What Does the Grammys Snubbing Polka Mean for Polka King Jimmy Sturr?

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Jimmy Sturr is just what you’d expect from the self-proclaimed “hottest musical attraction in the Polka field.” In photos, his bright blue eyes and tidy white smile all but sparkle in every shot, and when Paste got him on the phone recently, he greeted us with a massively chipper, “Morning!” Asked how he was doing, he replied, “I’m incredible!"

He’s in his office in his hometown of Florida, NY, about 60 miles north of the city—the office that’s across the street from his high school, the office whose walls are home to his five gold records, the office where just a few days ago, Sturr received a call from The New York Times with the news that the Academy had cut his category.

That’s right—the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences announced recently that they’ve eliminated the Grammy for Best Polka Album, which Jimmy Sturr and His Orchestra has taken home 18 of the past 24 years. Nominated nearly every one of those years, Sturr has received more consecutive nominations than anyone in Grammy history.

The Times called Sturr first thing the morning after the Academy issued its press release, looking for a reaction. The Polka King responded with thankfulness, noting that the Grammys were responsible for making his band “almost, almost a household word.” He maintains that same outlook now.

“Look,” he tells Paste with a sigh, “I’m very grateful to the Academy. I mean, you know, without the Academy, not only my band but [polka] itself wouldn’t have the recognition that it has. I’ve had the opportunity to record with Alison Kraus, Willie Nelson, Bela Fleck and just a whole bunch of theses artists, and I’m sure if it wasn’t for the recording Academy, I probably wouldn’ta had the opportunity to do this.” He also notes that they haven’t exactly cut his category—just folded it into the folk category. Although he’ll have to compete with a much broader spectrum of musicians, he still looks forward to entering.

Sturr’s chirpy voice betrays only a trace of disappointment. “Well, I live on positive,” he says. “Once you start living on negative, it seems to go downhill. So, did I feel bad? Yeah, I did. But I’m still grateful. I mean I’m not upset—you know, PO’ed at them, that kind of a thing. You know, they had their reasons, and I respect their reasons for putting it into another category.”

This attitude seems just in line with the tone of Sturr’s music, suffused with the lively sound characteristic of the genre. Even tracks about heartache are backed by the full band’s persistently upbeat “oom-pah,” that never strays from joyful. Perhaps it is this consistently cheerful aesthetic that has pushed polka out of the mainstream for a postmodern audience.

Michael Bulboff, a polka enthusiast and a leader in Philadelphia’s growing accordionist community, says of the genre, “A lot of people subscribe to the notion that polka is either too simplistic or too culturally dated to be considered Grammy material.” Bulboff’s assessment is accurate—the Academy says they cut the award “to ensure the awards process remains representative of the current musical landscape," and reports that submissions to the category have been getting so few that in 2006 anyone who entered had a one in four chance of being nominated. Bulboff goes on, “To me, polka is the last real indie scene.  It doesn't try to be sensual, realistic, depressing, or melodramatic. Instead, it makes no apologies for being unadulterated, saccharine sweet happiness and that's what makes it independent.”

Sturr’s music would surely satisfy Bulboff’s sweet tooth. In “Love and Laughter,” from his most recent Grammy winner, Let the Whole World Sing, he delivers the lyrics, “Love and laughter / put a little smile in your heart / It’s happiness we’re after / now it’s a great time to start / Don’t keep it inside of you / you’ll feel better if you try / help make this world a better place / with love and laughter everywhere.” Other songs on the album offer a similar sentiment. In "Let The Whole World Sing It With Me," Sturr's jazzy voice croons, “When you smile you turn on the sunshine / when you laugh it’s like a pretty melody / so fill my life with a song, a happy, happy song / and let the whole world sing it with me.”

The reasons that many critics dismiss the genre might be the very things that keep polka enthusiasts coming back for more. What some deem flat and predictable, others praise as steadfast and dependable. “When I think about the reasons that polka makes people happy, I think first and foremost, it keeps things simple,” Bulboff says. “Critics are always looking for the next big and different thing that will challenge us more. It's the same way that food critics would scoff at a good old-fashioned home cooked meal that serves meatloaf instead of filet mignon topped with foie gras and pomegranate chutney. Well, I say, 'Give me the green bean casserole!'”

Although it may not be large enough to warrant Academy approval, the genre has an audience so broad that it keeps Sturr and his 11-person orchestra busy all year long, touring the land and sea to play festivals, cruise ships, spa getaway weekends, country clubs, churches and more traditional music venues all over the country.

Sturr describes the pockets of the United States where Polka thrives thusly: “If you took the whole country, cut it in half, added the state of Florida and Texas, and took the whole northern part all the way across America—it’s huge!” He plays a festival in Texas every year that draws polka-lovers by the thousand. “It’s four days,” he says, “They actually book us four days, and on a Saturday night, we’ll get almost 25,000. Last year, last year we had exactly 24,970 people, and the reason I know that is because they said they were 30 people short of hitting 25,000.  But you don’t read about this; you don’t hear about this.”

He breaks from his poise, and considers the Academy’s statement—“to ensure the awards process remains representative of the current musical landscape.” His voice lowers and quickens. “That did upset me,” he says. “I didn’t think that was fair to us, because that’s absolutely the farthest thing from the truth. There’s literally hundreds and hundreds of polka bands around the country. Probably thousands!  I didn’t think that was correct in them doing that—I didn’t think that was very good.”

Still, the Polka King is confident that the snub from the Grammys won’t affect the life of the genre. “Look, even if they drop the category, there’ll always be Polka music.” With all of the Grammy buzz of late, Sturr has gotten more publicity than he did when he took home his 18th trophy. His conversation with The New York Times was followed by calls from the LA Times and the Associated Press and even an invitation to be on Good Morning America. And though polka itself seems buried in small cultural pockets, the influence of the genre, with its 2/4 time signature, lively horns and bellowing accordions, often floats to the surface in other forms. 

“I can tell you this,“ Sturr says slowly, pausing between sentences as if savoring each word, “Bob Dylan released a new CD recently. And he had an article in Rolling Stone. In that article, he said how much he likes polka music. Living in Minnesota, he likes polka music. And some of the songs on that new CD were influenced by polka.”

Related links:

AP: No More Polka Album Grammys for Jimmy Sturr

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