Grass for Grammy
By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
February 5, 2009 - 9:30 pm
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.
It's not often that bluegrass music and prime-time television converge, which is probably a good thing.
But a little national attention toward this music gives us hobby pickers some satisfaction and sells more recordings and concert tickets for the people who risk financial ruin to follow the lonesome road.
So hoist a toast everyone, The SteelDrivers are about to crash the televised portion of the Grammy Awards show on Sunday, Feb. 8, at 7 p.m. central standard time.
The bluesy bluegrass band from Nashville is nominated for the best country performance by a duo or a group with vocals. How they showed up in this category is a surprise, although I have a theory that they're a breath of fresh air to Grammy voters.
Last year about this time, I wrote a column about The SteelDrivers for the Cafe.
My old friends from way-back-when have enjoyed plenty of songwriting, recording and touring success in the past couple of decades in various music styles. But their debut album on Rounder was special to me because it had the fire and spirit that put so many of us on the bluegrass trail.
Now they'll be able to say they were nominated for a Grammy.
Mike Fleming, bass player and vocalist, tells me that Rounder nominated the band in several Grammy bluegrass and country music categories.
But they garnered only one nomination. Their song, "Blue Side of the Mountain," is up against some big money makers for corporate country.
Also nominated in this category are Brooks & Dunn, Lady Antebellum, Rascal Flatts and Sugarland.
Whoa! How did this happen to our little old bluegrass band?
They've got a lead singer who plays a Martin D-28 guitar, a unique banjo player, a powerhouse gal fiddler, a crusty mandolinist/National slide guitar picker, and a rock steady doghouse bass thumper.
There's no laser light show, no fog machines, no dancing and preening, no putting people in flight with wires, no people standing in the dim background who can really play to carry those in the spotlight who supposedly can play.
Last year I watched a country music awards show that paraded out a variety of retread rock stars as keynote performers to show country music's broad appeal. I guess so the industry can supposedly attract more young CD and online digital track buyers.
But you know, I find Kid Rock about as country as a pay parking lot. And I noticed that when the cameras panned the politely applauding audience during various performances, none of the REAL country singers and pickers were smiling. They didn't like the scene either.
So what's different for Sunday?
Maybe there's corporate politicking that we don't know about, where some big label said let the little SteelDrivers into the mix so our big star will have a better chance of winning.
But I'd like to think it's something else.
I'm going to cast an opinion that many in the music industry are as sick as I am of techno electric, cyberfied, calculated, theatrical and wishy washy hard rock presented as country music.
Those people chose the SteelDrivers as a nominee in this category as an act of rebellion.
Not that this is the first time for our kind to get Grammy television exposure.
Bluegrass-born Alison Krause has a pile of Grammy awards for various things, acoustic and not. I remember Mark O'Connor being featured once and he brought along some bluegrass stars to stand behind him. Vince Gill led a prime-time tribute to Bill Monroe during the Grammys following the Master's death.
Then there's the times when music tied to movies crashed the Grammy party: "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" for the 1960s Bonnie and Clyde film; "Dueling Banjos" in the 1970s from "Deliverance," and a general nod a few years back for the music in "Oh Brother Where Art Thou."
But most years, recognition for the music is absent from national television. Bluegrass and folk Grammys are among those passed out "earlier today."
We generally have to read the next morning's paper or find some kind of complete Internet web site to found out what happened.
I've no guarantee that The SteelDrivers will find out their fate in prime time, either. Some of the awards to be presented on-air are not decided until the day before the show, Fleming said. Although, their publicist has been contacted by the Grammy folks and told it's likely their category will be on the broadcast.
Check back in with this column on Monday and we'll update you on the outcome in case you miss the show.
If they lose, well, the nomination is still a feather on their CD case.
But if they win, I'll think of literally years of practice, travel, disappointments, successes followed by dead ends that were overcome by a dedication to music that is profound.
So good luck SteelDrivers, my six-pack's on ice, and I'm celebrating either way.
SteelDrivers web site
Attention column readers, the results are in and Sugarland beat out The SteelDrivers and others in that Grammy category.
The night wasn't a total loss for us bluegrass buzzards.
Alison Krauss won big, again, and her partner in this effort, Robert Plant, heartily thanked Norman Blake and Stuart Duncan for their work on the recording during his acceptance speech.
Bela Fleck won best pop instrumental album for his Christmas recording.
Ricky Skaggs took home the bluegrass Grammy for his tribute to the masters.
But Alison and The Steeldrivers were the prime time party crashers.