NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Where Was Norah Jones?

She's the Other "Missing Woman" at Grammy Awards

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

People were talking large at the Grammy Awards about the woman who was “missing” from the ceremony and all the hoopla. They were obviously referring to Janet Jackson, who had been disinvited, following her alleged wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl junction. She was going to be allowed on the show only if she apologized. Which she obviously was not going to do.

But there was another woman missing in action at the Grammys, and I’m surprised more of a fuss has not been made about that. Apparently, few noticed her negligible presence.

To wit: Where the hell was Norah Jones? A year ago, this young artist picked off five individual Grammy awards, and her debut album (which earned three more Grammys) has since sold 8 million copies in the U.S. and another 10 million around the world. She has another CD just out. You would think that someone who was so prominent on last year’s show and was such a potent force in last year’s music mix would be worth more than a quick appearance as presenter on this year’s awards show. Perhaps she would be asked to perform. Apparently, that was not the case.

But it’s very easy to see that she doesn’t fit the mold of what’s being pitched as TV-worthy music these days. You somehow cannot see Norah Jones wearing a costume that’s just barely there — or doing anything else that’s out of character for her. She is just about the music.

Norah Jones has done more to repair and renew and rejuvenate and re-energize and resuscitate and revitalize popular music than any single artist on the scene since probably Garth Brooks.

Her example and her influence have reached far into country music. For one thing she re-introduced the pop world once again to Hank Williams’ exquisite songwriting — just as fellow pop-jazz artist Tony Bennett did 53 years ago when his superb recording of Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” galvanized pop audiences and took Nashville songwriting to the world. Jones’ sultry and knowing rendition of that same “Cold, Cold Heart” made a wonderful half-century bookend to the Williams saga. Imagine what a sparkling duet that would be: Jones and Bennett combining talents on Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart.” Would fit right in on any awards show, right?

For another thing, she is the quintessential singer-songwriter. Able to pick and choose songs and elements out of any genre of music and make all the diverse elements and influences work for her as a Norah Jones song. I can tell you that I’ve heard many Nashville songwriters and artists talk about her, and it’s usually in glowing terms. If envious ones. And she’s a champion of intelligent songwriting and good melodies; properties not often found in any form of pop music these days.

On her new CD Feels Like Home, Jones spreads out her alt-country tendencies, and they’re becoming even more palpable.

Even apart from her duet with Dolly Parton on “Creepin’ In,” and her rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s “Be Here to Love Me,” her arrangements are discernibly leaning country. In an NPR interview, Jones said she’s been listening to Alison Krauss & Union Station, Gillian Welch, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Parton’s bluegrass albums. On “Creepin’ In,” she and Parton sound like soul sisters. They first sang together at last year’s CMA Awards with “The Grass Is Blue,” and Jones also sang that on the tribute album Just Because I’m a Woman. Obviously the two clicked like kindred spirits.

Jones also told NPR that she has tried to emulate jazz master Bill Evans on piano but is discovering that her piano playing is actually more country than jazz. The addition of The Band’s Levon Helm on drums and Garth Hudson on organ and accordion here further drench some of the songs with a rich Americana hue. In some ways, Jones is beginning to strike me as the other side of Lucinda Williams, the calmer, gentler – but no less fierce side. They just have different and very distinctive ways at getting at and capturing similar emotions and feelings and intensities.

Townes Van Zandt’s “Be Here to Love Me” comes across as a torchy, down and gritty love song that she was born to sing. Hudson’s lovely filigreed accordion fillips push her along, making her sound like a daughter of The Band.

This is already sounding like one of the best CDs of 2004 — in any musical genre. I’m not trying to argue that it’s a country album by any means, but there is a great deal here that country fans will love and identify with. Norah, you’ve always got a splendid future as a country singer. You need never be a “missing woman” again.