’s defense
When the Grammy Awards were announced, I posted something on Facebook with a link to the nominees. Someone commented asking me if I knew who Linda Chorney was. I did not. Had never heard of her. My inclination was to listen to her record. I couldn’t make it through. It’s not a very great record. Maybe not even very good.
I’ve watched here as bloggers have ripped the academy for including her, have given great scrutiny to its rules surrounding the nominating process, have mocked and scorned Chorney for her determination to earn an award for the work she’s been doing the past many years.
And now I kind of hope she wins.
Because here’s the thing. I don’t like her music. I would never go see her live, because it doesn’t connect with me. But aren’t Grammy awards somewhat arbitrary? Aren’t they an expression of a dying industry? Aren’t they representative of the big business of music selling? Isn’t it pretty fucking impressive that Chorney was able to scale their stony walls with her self-released album and a little old-fashioned elbow grease?
Sure, Hayes Carll was more deserving of that nom. So was Sarah Jarosz, Abigail Washburn, any number of other legitimately Americana artists. But, this isn’t the Americana Awards. This is the Grammys. Chorney’s nomination is symptomatic of a much greater situation. While the folks at the Grammys (and, no doubt, the publicist Linda Chorney now has) try to spin this as an underdog story, I think the really interesting part of this is that Chorney – an unknown artist whose work is uninteresting – managed to accomplish two things:
1) She exposed the Americana world for what it is – a tightly knit community of music lovers who believe to the core in the artists they support. It’s a community of discriminating taste. A small town of sorts, welcoming of visitors as long as it’s clear they’re visiting for the right reasons. We’re a community built on fairness, honesty, and raw skill. Everyone brings something to the table. You can’t just show up and eat. You’ve got to work in the kitchen for a while, like the rest of us.
2) She exposed the holes in the recording industry’s dam, and crawled right through them. It used to be the recording industry was an exclusive space. You had to have a special something in order to make a full-length album. Star quality. Something. You had to have the stamp of A&R approval, a machine behind you. There was artist development. There was a marketing department. There were gatekeepers who mattered very, very much, whose attention artists would strive to capture. The rise of the indie wave meant artists could effectively say “I don’t care about your stupid gatekeepers; I’m making my own record.” It was a middle finger; it is a middle finger. The more the indie wave swells, the less success the establishment can tout. It’s a revolution of sorts. A cultural one. Chorney isn’t the first indie artist to earn Grammy cred, but the way she got her nomination exposes, in my opinion, an industry suffering under the weight of its own defiant, determined ignorance.
(I’m not making any friends in the industry with this one.)
Seriously, though, consider this whole thing from Chorney’s point of view. You’re a musician who is passionate and dedicated to their craft. You know you don’t look like Taylor Swift, you don’t sing like Emmylou, you don’t write songs like Steve Earle, you can’t play with the same prodigious elan as Sarah Jarosz. You do well enough to get enough gigs and sell enough albums so that you can be a full-time working class musician. (Presumably.) That alone is an accomplishment which many struggling artists lay awake nights hoping they might someday achieve.
You started playing piano at four years old and guitar at ten. You’ve been in the industry for 30 years, have had your ups and downs. Regardless of how many units you sell or magazine articles you inspire, you’ve been an artist your whole life.
You get a wild hair up your ass – because that happens with artists sometimes – to submit your album for a Grammy award. Why not? What do you have to lose? But, being an artist – a project person, a creative type whose passion comes in waves – you figure you may as well go big or go home. It’s not enough to submit your album for a Grammy award if you’re not going to make sure people actually hear it. After all, this is the GRAMMYs and you’re up against huge stars. So you start a campaign.
I’d bet money Linda Chorney didn’t know it would work. That she wakes up every morning and laughs at the absurdity of being nominated for a Grammy award next to Emmylou fucking Harris. I would. I would be completely amused and baffled and…well, motivated by the whole thing. I would also understand the absurdity. Hell, I might even send a t-shirt to the printers, which reads “Who the F$%# is Linda Chorney?” (She did, though I can’t find anywhere to buy it.)
Why waste breath calling Chorney a sham? She’s not. I don’t care that I don’t like her music, nor that I’d give it a less than favorable review. I respect an artist who is self-aware enough to believe in their craft, to know they may never be on the cover of a Rolling Stone, but that’s not what’s important to them. I respect an artist who spends three decades busting their ass on the road and in dinky clubs where ten people are listening. Who works their way up through the hand shake relationships of the music industry – far enough to get a couple opening slots for big-name artists; far enough to pay the bills on the music; far enough to be able to make friends with instrumentalists who are talented enough to round out the songs in the studio. An artist who has enough chutzpah to take on a ridiculous project like bucking industry standards and climbing over the mighty fortress of the Grammy Awards.
Also, I’ll remind you, she submitted the album in a number of categories. That the folks voting in the Americana category didn’t know enough about the genre to merit disregarding Chorney’s campaign, is perhaps a problem in mainstream marketing of the Americana style. It’s something the Americana Music Association will no doubt surmount one of these days – they have, after all, only been around for a decade; Americana has only been present at the Grammy Awards for a couple years. Redefining things takes time. (See: Occupy Wall Street.)
Honestly, I’m a little more concerned that Eddie Vedder got a nomination for folk music. The arc of Chorney’s career looks a lot more like that of your standard Americana artist than does Eddie Vedder’s appear like that of a folksinger. Folk music is much more familiar to the Academy than is Americana, and yet they still seem to think a rock star playing an acoustic instrument is “folk music.”
That’s the real sham.