Rating the Grammys: Alison Krauss and Robert Plant Rule

Sugarland and Kenny Chesney Were Vocal Standouts

Last year, there were two full-fledged country performances on the Grammy Awards show — by Brad Paisley and by Carrie Underwood. That’s out of a cast of 35 featured artists and groups performing. This year, there was a big handful of them, and country was all over the place.

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss — deservedly — ruled the evening. Kenny Chesney had a nice feature spot for his “Better as a Memory” and was introduced by actor Morgan Freeman as a “poet.” Keith Urban was pressed to do double duty after R&B star Chris Brown ran afoul of the law shortly before the telecast began, and Brown and his girlfriend Rihanna subsequently did not appear on the show. Already scheduled to appear with B.B. King, Buddy Guy and John Mayer in a tribute to the late Bo Diddley, Urban was enlisted to play guitar in a band backing Al Green, Justin Timberlake and Boyz II Men in a tribute to Green. Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus were charming. All in all, the Grammy show was an amiable, sprawling three-hour-plus circus, which is what its fans love.

Overall, the 2009 Grammy treatment of country music seems to have been, for want of a less nuanced term, fair and balanced. The nominees were a fair and thorough reflection of the year’s best recorded work. The winners were a further validation of the best that the voters evaluated. It’s hard to tell what can be realistically done beyond that.

I do find one thing peculiar. There are 110 total Grammy categories each year, and only 10 of those are given during the televised show. The only country award in those 10 — and the only one that gets any airtime — is the Grammy for best country performance by a duo or group with vocals. If there’s only going to be one, why not make it for album or song?

It’s difficult to feel self-satisfied, though, knowing that country music should not have to fight for table scraps at music’s biggest banquet. Country music is a dominant force in popular music, if not the dominant force, and should think about flexing its muscles accordingly. In the past — and there’s no point in dwelling overly much on this — Grammy country wins were often clubhouse favorites. That does not seem to be the case, anymore, fortunately.

Krauss and Plant were justifiably the Grammy story of the year, even though their collaboration began years ago as a proposed CMT Crossroads episode . That show finally happened, and so did an album. The results of their pairing up have now hovered over two Grammy awards sessions in a row, thanks to Grammy’s eligibility status rules. Plant and Krauss won last year for pop collaboration with vocals for the song “Gone, Gone, Gone (Done Moved On)” from the album, Raising Sand, which earned them five more awards this year. Their big wins were foregone conclusions. It’s a perfect Grammy voters’ pairing: a bluegrass singer of immaculate vocal purity and music taste teams up with a genuine rock god who late in life discovered good music. Krauss now has 26 Grammys. Her closest Nashville rival is Vince Gill, who won his 20th this year, as one of eight pickers on the Brad Paisley instrumental song, “Clusterpluck.”

Sugarland now have two deserved Grammys, after winning this year for country song (an award that went to vocalist Jennifer Nettles) and for country performance by a duo or group — both for the song, “Stay.” Nettles won a Grammy in 2006 for her duet with Bon Jovi on the song “Who Says You Can’t Go Home.” Paisley collected two more Grammys, giving him a total of three. Despite a long and distinguished career, George Strait now has a total of one Grammy. His trophy for country album was very much deserved and long overdue, which undoubtedly weighed on the minds of some voters.

One very impressive Grammy debut this year, although it hasn’t been mentioned much, is that of guitarist Orianthi Panagaris, who was Carrie Underwood’s lead guitar player on the show. A native of Adelaide, Australia, this young guitar virtuoso uses only her first name professionally and is recording for Geffen Records. She has already jammed with Carlos Santana, played with Steve Vai and performed at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival.

Paul McCartney delivered what was probably the best-received performance of the evening, for his rousing performance of the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There.” Now 45 years old, that song was older than many of those at the show. Some things endure.

The rap and hip-hop stars have got this Grammy award business figured out — just make a whole bunch of records featuring each other. Like Jay-Z & T.I. featuring Kanye West & Lil Wayne, Young Jeezy featuring Kanye West, Lil Wayne featuring Jay-Z, Ludacris featuring T.I. They have the nomination field covered. Everybody wins. Even the Grammy voters, who only know three or four hip-hop names. This makes the voting process much easier. Just pick a name you recognize!

Ricky Skaggs gave an eloquent acceptance speech for his award, with his band Kentucky Thunder, for best bluegrass album, Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass: Tribute to 1946 and 1947, a tribute to Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. He thanked his predecessors, noting, “In August of 1946, five men went into a studio in Chicago with producer Art Satherly and created a new form of music, that we know as bluegrass. I wanted to honor them. Earl Scruggs is here tonight, so if you get a chance, go by and shake his hand. He’s the only surviving member of those five men.”

And John Jorgenson added another nice footnote. In accepting the award for the “Cluster Pluck” win for country instrumental (Paisley was not there), he thanked Leo Fender, the inventor of the Fender Telecaster guitar — which was the guitar of choice for all the pickers on that record. The Telecaster remains the favorite electric guitar of most country pickers.

And, finally, who would have thought that in 2009, Kenny Chesney would sound more country than many of his contemporary country artists?

View photos and news coverage of the Grammy Awards.