Artists Differ On Country's Place In Grammy Hierarchy

This appeared in The Tennessean - February 9, 2007

Although Rascal Flatts and Carrie Underwood are the only mainstream country artists in much-coveted performance slots on Sunday’s Grammy Awards, country music received the sole spotlight at one of the first major events of Grammy Week.

The Grammy Foundation presented The Soul of Country at the Wilshire Ebell Theater in honor of its ninth annual Preservation Project, which annually donates money to help preserve music-themed media, such as film or recordings, that are at risk of deteriorating.

This year’s preservation project is film of some of the most important nights in Grand Ole Opry history that is owned by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

“We’re proud to say that country music has played a major role in the Grammy Awards since we first began recognizing excellence in music 49 years ago,” Neil Portnow, Recording Academy president, told the crowd Thursday night before introducing footage of past Grammy moments featuring country acts.

But how major a role country should play at the Grammys has been a much-debated topic in Nashville for years. Rascal Flatts had the best-selling artist album in all genres this year (second only to the High School Musical soundtrack) and Underwood’s debut album recently received a certification for 5 million units sold.

Is country music viewed equally as significant as the other genres, such as pop, rock and rap, or is viewed by the mainstream music industry as its hillbilly cousin, who is charming but not taken seriously at family reunions?

Most of the Grammys awarded for country performers are given during the non-televised portion of the awards show, and Underwood and Rascal Flatts are not singing their own songs on the televised portion this year. Instead, they are participating in a tribute to Bob Wills and Don Henley. The Dixie Chicks also are performing Sunday, but they no longer consider themselves a part of country.

“It seems like the Grammys have a great way of taking care of everybody’s business from time to time. I remember the early ’90s, when country music seemed to dominate the Grammys,” said Marty Stuart, referring to the genre’s largest-ever sales years that were dominated by Garth Brooks. “Then it seemed to kind of cool awhile. All and all, the Nashville chapter of NARAS is really powerful and our contributions are immeasurable.

“I always feel country music has gotten a real fair shake at the Grammys. It isn’t always our year, but I feel like it’s a fair shake. It always helps when we do our part and put out great music. That is where it begins.”

LeAnn Rimes said country is definitely playing a bigger role in the Grammys: “The music has become so mainstream and so relevant.”

Rimes believes that when she won the Grammy for best new artist a decade ago at age 14, “that was a pivotal moment for country music.” She said, “I think since then it’s grown even more and more and we’ve become a mainstream part of the Grammy organization.

“I don’t think country music is the ‘red-headed step-child’ at all. And especially now in 2007, with country music, look at the album sales we have right now. It’s absolutely insane. So I think they are having to take notice, and we are making them.”

Singer Joe Nichols disagrees, ““I think country never gets its due with anything, really, as far as a global music get-together. Country is always like, ‘If we’ve got time. If we’ve got the slot for that.’ Whereas pop music, they’ll get four or five categories and we’ll get one. We’ll get one or two performances where the pop guys get the whole night.”

“If they look at the way country has been in the last few years, we’ve actually kicked everybody else’s butt. So I think some more respect needs to be paid on a lot of fronts… because a Grammy means the world and country music deserves its share in the pond. They sell more records, they actually appeal to more people and they make more people’s lives happier than a lot of genres do.”

When asked about country’s role at the Grammys, Shooter Jennings responded, “Does it have one?”

Jennings, who noted that country was dealt a blow with the loss of country stations in Los Angeles and New York, said, “I feel like when it comes to the Grammys and a lot of the larger situations, L.A. kind of deals, the people that put it on are there to appreciate what they think is new and good, and it doesn’t have much to do with the history of it as much. Sometimes it gets it due, but if the Grammys were up to me, it would be a lot of country artists playing on it.”

But Grammy show organizers have to contend with each genre fighting for more airtime on a show that can’t expand in length. There are 108 categories, all of whom are hoping for attention during the show. Country is not alone in having most of its awards presented off-camera.

“If you do 22 to 24 musical performances, no matter what you do, you can’t serve 108 categories,” Portnow said. “So what we try to do every year is look at each year as a blank canvas fresh to paint on. Look back on the year in music: What were the highlights? What were the unique moments? And try to be balanced.

“So we’ll never have any particular year where everybody is satisfied in terms of ‘having enough’ on the telecast. We have done a lot about building up our pre-telecast, where we give all of the other awards. In my opinion, every Grammy is equal in value and importance to the artists, so we’ve really stepped up our pre-tels. We have a huge stage, we have master of ceremonies presenters, we have musical performances, we have thousands of attendees now. It’s building into a bigger and better event.”

For the first time, this year’s pre-telecast will be carried live on XM Radio, and Portnow said he hopes the pre-telecast will in the future be televised as well. “We are trying to cover everybody and make sure everybody feels good about what we’re doing.”

Barbara Orbison, widow of legend Roy Orbison, dispels the notion that country artists are not as respected within the musical community as singers from other genres. She said while the industry may divide music into categories, artists don’t see the genres, noting that Orbison received two country Grammys. “Country is really well respected all over the world. As long as we make good country music, we will have respect. Good music is good music.”

Fletcher Foster, Universal South Records senior vice president/general manager and a Recording Industry trustee, said he believes the Grammys offer a fair representation. And he believes Thursday’s event was “absolutely huge” for country.

“I think it’s the perfect timing because our industry is on an upswing. When you look at the diversification of our industry now, whether it be Sugarland and Keith Urban and everything traditional like Joe Nichols and George Jones, and throw in the Bon Jovi and (John) Mellencamp element, you see what the breadth of this industry and format can be, unlike some of the other genres, which start chopping it up. If we can embrace the breadth of that, we will be better off as a genre.”

By Beverly Keel

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