NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Grammy Awards Get Major Retooling

Country Music and Nashville Take Big Hits

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

The Grammy Awards have taken a major first step to scaling down. After beginning in 1959 with 28 awards fields — which seemed excessive at the time — the Grammy Awards gradually morphed into an obese, unhealthy monster with awards in 109 fields given out at the last daylong ceremonies, in January of this year.

On Wednesday (April 6), Recording Academy president Neil Portnow announced a long-overdue slimming-down process. The Grammys remain the most prestigious music awards program in the world, but it had been experiencing growing credibility problems.

The first step, Portnow said, is to eliminate 31 of those 109 fields, through combining some and by simply abolishing others. A premonition of this came in 2009 when the polka category was dropped. That mainly came about because there were so few artist entries in that category and because one artist — Jimmy Sturr — usually won. That same sort of trend of slender lists of eligible artists was also beginning to become evident in other areas.

Country music was one of those areas, as were pop, rock, folk, gospel, Latin, blues and roots music. I am not going to name any names, but in recent years, the list of eligible country music entrants in some country categories noticeably shrank and at the same time showed a definite lack of luster in the quality of the entrants’ work. Finding a true Grammy-worthy performance in a tiny talent pool obviously became very difficult.

As a result, the Grammy country music field has shrunk from seven to four categories. This was done by combining male and female vocal performance nominations into one category and by dropping the country instrumental and vocal collaboration with vocals categories. The remaining categories are best country vocal performance, best duo or group, best country song and best country album.

The same thing happened in gospel music (reduced from seven to five categories), in American roots (nine down to five), pop music (seven down to four), R&B (eight down to four), and rock (seven down to four).

So, at the next Grammy Awards, country and Nashville-based artists and musicians will be reduced by a total of 45 nominations — 15 fewer in country, 10 fewer in gospel and 20 fewer in American roots music.

Niche music categories such as Hawaiian music, Native American music and Cajun/zydeco were dropped altogether, and there will be vocal complaints heard about that (although such works can be submitted in the new category of best regional roots music album). Although, curiously, the award for best surround sound album remains and is unscathed.

Overall, the changes will greatly impact Nashville musicians and artists. As Rodney Crowell told The Tennessean, “And the middle class continues to shrink.”

The general category remains unchanged. The categories are record of the year (won last time out by Lady Antebellum‘s “Need You Now” ), album of the year, song of the year (won by Lady A’s “Need You Now”) and best new artist.

A major change touches on the number of genuine artist entries. Each category must now have at least 40 artist entries submitted (up from 25). Any category getting only 25 to 39 submissions will only include three recordings as nominees. Any category receiving less than 25 submissions will not be considered that year on the Grammys. And any category that gets less than 25 submissions for three consecutive years will be dropped permanently. Any member of the Academy, or a media company or record company that has registered with the Academy may submit entries to be considered for a Grammy nomination.

The Grammys will face many more challenges. In an era when the concepts and realities of physical “record” and “album” are fast fading, those terms remain central to many Grammy awards areas, and entries must be submitted as hard copies, preferably on CD. How long can that last? Welcome to the digital world, anyone?