Roots, Americana, Blues, and Folk Music at the Grammys
Like the Oscars, the Grammys have a tortured history. Each began not so much to reward outstanding efforts in their respective areas, but rather as a self-congratulatory promotional event that somewhat cynically purports to reward art. Sometimes they do reward the best art — just frequently enough to lull us into thinking there is some justice in it all.
Perhaps I am being just a bit too harsh. No one who makes a living making music or films will or should turn down an award. Ask Chris Stapleton, who just took home three CMAs. While the music intelligentsia knew who he was, this overt recognition has boosted sales of his excellent Traveller album and made him an even bigger demand on the concert scene. This is not a bad thing. I’d rather see Stapleton do so well than, say, Florida Georgia Line.
But the Oscars and Grammys differ in several distinct ways. Hollywood is a small-town industry — everybody knows everybody, it takes tons of money to make a movie, and there are a very limited number of awards. Music, on the other hand, can be made anywhere and is extremely diverse. An album can be made for next to nothing (distribution is still a problem) and there are so many categories where an award can be allotted. The Grammys, in short, have sought to be inclusive whereas the Oscars have sought to be exclusive.
This was not always the case. I think the turning point came in 2002 when the soundtrack O Brother Where Art Thou was nominated and the telecast featured performances by Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, and Allison Krauss & Union Station. It was a fine six and half minutes that stood out despite Jon Stewart’s moonshine gag. It was the first Grammy telecast I had seen in years — and the last — and I had to slog through two hours of what sometimes seemed like pure inanity. Through it all, the announcers just jabbered away.
However, when O Brother won the album of the year and what seemed like a hundred folks took the stage to a huge standing ovation, to celebrate the accomplishment, suddenly the television commentators fell deadly silent. It was apparent that after all the techno rap-pop groups full of dancers, costumes, smoke, and mirrors, they were not expecting this hillbilly music to win. They simply did not know what to say. They had not been prepped on this possibility. Despite the fact that this album had sold 13 million records, it was not played on the radio nor did it have videos on MTV or VH1. Thus, it could not win.
To its credit, while the Grammy folks still have a hard time distinguishing between roots, Americana, and folk, they have mended their ways and sought to be inclusive. They may not know what belongs in what category – even we have a hard doing that sometimes, when it can seem somewhat arbitrary – but they know it’s significant and want to reward its achievements. Grammy also presents many Americana artists at its venues in Los Angeles and elsewhere.
So this week I’m featuring photos of folks who have been featured in the pages of ND, who have just been nominated for Grammys. Among them: Patty Griffin, Jason Isbell, Rhiannon Giddens, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Buddy Guy, Mavis Staples, The Mavericks, Don Henley, Shemekia Copeland, and Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn.