Five Years After Linda Chorney, The Grammy Awards Still Can’t Get Americana Right

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It was the ultimate embarrassment for the Grammy Awards, and it was all at the expense of the Americana category. A relatively unknown, quirky—and depending who you speak to—questionably talented songwriter and performer from New Jersey named Linda Chorney upstaged the rest of the Americana industry in 2011 by earning a nomination in the Best Americana Album category for her record Emotional Jukebox right beside stalwarts of the industry like Emmylou Harris, Levon Helm, Lucinda Williams, and Ry Cooder.

Not that Linda Chorney didn’t deserve to be considered right beside the other contenders for the Best Americana Album. One would hope that anyone with an outstanding musical effort could at least garner consideration for their work in the appropriate Grammy category. It’s just that Linda Chorney hadn’t even registered a single Nielsen SoundScan sale at the time of the nomination, and virtually nobody knew about her or her album Emotional Jukebox beyond the Grammy selection committee. The nomination was a coup of the highest order and sent the Americana industry and Grammy Awards reeling.

How did Linda Chorney do it without any sales, any public name recognition, or any accolades either creative or commercial to speak of? She did it by launching a name recognition campaign right before the nomination process to put herself on the radar of Grammy voters. Along with doing interviews for big publications like Variety and Daily Kos, Chorney used the directory on the Grammy Awards’ Grammy 365 website (now called Grammy Pro) to tirelessly befriend and schmooze voting members until this unknown outsider became a consummate insider cozying up to the people who would eventually decide the nominees.

linda-chorneyLinda Chorney and Emotional Jukebox ultimately lost to Levon Helm for Best Americana Album, but Chorney had accomplished her goal of getting her name out there via the Grammy’s nomination process, which was ironically sent into hyper drive by the controversy that proceeded her nomination. She later wrote a book about the experience called “Who The F*** Is Linda Chorney,” plans a feature film on the subject, and can tout herself as a “Grammy nominee” till kingdom come.

Another important side note about the Linda Chorney nomination is it also likely resulted in the first high-profile snubbing of Americana stalwart Jason Isbell. His 2011 album Here We Rest is recognized as the point where the songwriter began his big ascent in Americana, and is seen as the record Chorney likely deposed with her nomination.

Jason Isbell would again be the victim of the Grammy Awards’ seemingly skewed system for picking nominees in 2013 when his universally-acclaimed and commercial breakout record Southeastern didn’t receive a nomination either. Of course the thing about nominations for awards is they’re inherently subjective. But Jason Isbell seemed like such an incredible runaway in Americana music in 2013, to not even grant him a nomination seemed like just as big, if not a bigger oversight than granting Linda Chorney one two years before.

After the Linda Chorney fiasco, new rules were enacted to make sure a similar event wouldn’t happen again. But those rules didn’t prevent the obvious snubbing of Jason Isbell.

This year many of the artists, labels, managers, fans, and even many of the individuals involved in the Grammy nomination process are feeling just as let down, and are scratching their heads on how certain efforts got overlooked, while others got pushed to the forefront. And though nobody seems to agree on why the outcomes in Americana continue to be skewed, or what a viable solution is, most everyone seems to be in agreement there’s a problem, even if they’re not comfortable speaking on record due to the Grammy’s secretive nomination process, and not wanting to be publicly critical of the efforts of certain performers.

Up for Best Americana Album in 2017 are:

True Sadness, the Avett Brothers
This Is Where I Live, William Bell
The Cedar Creek Sessions, Kris Kristofferson
The Bird & the Rifle, Lori McKenna
Kid Sister, the Time Jumpers

Okay, that’s not a bad list of nominees. There’s no Linda Chorney in there, and though the definition of what “Americana” is can be a topic of hot discussion, it’s hard to say none of these artists belong. But were these really the best albums released in Americana? Again, in many ways this is a subjective question, but both Kris Kristofferson’s The Cedar Creek Sessions and the Time Jumpers’ Kid Sister were cover records. Not that doing a record of covers should immediately disqualify your from consideration, but where did Kris Kristofferson’s The Cedar Creek Sessions register on sales charts, radio play, end-of-year lists, groundswell of fan support, or even a minimal amount of media coverage upon its release?

In fact The Cedar Creek Sessions seemed to have been virtually ignored by the Americana industry in 2016, partly due to poor promotion. That’s no offense to Kristofferson who is clearly a country and songwriting legend. But comparing an album of re-recorded hits cut live over a long weekend with an album of new, original material from another artist seems unfair to potential nominees, especially since the Kristofferson album didn’t really have any sort of impact in the culture in a way that can be measured quite objectively through charts, sales, and end-of-year lists and polls from critics and fans. Where did The Cedar Creek Sessions show up in the Top 100 of Americana airplay albums in 2016? It didn’t. Where did it register on high-profile end-of-year lists? It was a virtual no show. Again, no offense to Kristofferson or his effort, but a case can be made that dozens, maybe over 100 other albums were more qualified due to sales, airplay, or critical acclaim than The Cedar Creek Sessions to receive a Grammy nomination in Americana.

