Commentary from WMOT // Roots music had a strong 2017 in the marketplace, but it’s had more influential years in Grammy Award nominations, which were announced Tuesday morning. There is no Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell or Margo Price among the big-time General categories, and no country stars for that matter in a field dominated by hip-hop.
Even when fans look way down the list to the American Roots Field, they may feel a gap between the nominees designated by the Recording Academy and the dynamism of today’s scene. Two nominees in Best American Roots Performance - Glen Campbell and Leonard Cohen - are deceased legends, suggesting a sentimental vote. Alison Krauss made a good cosmopolitan country album in Windy City, but at this point the Grammy voters would nominate her if she released a cover of “Moon River.” (Actually that’d be nice.) These precious slots box out mesmerizing vocalists like Dori Freeman or the acoustic stars of I’m With Her.
Best Americana Album includes another fallen icon in Gregg Allman, though his posthumous Southern Blood LP is indeed a stunner. Jason Isbell and The Mavericks are solid, defensible picks. Iron & Wine and Brent Cobb offer insightful new perspective on today’s scene, even if they appear to have long shots at the trophy.
What’s inexplicable about this particularly coveted top five is the total absence of women. Freedom Highway by Rhiannon Giddens should be here, especially given its resonance with the cultural zeitgeist. Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer’s long awaited duets album Not Dark Yet would have seemed a strong contender as well.
Even the country music categories feel more radio centered and reluctant to force conversation than in prior years. Chris Stapleton, now a familiar name and voice to Grammy voters, finds himself with shots at Best Country Album and Country Solo Performance. His competition, including Maren Morris and Sam Hunt, offer roots fans no real alternatives for whom to root on the Jan. 28 broadcast from Madison Square Garden in New York.
The Folk Album category made more sense when it was divided into traditional and contemporary. Now it has become a catch-all for records that seem overlooked in the Americana slot, albeit with diverse hidden gems. One of the most exciting titles here is the Secret Sisters album You Don’t Own Me Anymore, which marks the realization of a career that began with discovery by T Bone Burnett and nearly skidded to a halt for lack of bookings. That ought to be a problem no more. The CD is explosively rich and rewarding and should be a career-maker for the sisters from Muscle Shoals.
Elsewhere in the category we find a couple of true folk veterans in Aimee Mann and Cat Stevens, who is perhaps the prohibitive political favorite. Laura Marling’s Semper Femina is achingly artsy and obscure. Many Nashvillians will justifiably feel that Willie Watson, brave enough to stand alone and bark classic songs into a microphone, got snubbed. For that matter, why not his former bandmates in Old Crow Medicine Show with their triumphant cover of Blonde On Blonde? Albums with powerful concepts and stories behind great performances ought to get more weight in Grammy voting.
Blues retains a split contemporary/traditional distinction, and there are wonderful albums in both, including some that stretch the definition of the blues a good ways, as with Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi’s Live From The Fox Oakland. That competes with the decidedly soul-based Memphis project by Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm and the magical TajMo, the long awaited pairing of Keb Mo and Taj Mahal. In the trad bucket, I’d recommend Eric Bibb’s Migration Blues, but how do the Rolling Stones not win this based on strong reviews and, you know, being the Rolling Stones?
Bluegrass ought to be a nail biter between the icon Bobby Osborne who made the spectacular Original at well over 80 years old and the exquisitely contemporary Infamous Stringdusters, whose Laws of Gravity is the best of their impressive career. Noam Pikelny’s solo banjo excursion Universal Favorite is stellar but stylistically mis-categorized. Michael Cleveland and Rhonda Vincent are well loved virtuosos, but neither project feels sharp or visionary enough for the golden bullhorn.
I have special interest every year in the one-category orphan field of Contemporary Instrumental Album, because there are always fun discoveries there. While it ought to have been considered in Jazz, Jerry Douglas’s long-dreamed-of fusion dobro project What If? is nominated here. So is the masterpiece Mount Royal by must-know guitarists Julian Lage and Chris “Critter” Eldridge of Punch Brothers fame.
Music awards are what they are. An industry that loves patting itself on the back and that’s short of promotional opportunities to a jaded public has concocted too many shows around the year, resulting in accolades that land like pseudo events. But the Grammys get it right often enough to earn our attention. Americana may, however, feel like it deserves mainstream attention in this forum concurrent with its successes on streaming, vinyl, satellite and late night TV.