Note to Grammies: Pay Attention 

Now more in touch with rock and rap, the Grammy Awards still suffer from a credibility gap when it comes to country

Now more in touch with rock and rap, the Grammy Awards still suffer from a credibility gap when it comes to country

The Grammy Awards have a country credibility problem.

When the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences announced the 2004 Grammy nominees in December, observers like USA Today touted how the granddaddy of American music ceremonies had succeeded in making its major nominees more relevant and reflective of what was happening in pop culture.

In the major pop and rock awards, it was true. Leading hip-hop artists Missy Elliott, OutKast, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, The Neptunes and Beyoncé garnered the most nominations. Nominees for album of the year included The White Stripes and Evanescence, while contenders for record of the year included Black Eyed Peas and Coldplay. Added up, it marks the end of Grammy dominance by superannuated mainstream rock acts. As deserving as the likes of U2, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, Steely Dan, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt and Sting might have been, their perennial appearance among nominees for the top Grammy Awards made the institution look gray and out-of-touch with modern pop culture.

Unfortunately, when it comes to country music, Grammy voters still don’t have a clue as to which current hit-makers are doing the best work. They occasionally get it right—Martina McBride, Patty Loveless, Brooks & Dunn, Tim McGraw and a few others rightfully are cited for albums or songs that represent the artistic vanguard where the good and the popular converge. But for the most part, the enormous voting pool of music-makers and industry insiders that elects the Grammy nominees have a habit of voting for the same country artists year after year, no matter how inconsequential or irrelevant the nominated performance may be.

For example, no one who’s actually heard Willie Nelson’s Live & Kickin’ is going to consider it among the best 25 albums of his career, much less a Grammy-worthy effort. But it racked up votes for the same reason another minor album, the Nelson and Ray Price duet effort Run That by Me One More Time, made the cut. That is, Willie is esteemed by his peers, and that’s why his name got marked on ballots, even if the voter hadn’t heard the piece of work for which he or she was voting. The result is that two already forgotten albums, neither of which had much commercial or creative juice, are among the Grammy nominees for best country album this year.

All of which makes a mockery of the category. It’s one thing for meaningless TV events like the American Music Awards to reward disposable pabulum. But when it’s the Grammies—an imprimatur that’s supposed to carry prestige and is promoted as the pinnacle of achievement in the year of music—it turns something important into a travesty.

Nelson, for instance, has won six Grammies in the past. His first, in 1975 for “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” heralded a true classic. It came just as Nelson began to emerge as a popular force, as well as one of country music’s most distinctive and creative artists. Not only that, the single has proven to be a landmark recording.

The same goes for his other award-winners: “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “On the Road Again” and “Always on My Mind” all rank as career performances for one of the most important artists of his era. They deserved the nominations and awards they got. The problem has become that Nelson gets nominated year in and year out, deserving or not. He’s become a perennial nominee, and the same could be said of far too many artists on this year’s country list.

How many voters heard Ray Benson’s “Annabelle” from his first solo album, Beyond Time? Did they vote for it because they thought it was one of the best performances by a male country singer this year? Or was it because Benson is the well-regarded leader of Asleep at the Wheel, the Texas swing band who have won an amazing eight Grammies?

Was the Oak Ridge Boys’ “Colors” really one of the five best recordings by a country group in 2003? How many voters actually heard it? For that matter, how many country fans heard it? Doubtless few, compared to the millions who heard the Dixie Chicks, a group who got overlooked in that category despite a barnstorming world tour. The bottom line? Voters recognized the Oaks’ name and remember their past achievements, which include five previous Grammies.

Country music isn’t the only Grammy category that’s got problems. Christmas on the Mountain: A Bluegrass Christmas was barely heard by bluegrass fans or Grammy voters, but it’s got an impressive list of participants. Even those who played or sang on the CD probably wouldn’t rank it among the year’s best bluegrass albums—and certainly few others do. But many other genres don’t face this problem. Look at the nominees in other niche categories like jazz, rap, gospel, folk and classical. The lists are a solid mix of cutting-edge acts and artistically notable best sellers.

Which raises the question: If Grammy voters can be discerning in those varied categories, why are they so off the mark with country music? The collateral damage doesn’t just hurt the reputation of the Grammies; it also prevents country music from presenting its most creative works during an international celebration of the best music of the year.

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