NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Does Grammy Have a Country Music Problem?

Awards Show Displays Some Dysfunctional Family Symptoms

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

Does Grammy have a country music problem? You might begin to think so from watching this year’s awards show. When all but one of the country awards are presented before the show and when only three of the 26 performances are by country artists and when only three of the presenters (all three in one award presentation) are country artists, I think it’s pretty plain that country music has been sent to sleep on the couch and told to stay the hell out of the bedroom.

Reflecting this seeming neglect, very few country artists attended the 48th annual Grammy Awards ceremony. And almost none of the nominees, apart from the winners, were there.

Gretchen Wilson has had multiple Grammy nominations and one win — and zero Grammy performances. Why? Merle Haggard, who was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award, did not attend and did not say why.

Just judging from the paucity of country attendance at the awards show, it’s apparent there’s a growing unease with Grammy among country artists and others in the country music industry. I could not, of course, be sure of who was there and who was not, but there were not many cowboy hats in sight and the most prominent one was on Bono’s head.

Of the country Grammy winners this year, Emmylou Harris wasn’t there and, since they won three awards, Alison Krauss & Union Station represented three places. The songwriters for country song of the year, “Bless the Broken Road,” were there, but Rascal Flatts, who recorded it, were not there to support them. The only country winners who showed up in the TV/radio press room backstage were AKUS and the Del McCoury Band.

The only country artists that I know did show up on the preshow red carpet were Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, Big & Rich, Cowboy Troy, the Del McCoury Band, Sugarland and Rodney Crowell. Nominee Lee Ann Womack, who knew by early afternoon that she had not won, walked the red carpet anyway and talked to media to show her support for country music.

I know that a lot of people in the country music industry in Nashville have long had a problem with Grammy actually honoring real country singers, such as Harris, Krauss and Johnny Cash, instead of giving the gold paperweights out to today’s trendy performers on the basis of radio charts and SoundScan sales, but that’s a whole other thing, and those people need to get over that. There should not be a distinction between heritage artists and truly gifted contemporary artists, as opposed to the obvious flashes in the pan. Emmylou and Cash and Krauss and other such artists are a huge and integral part of the country music picture, and Grammy’s purported mission is to honor good music and good artists.

I think it’s fairly obvious these days that Grammy is looking closely at demographics and at TV ratings — certainly so in deciding who performs and who presents. But I think it is also very possible that Grammy may be leaning in its own way toward charts and SoundScan results in many of its awards. I know a worldwide vote by individual voters cannot be skewed, but I also know that persistent industry talk can heavily influence that voting.

And I also know that there remains a heavy anti-country bias in many areas of media, advertising and business. I had thought the whole hay bale thing had disappeared years ago, but only last fall when Cowboy Troy was at a pre-CMA Awards function in New York City, lo and behold! The hay bales somehow appeared.

If Grammy is heading its awards show in directions that do country music no favors, then perhaps that’s a wakeup call. Country music does have considerable marketplace clout and fan base support. And it should now and then not be afraid of wielding that power.