Award to the Wise 

The Nashville Music Awards roll around one more time

The Nashville Music Awards roll around one more time

Now entering their sixth year, the Nashville Music Awards roll around once again, the stated goal to celebrate both the diversity and quality of music in Nashville. If we’ve got complaints about this event, we’ll confess that they might well just reside with the fact that the NMAs are what they are—awards. Awards contests attempt to take subjective judgments from a group of tastemakers and/or the general public, then make some sort of definitive pronouncements about the year’s best (fill in the blank: song/artist/movie/TV show/actress). The narrower the selection process gets, the more people are inclined to feel slighted, whether they’re participants or viewers.

Every year, it seems that someone’s gonna do some bellyaching and griping. We’ve certainly done our share in the past. And complaints are as inevitable a part of these events as sealed envelopes. So let’s just say up front that this year’s revamped NMAs show admirable attempts to redress past concerns. But there’s still work to be done. (In the interest of disclosure, we should also point out that the Nashville Scene is the presenting sponsor of the event this year.)

The biggest change concerns the absence of a single awards show. In years past, the NMAs were presented in a lengthy awards ceremony at the Ryman Auditorium or at TPAC. The show had its charms: lots of performances by a diverse lineup of acts, and a chance to see, say, the drag-flaunting punks of Fun Girls From Mt. Pilot seated in proximity to Alison Krauss and rapper Kool Daddy Fresh. But the worst thing about it, by far, was that for all the cool music and the cool people, it was still an awards show. The Ryman’s rock-hard pews didn’t seem any softer after three ungodly hours of weepy speeches and scripted banter.

This year, the NMAs have wisely taken the focus off the ceremony and placed it on the music. Leadership Music, the local organization that puts on the event every year, has made a shrewd choice in deciding to put on a series of nominee showcases during the month of October. Beginning on Friday the 20th and running through Thursday the 26th, various local clubs and venues including Jack Legs’, Exit/In, Bluebird Cafe, and the Grand Ole Opry (!) will feature lineups of various contenders in selected categories. It’s a smart idea—a great way to publicize the awards, and a way to make local music fans and clubgoers feel like they’ve actually got a stake in the event.

Other differences are subtler, such as new categories like Club Act of the Year that attempt to recognize artists outside the city’s music industry. And it’s clear the nominating committees have done their usual honorable job of trying to convey the breadth of music in our city. It’s a nifty thing, we suppose, that such seeming opposites as heavy-rockers 12 Volt Negative Earth, disco revivalists Chris Mitchell & the Collection, and guitar slinger Mike Henderson would each get nominated for Club Act of the Year, or that a bedroom recording project like the dub-reggae duo Phase Selector Sound would share the Instrumental Album of the Year category with Bela Fleck.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take a genius to determine who’ll win the contest in some of these categories: the artist with the most name recognition, which in many cases translates to major-label support. While it’s cool to see Phase Selector Sound considered in the same breath as Fleck, the group’s relative obscurity just makes the Flecktones’ boss a shoo-in; the nomination becomes an affirmation of the status quo. And looking over the list of nominees, it’s hard not to be struck by the prevalence of usual suspects. Sure, they’re an amazing bunch: Buddy and Julie Miller, Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band, Mike Henderson, Kim Richey, and Edgar Meyer, to name just a few. But isn’t there more going on here than what everyone already knows about? The most interesting categories are the ones with the least familiar nominees, like Rap Recording of the Year—the even footing of rappers Quanie Cash, Cents, Kriz Kang, Lil’ Myron, and Rawlow B might inspire more voters to check out their music.

In the end, it’s hard to find real fault with the Nashville Music Awards. But for all the NMA’s noble attempts to capture the essence of great music in this city—their recognition of such worthy talents as Tom House, Josh Rouse, Dolly Parton, Will Kimbrough, Earl Gaines, and The Shazam, to name a handful—these nominations still lack some kind of spark. If anything, ironically, they’re too carefully chosen. They’re too beholden to making sure every nice person is recognized and every genre gets equal representation. As a result, as respectable as this year’s individual nominations are, together they don’t capture what it is that makes being a music fan or a musician in this city so exciting—the presence of a surging creative underground that only occasionally intersects with Music Row.

Maybe that’s just the problem inherent in trying to quantify and qualify something that’s better appreciated on its own terms, without all the attempts to figure out what’s The Best. Too many of the subtleties and joys of the musical experience (or any creative experience) tend to get lost or trampled by the fanfare. The stamp of official recognition would only muffle the thrill of stumbling upon a Voight-Kampff improv-music night at ruby green contemporary arts center, or a coolly elegant Swan Dive show at 12th & Porter, or a Hissy Fits thrash-out, or a musician as charismatic and idiosyncratic as David Cloud on any given night at Springwater.

And yet the Nashville Music Awards clearly serve an important purpose—to honor musicians’ hard work (and often their talent), and to show those Nashvillians who might not realize it that there’s lots of interesting stuff going on here. The changes Leadership Music is making this year represent a step in the right direction—none more so than putting an end to the NMAs’ Oscar-night formality. Perhaps, by taking the NMAs out of a stuffy awards-show environment—and putting them into local clubs, where they belong—some of the torpor that seems to surround this event every year will transform into something more like a tingle.

—Jonathan Marx & Jim Ridley

Platters that matter

James Michael, Inhale (BMG/Beyond) The debut album from this power-popper was inspired by the likes of Joe Jackson—whose “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” Michael covers—but it’s guitars, not pianos, that are the foundation of these snappy, rocking tunes. Michael doesn’t yet sound like a true original, unlike his heroes, mainly because Inhale is a little too slickly and aggressively produced, but his heart is in the right place, and his melodies hum.

Bette Midler, Bette (Atlantic) On her latest, the Divine Miss M wraps her pipes around an oddball selection of soul standards (including Teddy Pendergrass’ “Love TKO”) and the Elvis Costello-Burt Bacharach gem “God Give Me Strength.”

Slash’s Snakepit, Ain’t Life Grand (Koch) Sometimes genius exists only in dichotomy—witness Saul Hudson, Slash to you mortals. One of the greatest rhythm guitarists of his generation, he just sounds lost outside the Guns N’ Roses front line—but until Axl gets over his electronica hissy-fit, this may be as close to GN’F’NR as you can get.

Free the West Memphis 3 (Aces & Eights/Koch) Steve Earle, Tom Waits, Joe Strummer, and Eddie Vedder are among the artists raising their voices to protest the convictions of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Miskelley Jr.—the three West Memphis, Ark., teens whose probable railroading on child-murder charges was documented in the chilling HBO Paradise Lost documentaries.

The Wallflowers, Breach (Interscope) Bob Dylan’s son’s third album finds the boy growing accustomed to being described as “Bob Dylan’s son”—songs like “Hand Me Down” deal directly, for the first time, with the rock-star legacy. But Jakob Dylan’s sound is still his own, with its mid-tempo heartland rock and splash of pop polish. The Michael Penn-produced Breach is catchy and lively, with a few tracks (“Sleepwalker,” “Mourning Train”) that are straight-up riveting.

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