Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Grammy & SPGMA Awards: Essay

The following essay is an edited version of my CBA Welcome Page column which appears on the second Tuesday of every month. I'm always grateful for CBA for energizing me to think more broadly at least once a month and giving me the forum of their very active site. 

This year the Grammy's and SPBGMA fell on the same weekend. Sitting in our trailer in Lake Manatee State Park near Bradenton, FL, trying to keep an eye on both events was an interesting and thought provoking spectator sport. Much better than the sound of drag racing coming from across the street.

There's something quaint about the name Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America. It suggests that bluegrass is dying and that a major effort is required to keep it alive. The awards themselves are an exercise in nostalgia, a fan-based selection of bands, musicians, and song-writers worthy of recognition who might not have received sufficient notice in other settings, event producers, and others. The arbitrary division of singers into contemporary and traditional divisions allows for more awards to be presented. While, as of last Tuesday, no complete list of SPBGMA Award Winners had yet been posted (Grammy Awards were available almost immediately, as were IBMA winners last fall), it was good to see the Larry Stephenson Band win the Best Album award for his latest gospel album, Pull Your Savior In, Ben Greene as banjo player of the year. and Bertie Sullivan for her very popular festival in Louisiana. Nominations for SPBGMA awards are based on mail-in forms, which, I understand, may be photo-copied and sent anonymously. Final voting is limited to people who pay to attend the SPBGMA festival in Nashville on Saturday night. There is, apparently, no Society, that is, an organization devoted to the preservation of bluegrass music in America. Rather, there is a very popular winter festival held in Nashville which, by all accounts, offers an exciting and engaging time for all who attend. The stunning disregard for attention beyond its own self-serving goals regarding the people who win its awards is obvious from the lack of publicity provided by the awards to its own winners.

Meanwhile, out in Sodom and Gomorrah...., oops, Hollywood, there was also a musical awards ceremony going on. As a matter of personal taste, merely getting past the opening production from AC/DC, looking like a group of severely aging British public (elite private) schoolers, was a real step for me. Much of the music featured on the Grammy awards is really not to my taste, and I don't seek it out for my own listening. The subdivisions between various iterations of rock music or hip hop elude me. Billy Joel wrote, “It's still rock and roll to me,” and I think that applies, broadly, to other genres as well. I spent well over an hour on Sunday night watching the Grammy's while following my Twitter and Facebook feeds. While there were differences in tone and emphasis between the two show, they were useful. (The only coverage of SPBGMA winners was provided by sound engineer/bassist Rebekkah Long, who was there and provided a running list of award winners, without comment.) The Grammy Awards can be counted on for revealing dress, outrageous behavior, and plenty of pizzazz while presenting some stunning performances by up-and-comers, current stars, and legendary former headliners. I'm certain that each separate performance found an audience, but the whole show, because of its broad spectrum, must have had many reaching for their remote control.

But it appears that there's a question about performances at the Grammy Awards: Is it music? Here's three responses from my Facebook feed. “Not my planet...I live amongst people who buy and actually listen to Kanye music, if that's what you call it. He got big because of you and your lack of knowing what music is” comes from one person. Here's former ASCAP VP and current professor of music business at Belmont College Dan Keen's take on the same performer. “Ok...so...I often tell my students that it's pointless to bash success. Just figure out why it works. But...well...I'm looking at the list of Top 5 Grammy winners of all time; Alison Krause (sic) - 28, U2 - 22, John Williams- 21, Chic (sic) Corea-20 - all amazingly worthy and...and...I can't say it....I'm going to throw up...oh lord...Kanye...also with 21. Life has no meaning...” and finally, a comment from Skip Cherryholmes, guitar player for Sideline, “Extremely disappointed with music in general... (If it can even be called that anymore).” I couldn't find the comment I read that there was “no music” on the Grammy show. Lots of what I see and hear isn't to my musical taste. What a sad and boring world it would be if everyone liked exactly the same music I do! And how would I ever discover new music to I enjoy and even come to treasure if I weren't being constantly introduced to more and different music? But whether I like it or not, it's still music. The very modern contemporary classical music composer John Cage once presented a piece in which the performer sat down at the piano and didn't play a note for twenty minutes....the sound of silence. It was music to some ears. So let's give up this meme of what is or isn't music. It's all a matter of taste.

More interesting to me is how did bluegrass and bluegrass related/derived music fare at the Grammy Awards on Sunday? The Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album went to The Earls of Leicester's self-titled (and wonderfully ironic) CD The Earls of Leicester. When I heard this band at IBMA's World of Bluegrass in Raleigh last fall, I found it to be one of the highest impact bluegrass bands I had ever heard: a spot-on tribute to Flatt & Scruggs as they must have sounded at their very best. I imagined it must have struck me the way the original Flatt & Scruggs concert in Carnegie Hall on December 8, 1962 must have hit those who were there. This recording belongs as a key holding in the collection of any lover of bluegrass. It also reminds us of how much power the founders of the genre retain more than fifty years after the original event. How's that for preservation? The Grammy for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album went to Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer for their recording Bass & Mandolin. No one would question Thile's chops as a bluegrass mandolin player. Who would deny him the opportunity to express his genius in other ways and settings? Who wouldn't claim him as “bluegrass”? The Grammy for Best Folk Album went to Old Crow Medicine Show for their CD Remedy. Old Crow doesn't even claim to be a bluegrass band, and Wikipedia describes it as an Americana, old-time string band, alt country, or folk band. But there's no question that it's sound is bluegrass derived, has broadened the popularity of the banjo, the quintessential instrument of bluegrass, and influenced bluegrass as well as being influenced by it. Their song Wagon Wheel is heard from the stage and in jam circles at bluegrass festivals everywhere, so popular it has become a cliché. Finally, one of the most influential of all pre-bluegrass brother duos, The Louvin Brothers, were given a Lifetime Achievement Award during the Grammy's annual Special Merits Awards ceremony. They were also given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the IBMA Special Awards luncheon in 2014. Perhaps most notably, only one performer was nominated for and award at all three ceremonies: Female Vocalist of the Year. Rhonda Vincent won the SPBGMA award.