Musical Values Upheld At Grammy Awards

There always seems to be controversy and tension where the Grammy Awards are concerned. The battle between commercial triumphs and artistic success annually emerge.  Sometimes they meet in the middle, but many times they don’t. I was always a fan of the Grammy’s showcasing the formats that don’t get the hyped media attention in the pop culture world – jazz, classical, gospel, blues, country, singer/songwriter, etc.  Those genres may be somewhat ignored, but they are the enduring foundation of where true artists and songs historically emerge from.

Following this year’s Grammy broadcast I was struck at the contrast between how much noise and bravado came from the most popular of our pop culture and the more foundational music artists that were showing genuine respect and class during the evening.  That difference was especially apparent by country award winners Miranda Lambert and Lady Antebellum.

The stark differences go beyond attitude and humility; they are also revealed by the light of history, craftsmanship and musical values that are still honored by artists in their music.  This is explained very well in an article by Tom Roland in this week’s Billboard Country Update.  His assessment is right on target:

“Some of the national media seem perplexed by Lady A’s record of the year victory. Rappers Eminem and Jay-Z were widely regarded as favorites by prognosticators in Los Angeles and New York, where country is an after-thought. The pop media invariably expects Recording Academy voters to cast their ballots with an eye toward pushing the outer edge of sonic trends, forgetting that the Academy is dominated not by marketers or record-company personnel, but by actual musicians and creative people.

The entire music community has a say in who wins in the top four all-genre categories, and many of them aren’t particularly vested in popular culture. Classical musicians, jazz players, gospel singers, bluegrass acts, blues artists—many of them are traditionalists in whatever field they represent, and despite the cultural ascent of music built around recited hooks, that voting contingent still values songs built on melodies.

With that in mind, Lady Antebellum had a beneficial slate of competitors for record of the year. Each of the other entries was based in hip-hop or R&B, which almost guaranteed their votes would be split.

“Need You Now” meanwhile exhibited all the signatures that great pop-culture singles are able to incorporate: a hooky, singable melody; classy, defining harmonies; and a great production that infuses a series of subtle, key instrumental hooks. It was also much bigger than any one genre, scoring high on the pop charts and selling a cool 3.2 million downloads in 2010.

“It just shows that country music is relevant and it’s relatable,” Lady A’s Hillary Scott told reporters in the press room, assessing the feat.

Even as the larger music industry focused on the group, the band was particularly concerned with what its accomplishments mean within the country industry.

“I just hope they think we’re flying the flag right,” Scott said.

The contrasts between country and pop’s center were pointedly displayed during the evening. The winner of the best female pop vocal honor, Lady Gaga, created a surreal stir by arriving on the red carpet in an egg. Miranda Lambert, who won country’s best female vocal for “The House That Built Me,” gave a demure performance of the common-man song, which she characterized as one “everyone can relate to.”

Christina Aguilera trilled and battered and belted out her part of an Aretha Franklin tribute, while Martina McBride—standing right beside her—sang “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)” in a direct manner that prioritized the song instead of the performer.

Keith Urban, who won the best country male Grammy for “’Til Summer Comes Around,” teamed with John Mayer and Norah Jones for a version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” that infused three-part harmony and gurgling guitars in an understated manner. Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson took the country collaboration honor with “As She’s Walking Away,” a song built on quiet harmonies, a deceptively attractive melodic contour and familiar street wisdom. And Marty Stuart’s country-instrumental winner “Hummingbyrd” gets its sound primarily from the Bakersfield inspiration of Merle Haggard and Don Rich.

Observers in the media seem to want to consider the Grammys a gauge of music’s future. But in practice, the major awards rarely look forward. Eminem has lost the record of the year trophy previously to Norah Jones and Coldplay and lost album of the year to Jones and Steely Dan.

Each of those acts is grounded in old-school music values, and many of the classical, jazz and traditional-pop musicians who vote are similarly invested in maintaining the legacy of their craft. Country, with its current adaptation of classic-rock sounds and traditional song structures, has rarely been a genre that tests the edges of the general pop culture. But it increasingly sculpts itself in ways that would make musicians in other time-tested genres comfortable. And for that reason, it’s likely that while “Need You Now” is the first country hit to become record of the year, it may not be the last.”

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