Mavis and Americana
Ordinarily I don’t watch the Grammy awards. For years I didn’t own a TV, and for more years I had somewhere better to be (a club, watching live music; or work), and then it became clear that what was being rewarded was a kind of commercial success that principally (but not always) masked the kind of artistic expression/achievement to which I believe myself drawn. To which I find myself drawn.
But I am not in control of the remote these days, owner of two homes and homeless, living in my in-laws’ basement (our round house will be finished one of these days, but not this day), and apparently my father-in-law thought he was offering a kindness by leaving the Grammys on last night.
I left a status comment on FaceBook last night that I thought I’d tuned into Cirque du Soleil. Popular music, apparently, has been taken over by stagecraft and dance moves. Rarely did I see an actual instrument being played, rarely could I tell that the artist onstage was more than a brand name for a pop factory and a new set of dance moves and outrageous clothing.
But, y’know, I’m old and cranky.
My daughter, huffing up her almost eight years at me, explained that I was totally out of touch and that she’d never — ever — listen to that Bieber fellow. (Yeah, right; her grandmother’s already talked her into the movie.)
Years ago now, when the Americana Music Association was a nascent thing, one of our first efforts — spearheaded by John Lomax III, who had something to do with the Nashville chapter of NARAS, and NARAS is the figleaf handing out the golden gramophones on national television — was to gain a Grammy category for Americana. NARAS wasn’t terribly receptive, pointing out that Americana was a fusion of things, and not a distinctive sound on its own. But the AMA kept banging away, and I kept arguing that, at a minimum, there should be an Americana category so contemporary folk could have its listing back. Eventually, through what alchemy I know not, and well after my time on the board, the AMA prevailed and a Grammy category was hatched.
I suppose in some circles that’s selling out; in my circle, selling is what you have to do to eat. And anybody who can make a living playing music — even if I detest their music — is OK with me. It beats working for the man, even though I recognize that it is, in many cases, still working for the man. With better hours and different fringe benefits.
Anyhow, I woke up this morning and peered through The New York Times Grammy story while the coffee tried to do its job and realized that Mavis Staples had, at long last, won one. The Americana category. I suppose Jeff Tweedy’s production puts her in that category, and I confess to not having yet heard the album (though I adore Mavis; buying things is not always easy these days), but there’s a large point which makes me smile.
Mavis Staples is Americana.
And so I rejoice doubly. Mavis deserves any accolade she gets, and I am delighted to see the notion of what Americana might be expanded beyond the dubious presumption that it is simply a backwater storage unit for traditional country and aggressive singer-songwriters.