(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Now and then, a Grammy nomination is just so right, just so sweetly right, that it renews my faith in the whole awards process. For a while, anyway. And, of course, a nomination does not mean a win, but sometimes a nomination in itself is such a validation of work by an artist or artists that it becomes its own justification.
There are a few examples in this year's Grammy class of nominees. I won't call them "unlikely" nominees, because to music lovers they are indeed likely. But to a majority of casual listeners, I would have imagined some of the nominations out of the question.
One such example in the 2009 Grammy hopper is one recognition in the category of best country performance by a duo or group with vocals. It's for the new group the SteelDrivers, namely for their performance of the song "Blue Side of the Mountain" from the group's self-titled debut album.
In this category, the SteelDrivers are up against some tough competition in the form of Sugarland, Rascal Flatts, Brooks & Dunn and new group Lady Antebellum (themselves a worthy and almost as unlikely nomination). Can the SteelDrivers win, come Grammy night, Feb. 8? Sure. Anyone can win. In this case, perhaps the Flatts voters and Sugarland voters and B&D voters will cancel each other out and the Drivers or Lady A may squeeze by. So they have a genuine chance at winning, but will they win? That's more problematic. The odds are against them, but ... you can't always predict Grammy voters' thinking. Occasionally, you can. In last year's album of the year category, the Herbie Hancock entry is a perfect example of Grammy voters' type of record. Hancock's Joni Mitchell tribute, River: The Joni Letters, is a music lovers' work, an album that typically didn't sell a lot because it's not mass market fodder, but it's an album to be greatly respected nonetheless.
This year, the Robert Plant-Alison Krauss album Raising Sand is similarly a Grammy voters' darling, and I predict it will win. It's an eclectic album by respected artists, featuring completely unexpected music, and there's nothing Grammy voters love more (Hancock's winning album was his first Grammy album that was not completely instrumental). Hancock had won 10 Grammys before that, and Krauss has won 21. (Plant has one Grammy, for lifetime achievement, as a member of Led Zeppelin). Grammy voters love Hancock and Krauss as artists, but the music still has to be there.
And the music is there with the SteelDrivers. Nominally a bluegrass band, they are so much more that you really need to hear the music to fully grasp what they're doing. The group is comprised of five very able journeyman (one of whom is a woman) musicians who have been around the block a time or two. The group was founded by longtime Nashville musician (here handling the mandolin) Mike Henderson, formerly of the Bluebloods. There is not much that fiddler Tammy Rogers hasn't done musically. Banjo player Richard Bailey boasts a similar resume, as does bass player-baritone singer Mike Fleming. Finally, Chris Stapleton is a big-voiced lead singer who is close to being an R&B shouter, and it's his rough edges that complete the SteelDrivers' sound.
Their debut album is a busy amalgam of original songs, done in a muscular and energetic blue-collar, bluesy form of bluegrass. The nominated song, "Blue Side of the Mountain," showcases Stapleton's raspy vocals, Rogers' harmony singing and the group's musical prowess. And it shows how they move from the darker side of bluegrass to a broader musical area, spreading tendrils into blues and country and beyond.
Come Grammy night, their award category might well be a free-for-all.
Author's note: Grammy voting ended Jan. 14.
See the SteelDrivers on CMT.com's Unplugged at Studio 330.