New Grammy Americana Award Only Partially Solves Problem

Jason Isbell accepting 2018 Grammy Award for Best Americana Album

Last week, the Grammy Awards announced a host of new awards that will be handed out in 2023. Much more than what the public sees on the big telecast each year, the Grammys now have 90 separate awards they hand out annually, many being awarded during the “Premier Ceremony” which happens before the big television presentation, and to musicians who often are the best in their field, and would otherwise not be recognized by any big awards organization. This is what makes the Grammy’s unique.

Take country music for example. While the CMA and ACM Awards often only focus on major label artists and commercial success, the Grammy Awards have a whole “American Roots” category that includes bluegrass, Americana (where many actual country artists get categorized), folk, and blues awards. There were eight total American Roots awards in 2022. But in 2023, there will be nine.

Along with adding a new award for “Songwriter of the Year” which could definitely impact the country and roots world, the Grammy Awards also added a new award for music featured in video games and interactive media, spoken word poetry, a new alternative music performance category, a category for social justice song, and a new “Best Americana Performance” award.

The Grammy Awards define the new Americana category as, “A track and single Category that recognizes artistic excellence in an Americana performance by a solo artist, collaborating artists, established duo, or established group.” Unlike “Best Song” categories, this award will go to the performer, not the songwriters.

The new award will give one more opportunity for Americana artists (and some country artists by proxy) to be nominated and win in what has become one of the most crowded categories in all of the Grammy Awards. In 2021, Best Rock Performance was the most crowded field, with 523 entries, followed by Best American Roots Performance with 521, and Best Pop Solo Performance with 454.

There are two song awards within the American Roots category: “Best American Roots Song,” and “Best American Roots Performance.” But unlike the new “Americana Performance” award, all of the American roots genres—contemporary and traditional blues, folk, bluegrass, as well as regional roots—compete with each other for those awards. This new award will strictly be for performance tracks designated as “Americana.”

But therein lies the first problem with this new category: most anything that isn’t outright pop, heavy metal, Latin, electronic, jazz, or classical can be categorized as “Americana,” including much of traditional country, now significant portions of vintage influenced rock, certain indie rock, and even some jazz, Latin, R&B, and classic pop tracks if they have some roots influence.

For example, in 2022, Jon Batiste won both the Best American Roots Song and Best American Roots Performance Grammy Awards for the song “I Cry.” Jon Batiste is mostly known as a jazz and R&B artist, but when listening to “I Cry,” sure, you could classify it as “Americana,” because so much is classified as Americana these days.

But the dilemma that was presented by Jon Batiste winning was you had an artist with little or no ties to Americana or the American Roots realm winning not one, but both American Roots song awards, keeping that distinction out of the hands of artists more native to the American roots world, namely artists such as Allison Russell, Valerie June, Yola, and Rhiannon Giddens who were all nominated in 2022, and lost out to Jon Batiste.

Meanwhile, Jon Batiste went on to win the all genre category of Best Video, and the biggest award of the night, Album of the Year. He also performed on the main telecast, with backup dancers, choreography, a major stage presentation, etc.—stuff counterintuitive to the often non-commercial realm of American roots and Americana music.

Adding a new Americana performance category will definitely give another Americana artist a shot, and it can only be seen as a sum positive for the roots world. But there’s nothing keeping a popular artist like Jon Batiste from coming in and winning the new Americana award next year too.

Furthermore, another common problem these American Roots song categories face is that when an artist wins one, they tend to win them all, just like Jon Batiste did in 2022 for “I Cry,” and John Prine did in 2021 for “I Remember Everything.” In both 2016 and 2018, Jason Isbell won both Best Americana Album and Best American Roots Song. In 2014, Rosanne Cash won Best Americana Album, Best American Roots Song, and Best American Roots performance.

In other words, once you win the Grammy for Best Americana Album or for one of the American Roots song categories, there a good chance you’ll win multiple Grammys. Maybe it’s because those Grammy Awards are deserved. But there’s also the chance this new Best Americana Performance will be captured by this same multiple win phenomenon, meaning it won’t be another artist winning a Grammy Award, but the same artist winning more Grammy Awards.

Meanwhile, many country fans continue to wonder why some of their favorite artists continue to be nominated under Americana, if they’re nominated at all. While the Grammy Awards are considering adding new categories, one or two for traditional country could help give true country artists some more representation, while also alleviating some of the overcrowding in the Americana Grammys, and in the American Roots categories in general. Best Traditional Country Performance and Best Traditional Country Album awards could help give greater representation to artists often overlooked by the Grammys.

Let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth. With this additional Grammy award, that’s one more winner, and five more nominees who can subsequently call themselves Grammy recognized, which believe it or not, can make a major difference in the career of an artist. But the most important thing is how this new award is used, namely that it goes to actual Americana artists, and that it’s not “just another award” for the Americana artist each year who virtually sweeps the Grammy Americana/American Roots Song categories.

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