the 2017 Grammy nominations have been announced and, as they manage to do every year, some country fans were left scratching their heads over a couple nominations: Brandy Clark, Sturgill Simpson and Loretta Lynn nominated in the Best Country Album category, and Clark again among the nominees for Best Solo Country Performance?
But, rather than take this opportunity to rip the Grammy folks for being clueless about “popular” country, use it as a chance to become familiar with some good–if outside of the mainstream–country artists. Or, in the case of Lynn, reacquaint yourself with nothing less than country music royalty.
In fact, let’s start with Miss Loretta. While over the years it’s become fashionable to pay homage to country outlaws like Johnny, Merle and Waylon, the 84 year old great-grandmother has been there all along. In fact, I guarantee those three badasses would be the first to point her out as one of country music’s ultimate badasses. This is a woman who defied all the odds–from poverty to sexism–in a time when it was tough for women to defy anything. Through the decades she’s remained relevant, too, never retiring, still making music. But does that alone mean her latest work, Full Circle, deserves a Grammy nod over such notable albums at Eric Church’s Mr. Misunderstood or Carrie Underwood’s Storyteller? To be honest, I can’t say. I wasn’t as blown away by it as I was her 2004 effort Van Lear Rose, which she recorded with Jack White (and which won a Grammy that year). But, given that it has been nominated, I will give it another listen. Maybe with the Grammys and their choices sometimes, that’s the point–in this case, reminding us that old doesn’t mean irrelevant and that a Coal Miner’s Daughter can still matter in the digital age.
The other two artists are, to me, easier to stump for. Brandy Clark’s 2016 album, Big Day In A Small Town, is absolutely deserving, even if it (or the nominated solo performance song “Love Can Go To Hell”) didn’t receive much commercial radio airplay. Every song is written like a short story, full of quirky humor, thought, and sometimes brutal honesty, with hardly a drum loop, bass drop or country cliche to be found. I recommend it to anyone who laments mainstream country’s turn towards pure pop.
Sturgill Simpson is the most interesting pick of the three. He is an alt-country non-conformist who can howl like Waylon, honky-tonk like Buck Owens and, to put it bluntly, trip out like Pink Floyd. I got into his 2014 album Meta-Modern Sounds of Country Music while training for a marathon and played it mile after mile after mile, almost always hearing something new and fresh with each listen. One song in particular, “Turtles All The Way Down”, actually sent me on an epic Google quest through Eastern religious philosophy, a study on LSD and ending with quotes from Bertrand Russell. So, yeah. A Sailor’s Guide To Earth is a similar boundary-pushing album, mixing more hard-core country with hard-core rock, jazz, swampy, fuzzy southern rock…you name it, it’s all in there, plus there’s a Nirvana cover, too.
Say what you will about the Grammys nominating process, especially regarding country–I also feel they can sometimes be a little too eager to honor artists well outside the established mainstream. But, they do get you talking. And if that leads to listening–to an album or an artist you (or me) might otherwise have never given a chance to…then is that such a bad thing?
And if you’re not sure, ask Chris Stapleton.