So how did The Cedar Creek Sessions get nominated, along with The Time Jumpers, whose record Kid Sister suffered a similar fate, though it’s release was at least a little bit noticed by the public? There’s one major theory, and it’s the same theory that would explain how Rosanne Cash swept the Grammy Awards’ Americana categories in 2014, even though Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music was the record everyone was talking about heading into the ceremony (Metamodern Sounds did receive a nomination for Best Americana Album).

The problem is that the people both deciding the nominees and the eventual winners are not purely Americana people. Most of them are Grammy contributors from the country realm and the Nashville establishment who only know Americana from the outside looking in. So when they see the list of potential nominees, their eyes gravitate to who they know as opposed to who they know as being the best in a given year.

Jason Isbell finally won multiple Grammy Awards in 2015 after years of being overlooked.

Jason Isbell finally won multiple Grammy Awards in 2015 after years of being overlooked.

Many individuals in the mainstream country music industry are not going to know that younger artists of Americana such as Parker Millsap, Courtney Marie Andrews and Dori Freeman, all of whom found incredible consensus behind their music in 2016. They may even overlook artists like Lucinda Williams who also released an album, who may be better known in the mainstream than some younger candidates, but are still going to be overlooked compared to legends like Kris Kristofferson.

Even the Time Jumpers, though not a band with a huge footprint, they have their name bandied about in Nashville regularly due to their affiliation with Vince Gill and their weekly gigs. The Americana category, which is voted on by big mainstream country voters, gets ground down to a name recognition contest as opposed to experienced and knowledgeable people within the Americana industry making these critical decisions about nominees and winners.

Meanwhile where is Margo Price, who had a massive year that should have at least landed her a nomination in Americana, if not country? Of course it always comes down to subjectivity, but it seems like the Americana category is regularly filled with a few albums that clearly don’t belong, while others that clearly do are left on the sidelines.

Even the Linda Chorney phenomenon was the result of name recognition, even though she wasn’t well-known outside of the Grammy nomination committee. Not knowing who really any of the nominees were in Americana allowed Chorney to be able to sweep in, play the name recognition game, and walk away with a nomination.

And the issue does not just begin and end in the Best Americana Album category. Up and down the American Roots categories, which also include Folk and Bluegrass, there are strange anomalies for the 2017 nominees. Both Sierra Hull’s Weighted Mind and Sarah Jarosz’s Undercurrent were recognized in the Best Folk Album category when both artists and albums are clearly bluegrass. Hull is a graduate of the Berklee College of Music’s bluegrass program, and Jarosz is a graduate from a similar program at the New England Conservatory. Both also released excellent albums that did receive critical acclaim, airplay, and commercial acceptance, and are hard to argue against nominating for a Grammy. But why are they slated in folk when more appropriate records in that particular category got left off?

What is a solution to attempt to straighten out the Americana and roots categories in the annual Grammy nominations? That’s a hard question to answer since the process is so secretive, and the people who decide are unpublicized. From an outside perspective, you can’t identify the flaws in the system because you’re not exactly sure what the system is. Even some who are part of the Grammy process aren’t exactly sure of the full in’s and out’s, and are just as frustrated as the artists, fans, labels, and industry representatives at the annual results, knowing they don’t accurately represent the roots genres.

Though some seem to be concerned about the amount of label heads and other industry individuals on the secret committees and voter rolls that display a conflict of interest in voting and regularly push candidates from their own company in hoping to influence sales with a nomination or a win, others seem to think there are plenty of safeguards in place to make sure that doesn’t occur.

Where there seems to be more universal agreement is that the Americana and American Roots categories need to be voted upon by people who actually have their nose in the music and their finger on the pulse, and can be better arbiters of what is rising and falling within the Americana scene to make sure nominees and winners better represent the music to the greater population. The voting contingent for Americana needs to be more narrow to only include people who are intimate and hands on in Americana. There also appears to be concern that too many of the voters in Americana are grandfathered in, meaning individuals who may have been aware of Americana many years ago, but no longer are in a position to make critical decisions about the Americana artists of today.

Ultimately, the reason the Grammy Awards have an Americana category is to promote the genre’s best and brightest not just for Americana fans, but to the rest of the industry, while also creating an archive for future generations to look back and discover what the best music was in Americana in a given year. But if the system is not working, the opposite case can occur. Music fans who’ve heard about this burgeoning Americana movement—one that just received its own Billboard chart and continues to launch artists that are becoming relevant in the mainstream—can pull up a list of nominees and end up listening to an album of covers as opposed to an original album from an artist who is setting the pace for creativity and resonance in a given year, and it could give a poor representation that can set the entire industry back.

It goes without saying that music is inherently subjective, and no set of nominees is ever going to make everyone happy. However in the case of Americana, you are annually fielding lists of nominees with efforts that are almost universally recognized as not belonging, while other efforts universally recognized as being nearly requirements for earning distinction in the Americana category are nowhere to be found. And this isn’t just the estimation of leering fans, but certain people within the voting process.

A Grammy nomination is an incredible honor for an artist or band, and as the most revered awards show apparatus in American music, it is important to get this process right so that Americana and American Roots can prosper via the Grammy process as opposed to becoming an annual embarrassment for both the American Roots industry, and the Grammy Awards themselves.