NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Carrie Underwood Is Grammy’s Big Winner

Dixie Who? The Handwriting Is on the Wall

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

Almost lost in all the furor over the former country music group the Dixie Chicks’ domination of the Grammy Awards was another major development. The knee-jerk vote by liberal Grammy members wanting to send the White House and Nashville and country radio a large middle finger about the alleged persecution and martyrdom of the trio also effectively poisoned the well for other deserving artists in the five categories the Chicks swept.

In essence, all of the other nominees for album of the year, record of the year, song of the year, country album and country duo or group performance never had a chance. And that includes artists of the caliber of Alan Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Little Big Town, Mary J. Blige, Josh Turner, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Willie Nelson, Gnarls Barkley, Rascal Flatts, the Wreckers and many others.

The fact that the Grammys are supposed to be the most prestigious music awards in the world means that they should receive serious consideration and voting. The fact that they most likely did not in this case does not reflect well on Grammy voters or the voting process itself. The fact that there is no way to effectively convince voters to vote for musical excellence — rather than political vindication — is unfortunate but is a fact of life. And the voting process cannot confine Grammy voters to vote only within the genres in which they work and are knowledgeable. Another fact of life.

One major survivor of the very mixed Grammy Awards evening is a young artist who is pretty much right now the new face of country music, just as the Dixie Chicks are pretty much the old face of country music. Underwood was the first country artist to capture the best new artist award since LeAnn Rimes 11 years ago. (Note to purists: Bobbie Gentry received the award in 1967 and so did Debby Boone in 1977, but neither has been considered a country artist.) Underwood also received the Grammy for best female country vocal performance, and her hit, “Jesus Take the Wheel,” was named best country song.

American Idol, for better or for worse, is having a major impact on country music. Its pervasive reach into so many audiences and into so many homes means it’s almost inescapable. And country music remains this nation’s biggest audience, so any artist aspiring to country success can find a magic portal at Idol. That kind of ubiquitous sort of force-feeding means that any Idol performer with genuine talent and a winning personality should be able to capture an audience. The fact that all Idol contestants and winners have not been able to do so is certainly a testimony to the American public’s occasional ability to detect and reject crap, unlike the cynical, scheming Idol screeners and judges.

Underwood is a testament to the ongoing American star-making myth. One thing I noticed immediately the morning after the awards show in reviewing the media coverage was that Underwood got by far the largest photograph of any Grammy artist — period — in the Los Angeles Times’ extensive Grammy coverage. She filled up almost half a page in the Times in a glorious color picture. That means her stardust is working.

And, sometimes, that’s what it’s all about.

The fact that she survived being thrust into performing not her own material but an odd tribute to Bob Wills and Don Henley is an indication of her survivor skills. Rascal Flatts, who also performed during the Henley tribute, were even more ill-suited to the material than she was and did not emerge as well as Underwood did. But she’s proving herself to be a trouper. At this stage, her debut album has sold almost 5 million copies. The Chicks’ latest CD is holding at less than 2 million, after their previous releases were at multiples of that figure.

In backstage press questioning, Underwood didn’t wilt as she refused to be drawn into a Dixie Chicks controversy about who was giving the finger to whom. I couldn’t make this up, but this is what she said when asked about the Chicks “giving the finger” to the country music establishment: “Next question, please. I don’t like talking about anyone giving the finger.”

Well, all right. That’s refreshing in an age of increasing vulgarity. It also shows a lot more grace and class than Natalie Maines’ clueless and rude invoking of the Simpson’s “heh-heh” in her little country Grammy acceptance speech.

Does it sound like I like Carrie Underwood? Well, I do. I think she’s genuine and charming. Her style is emerging, and she will grow into the mature artist that she is not yet. But at this stage in her career, I can see a bit of Reba and Dolly in her, and I think that says much about her.