(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
As my friend and colleague Chris Morris has pointed out online, many in the public and in the media have a skewed view of the Grammys. They fully expect it to be about the future. In this particular case that Chris was bringing up, it was The New York Times which was lamenting the fact that this year’s Grammy show was not “forward-looking” enough.
It never has been. It’s about TV ratings and selling music. You can accuse the Grammys of many things, but living in the future is not one of them. To begin with, anyone anywhere in the music business who claims to divine the future is a wishful thinker, at best.
No one in the world could have predicted that this year’s best musical moment would come from a commercial (for the food chain Chipotle, no less) sung by a 79-year-old country singer. Willie Nelson’s interpretation of Coldplay’s “The Scientist” outstrips that group’s interpretation of its own song when coupled with the expressive video.
Of the night’s music highlights on the show itself, other than the marvelous display of vocal prowess that was Adele, the greatest musical moments of the night came from the 70-year-old Paul McCartney, the 63-year-old Bruce Springsteen and the 76-year-old Glen Campbell.
There is no substitute for the years of accrued, hard-won experience and for the musical knowledge that exists in the heads and hearts of artists such as Nelson, McCartney and Springsteen. Some day, performers the likes of Chris Brown and Nicki Minaj may approach that level of musicality and acquire those exacting musical standards. Although I seriously doubt it.
McCartney’s wonderful medley was a potent reminder of how much pop and rock music have been influenced by the Beatles. And the three songs that Nelson, Campbell and Springsteen delivered came from vastly different backgrounds, although each, in its intent and message, could be very much considered a country song.
“The Scientist” came from the band Coldplay (in this case, Chris Martin was inspired to write it after listening to George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass”). The video for it, titled “Back to the Start,” is from filmmaker Johnny Kelly. Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own” is very much in the folk tradition of Woody Guthrie. “Rhinestone Cowboy” is a marvelous piece of American mythology from songwriter Larry Weiss.
And each in its own way is very much forward-looking. “The Scientist,” simply put, is a call for sustainable agriculture, as opposed to factory farming. “We Take Care of Our Own” is a call for each member of society to do just that. “Rhinestone Cowboy” is a reminder of the musical drive to succeed that each generation will experience. These are themes that will never go out of style.
Of course, one large, lingering issue remains: Glen Campbell was largely defined by the wonderful songs he recorded from the pen of the pop master Jimmy Webb. Where was “Galveston,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” or “Wichita Lineman”?
“The Scientist,” in particular, was a welcome relief from the usual bombast and overkill of the stage extravaganzas most Grammy shows have come to favor over the years.
And there were other good performances in the show that paid homage to great artists who came before. Bruno Mars, for one, invoked the very spirit of the late James Brown. Mars is by no means a retro artist. But it’s hard to know where you’re going if you can’t see where you’ve been.
That’s one reason I share a concern with many people about Grammy’s decision this year to eliminate or consolidate many music categories. Those most affected include music fields specifically involving American roots and vernacular music. I suspect we haven’t heard the last about this issue, especially as long as artists such as Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock and Paul Simon continue to voice their concerns about it.
P.S.: The most telling Grammy visual I retain is a still picture of Lady Gaga in her fishnet rig, clutching her scepter, sitting next to Miranda Lambert and staring at her as if Lambert were some sort of alien from outer space. A vast cultural divide there, to be sure.
P.P.S.: One person who should have been included in the Grammy list of R.I.P. tributes is the late art director Bill Johnson. I had the pleasure of working with Bill at Rolling Stone, where he redesigned the magazine’s logo into what you see today. When Bill moved to Nashville to head up the art department at what is now Sony Nashville, he designed dozens of beautiful album covers, including Rosanne Cash’s King’s Record Shop, for which he deservedly won a Grammy.