You Can’t Teach A Pig To Sing
“Never try to teach a pig to sing. It’s a waste of time and besides it annoys the pig.” Robert A. Heinlein
Every year about now, I get tempted to engage in some porcine education. From my lofty perch as a sometimes blogger and devoted Americana/Folk fan, I feel the need to explain my music to The Recording Academy voters. It never fails, year after year. The Grammy nominations come out and I think, what the hell were they thinking? How in the world could they have missed that record? Why in the world would they have nominated that record?
This year, one of the obvious missing pieces is Jason Isbell’s record Southeastern. It’s not the only one, but it is the most glaring. This record received solid reviews from every quarter and established Jason Isbell as one of the top artists in the entire American Roots Music Field (this includes Americana, Folk, Blues and Bluegrass). If you assume that Southeastern is Americana (more on that later), one could argue that Isbell’s place was taken by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. Martin’s star power (and I’m subject to it myself) sucks all the air out of the room, and Brickell’s involvement doesn’t help matters much. It’s probably not worth debating whether their record is one of the five best Americana offerings this year (even though I think not), but even their fans have to acknowledge that Martin’s fame had something to do with the nomination, particularly to voters less familiar with other top offerings in Americana music. It’s really hard to argue with any of the other four – and this is the thing about these nominations, it’s not like there are ten slots, and Americana is mighty big. Rodney and Emmylou put together a great album, as did Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale. I think these records deserved the nominations. I’ve not heard the Mavis Staples or Allen Toussaint albums, but word is they are very good. And all of the other four nominations have this in common: The artists are older and more established, meaning they’re going to get some votes based on familiarity.
Part of the problem here is that the Americana category is very broad, and not all of the spots are going to be singer-songwriter spots. This is why there is so much interplay between this category and the Folk category. I don’t generally think of Isbell’s stuff as folk, but it would qualify if Steve Earle’s does, and Earle has in the past. Certainly Guy Clark’s record, which is nominated in Folk, would fit in Americana, as would Sarah Jarosz’s and The Greencards’. Accepting those three as givens (and I do, all great records), this leaves The Milk Carton Kids record (don’t know it well, but reports I’ve seen are positive) and the Arhoolie Records 50th anniversary album. No offense here, but I don’t see the Arhoolie album as being a Grammy contender, though you should know that a) this is not a greatest hits or best of record (those are not allowed) and b) I have only heard a few tracks from the record. So, if you agree with me on that, there’s another spot that arguably could have gone to Isbell’s record. Or maybe you take issue with one of the others that I accepted. [Note: I do not know which category Southeastern was entered in, but my reading of the rules is that if it was entered in more than one category in the American Roots Music Field the committee would have placed it in only one for consideration by voters.]
So, what are you going to do? Nothing, I guess (remember Heinlein’s admonition), but while the journey through the records nominated shows some room for Southeastern, the numbers game makes the omission a little more understandable. When we think about who’s voting, it becomes a lot more understandable.
Grammy voters can vote in up to 20 categories in addition to the four in the general category (Record, Album, and Song of the Year and Best New Artist). There are 78 categories by my count if we exclude the four in the general category, meaning that there are a lot of non-Americana/Folk voters potentially voting in those categories (there is a vote for nominations as well as a final vote). And, I suppose, that presents the difficulty. Many of us want a discrete difference between the music we dig and the drivel enjoyed by the masses. So the masses are clueless when it comes to what’s going on over here in the land of Americana/Folk. Which explains why they, the wider world, can’t get it right when it comes to our music. We aren’t gonna teach them to sing. Sad, though, because that wider world could use a jolt of Jason Isbell, and Jason Isbell deserves the boost a Grammy could bring.