We’ve now been to the movie and we know how it ends. Two powerful women of country music, snubbed in recent years by the radio format their heroines helped build into America’s largest, showed the music industry – on that imperfect but necessary stage that is the Grammy Awards - that they are the voices and songwriters of now.
Washington state folk star Brandi Carlile turned in one of the most commanding and audience-thrilling performances of the broadcast. And Nashville artist Kacey Musgraves capped a day of sweeping four categories by winning Best Country Album and Album of the Year for her opus Golden Hour.
“Winning this doesn’t make my album any better than anybody else’s in that category. They’re all so good,” Musgraves said with emotion at the tail end of a long but entertaining broadcast. “Life is pretty tumultuous right now for all of us I feel like. It can feel that way. And because of that, art is really thriving. It’s been really beautiful to see that. Thank you for championing mine.”
That credit could be spread widely – country radio excepted. Critics embraced Golden Hour immediately after its March 2018 release, praising its dreamy tone and its childlike wonder at love and nature. Country skeptics and country music lovers alike took the iconoclastic project to heart and fueled a year of growth for Musgraves as a touring artist. (She will play three sold out shows at the Ryman Auditorium starting Feb. 27.) Sharing the Album award as co-producers were Nashville veterans Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, making it a triumphant night for Music City’s lower-profile creatives. It was the first time an album won in the country category and overall since Taylor Swift’s Fearless in 2010. And earlier in the day, Musgraves won Best Country Song with “Space Cowboy” and Best Country Solo Performance with “Butterflies,” making a remarkable sweep.
History may not remember Musgraves’s live performance on the CBS Grammy Awards broadcast as vividly as her accolades, not there was anything wrong with her serene voice-and-piano version of “Rainbow,” which was released as a single simultaneously. But her spare and simple delivery came on a night with more than a few Grammy spectacles and collaborations that actually worked, including Janelle Monae’s Princely purple and sensuous “Make Me Feel” and a beguiling tech-pop duo of St. Vincent and Dua Lipa doing “Masseduction” and “One Kiss.” Dua Lipa immediately thereafter won the night’s Best New Artist category, making fellow nominee Margo Price, one acclaimed country female who didn’t get a chance to shine Sunday night.
It is safe to say that only pre-existing Brandi Carlile fans knew the drama to come when she took the stage with her band to sing “The Joke.” Nobody expects folk singers to hit what the industry calls “money notes,” but when Carlile reached the climbing crescendo of her chorus, her voice breaking just right and soaring to its climax, there was a palpable shift in the room, perceptible even over television, to a collective awe. Her staging really helped sell the timeliness and urgency of the song as well. The verses tell stories of marginalized people – a gay youth, a refugee mother – struggling to be heard or dignified. The lyrics of the chorus then emerged in handwriting on a screen: “Let them laugh while they can / Let them spin, let them scatter in the wind / I have been to the movies / I’ve seen how it ends / And the joke’s on them.”
It wasn’t just the career-pivoting performance (a prediction I’m willing to make) that put Carlile in rarified air yesterday. She won all three of the American Roots field categories in which she was nominated: American Roots Song, American Roots Performance (both for “The Joke”) and Americana Album, for By The Way, I Forgive You.
Despite having been passed over for any Americana Music Association awards last fall, after getting three nominations for this widely-praised album, Carlile praised the format and her comfort in it in one of her acceptance speeches during the afternoon: “Americana music is the island of the misfit toys,” Carlile said. “I am such a misfit. But it is this music that has shaped my life and made me who I am, and even given me my family. I came out of the closet at 15 years old, when I was in high school, and I can assure you that I was never invited to any parties. I never got to attend a dance. To be embraced by this enduring and loving community has been the dance of a lifetime. Thank you for being my island.”
Elsewhere in the Roots field, The Travelin’ McCourys won the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. The self-titled project was this band’s first-ever recording, although the members are the musical core of the Del McCoury Band, well-known to Grammy voters who’ve granted the bluegrass family 14 nominations and two wins over the years. The quirky and dynamic Fantastic Negrito took home the Contemporary Blues Album award for Please Don’t Be Dead, while 82-year-old veteran Buddy Guy won his seventh Grammy in the Traditional Blues category.
In what may emerge as a controversial pick (it was for me), The Best Folk Album award went to All Ashore by Punch Brothers. In a year where the simple, artful story songs of Joan Baez, Dom Flemons, Iron & Wine and Mary Gauthier were nominated, the Recording Academy tapped an album that by any fair reckoning is a sophisticated contemporary pop album. All Ashore is superb and imaginative, to be sure, and played on string band instruments, but Mary Gauthier’s Rifles & Rosary Beads, which drew out the real life stories of combat veterans and their wives, was a year-shaking album in the folk world and was far more suited to this specifically named category.
MusicCares, the foundation dedicated to supporting music industry folk through health or financial struggles, has honored a Person of the Year since 1991 and this year it was Dolly Parton, the first country star to receive the honor. She was feted at a stand-alone event in the days running up to the Grammy Awards and then hosted her own tribute extravaganza during the show itself. Kacey Musgraves and Katy Perry sang some of “Here You Come Again” before being joined by Parton herself. Dolly sang “Jolene” with Miley Cyrus and then stood between her and Maren Morris for a rather stunning version of “After The Gold Rush,” a nod to the Grammy Winning Trio album with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris.
One of the year’s most carefully crafted box sets and one directly tied to roots music and its preservation took the Grammy for Best Historical Album. It is Voices Of Mississippi: Artists And Musicians Documented By William Ferris, compiled and produced by April Ledbetter and Steven Lance Ledbetter. Ferris, a renowned folklorist and Senior Associate Director of the Center for the Study of the American South, has been filming, recording and interviewing local and regional roots and blues musicians since the 1960s.