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Joni Mitchell And The Power Of Homage At The Grammy Awards

John Shearer: Getty Images for The Recording Academy
Joni Mitchell performed "Both Sides Now" with Brandi Carlile at her side on the Grammy Awards national broadcast Sunday night.

On a Grammy Awards when some popular genres of music represented themselves with swords and blood, the smashing of folding chairs, and a literal on-stage dumpster fire (and when classical and jazz seemed to not exist), country and roots music offered the world some moving examples of obligation, homage and collaboration. Between Joni Mitchell’s triumphant, first-ever Grammy performance and a Luke Combs/Tracy Chapman duet that stirred hearts on social media, this year’s ceremony, from a Los Angeles arena named for imaginary money, made the simplest songs look like the source of lasting value.

In the broader sweep of 94 categories across a marathon eight-plus hours of envelopes and trophies on Sunday, we saw powerful women winning everywhere and setting the tone for popular culture in troubled times. Molly Tuttle won her second Best Bluegrass Album in a row. Influential Americana stars Allison Russell and Brandy Clark won their first-ever Grammy Awards. Laney Wilson followed up her Entertainer of the Year win at the CMA Awards with the Grammy for Best Country Album. The global dynamo Taylor Swift, daughter of country music, won the show-closing Album Of The Year, her record-breaking fourth. And Joni Mitchell, looking like the queen of a gentle imaginary nation, accepted the award for Best Folk Album during the daytime Premiere Ceremony.

When she approached the microphone, there was a pause when Mitchell, 80 years old and in perpetual recovery from a 2015 brain aneurysm, seemed hesitant and the audience held its breath. Then she dialed directly in on what made the experience of recording Joni Mitchell At Newport worthy of the award. “We had so much fun at that concert and I think you can feel it on the record,” she said. “It’s a very joyous record because of the people that I played with and the spirit of the occasion was very high. And it went on to the record. Even the audience sounds like music. Thank you.”

At Mitchell’s side, after introducing her in the most elegant and heartfelt terms imaginable, was her fast friend Brandi Carlile, just as she was when she produced the surprise “Joni Jam” of 2022, where the award-winning album was recorded. And they were together hours later on prime time CBS as Mitchell, now with 10 Grammys plus a Lifetime Achievement Award, revolved in her ornate white chair to face the audience and sing a husky but impeccably paced “Both Sides Now.” A Nashville contingent, including Allison Russell on clarinet and Americana Award winners Sista Strings on violin and cello, helped the music and vocal harmonies surge. Between the sweet sound, the mutual love and support society in the band, and the song’s heartbreaking lyrics about life’s paradoxes, I’ve never had a more emotional reaction to a Grammy performance.

Hearts also fluttered throughout Tracy Chapman’s rare return to the stage, singing her own “Fast Car” in a duet with country star Luke Combs. North Carolina-raised Combs has brought some soul and tradition to the country format, helping sunset the bro-country era. His move recording and releasing “Fast Car,” the 1988 hit that put Chapman on the map and that Combs cites as his first favorite song, was bold. The song reached No. 1 on the Billboard country radio chart and won 2023’s CMA Song of the Year (which made Chapman the first Black woman to win the award), giving Combs many chances to express his appreciation for an artist he calls an “icon.” But seeing them sing it together for the first time seemed to close a perfect circle. Chapman won the Grammy for “Fast Car” in 1989 for Best Pop Female Vocal Performance. Combs’s version was nominated this year for Best Country Solo Performance.

Two of American roots music’s most influential and acclaimed women retired their designations as Grammy nominees and will go forth as Grammy winners. Brandy Clark, with her gorgeous voice and long record of writing successful songs at radio, celebrated a win for “Dear Insecurity” as Best Americana Performance, which she shared with Carlile who produced and guested on the track. Among her thank-yous, Clark concluded with Carlile, “for making this record with me, and for championing so many of us.”

Allison Russell, in winning Best American Roots performance for her searing song “Eve Was Black” from the nominated album The Returner, also cited massive gratitude for Carlile, “who kicked open the doors of this industry for artists like me and artists like Sista Strings and Brandy Clark, and we’re just so grateful. I love our community - all Americana, all of us, all colors, all abilities, all orientations, all genders. It’s for everybody and I love y’all.”

When it came to Best Americana Album and American Roots Song, format superstar Jason Isbell was there for a double win, for the 2023 album Weathervanes and its song “Cast Iron Skillet.” “I just want to say that it makes me really happy that these stories can be told and can resonate with people,” Isbell said collecting the song award. “And I want to encourage all you songwriters out there to tell the truth and be as honest as you can, as quickly as you know what the truth is. Thank you very much.”

Molly Tuttle brought her fiddle player Bronwyn Keith-Hynes to the stage to accept Best Bluegrass Album for last year’s City Of Gold, her second consecutive trophy in the category, beating out Willie (Nelson) and Billy (Strings), among other genre luminaries. “This is truly an honor,” she said. “And basically everybody in this category is our friends, so we want to congratulate them as well. You all inspire us so much.” Tuttle also had a turn as one of the Premiere Ceremony’s presenters.

The blues categories offered a generational contrast. The indomitable Bobby Rush, looking glorious in a silver and black sport coat at age 90, accepted the Best Traditional Blues Album Grammy “in honor of Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Johnny Taylor and all the guys coming up before me that I looked up to.” The disc in the spotlight was 2023’s All My Love For You. Next up in the Contemporary Blues Album slot, Nashville-based sister duo Larkin Poe scored their first Grammy win for last year’s rocking Blood Harmony. “We are so honored to be thoroughly embraced by the blues community, and we want to send out so much congratulations to the other ladies in contemporary blues that helped make it a female majority,” said Rebecca Lovell at the podium. (Also nominated in the category were Samantha Fish, Ruthie Foster and Bettye LaVette.)

Best Regional Roots Music Album delivered a rare tie, making winners of New Beginnings by Buckwheat Zydeco Jr. & The Legendary Ils Sont Partis Band and Live: Orpheum Theater Nola by Lost Bayou Ramblers & Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. Banjo maestro and recent Bluegrass Grammy winner Béla Fleck shared in two awards this year, for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album, As We Speak by Béla Fleck, Zakir Hussain, Edgar Meyer, and Rakesh Chaurasia, as well as Best Global Music Performance for “Pashto” from the same album. The Stax Records story made winners of Memphians Robert Gordon and Stax doyenne Deanie Parker for their liner notes in Written In Their Soul: The Stax Songwriter Demos, which also won Best Historical Album.

A few other roots categories and the entire roster of nominees and winners can be found here at NPR’s master list.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org