The Grammys are usually a great breeding-ground for controversy, and this year was no exception. Did Adele deserve to win Album of the Year over Beyoncé? (Spoiler alert, the answer’s no.) Did Sturgill Simpson get stiffed? Does Justin Bieber hate the Grammys? Who turned off James Hetfield’s mic? All the hoopla and debates and boycotts and arguing tends to gloss over the fact that they have a far wider reach beyond the usual stars. There are many smaller categories that don’t make it to the mainstream broadcast, but are feted earlier in the day with their own televised ceremony. The glory days of niche-category Grammys, back when Jimmy Sturr the Polka King reigned supreme in his own polka category (he won 18 of the 24 Grammys given to polka artists) are over, and the Recording Academy has consolidated some of the many old categories into a smaller spread, but there are still strange and wondrous masterpieces to be found in the margins of the Grammys. These five stories may not have made it to Grammy primetime, but they show the breadth of the Grammys reach and the very real human stories behind the Grammy bling that last longer than the day after the awards.
Back in 2011, the Recording Academy did away with some 30 categories, most of them based in specific niches. This included the Best Hawaiian Album category of the Grammys. Instead, the Grammys now recognize Best Regional Roots Album, which brought together the Hawaiian, Native American, Cajun, Zydeco and Polka genres. Despite a Hawaiian artist being nominated each year since 2011, this is the first year one has won. Maui-based singer Kalani Pe’a took home the prize this year, and though he comes from traditional roots, he may not look or sound like the usual vision mainlanders have of Hawaiian musicians. He’s most comfortable in Versace glasses and his trademark bowtie, and he’s obviously smitten by his fiancé and manager, make-up artist Allan B. Cool; the two make quite the power couple in Maui. There’s also not much traditional slack-key guitar on the album, with Pe’a preferring to draw from R&B and other more modern influences. Yet, he’s a fluent Hawaiian speaker who speaks the language with his family at home and has a deep knowledge of Hawaiian traditions. On this Grammy-winning album E Walea, Pe’a writes seven of the songs, bringing poetry to his Hawaiian language songwriting that’s served by his fluent relation with the language and his passion for teaching others. Interestingly, he came to singing as a way to overcome a speech impediment as a child. Now he’s risen to be one of the best young Hawaiian singers, able to bring a modern sensibility to his own vision of Hawaiian traditions.
Though White Sun’s official Grammy award is for Best New Age Album, with their new album White Sun II, the award could just as well be, “Most Interesting Collaboration of Musicians from Vastly Different Backgrounds.” The core trio itself in White Sun is based around Gurusaj, a female Sikh artist who works with kundalini yoga mantras, but also includes yoga master Harijiwan, who focuses his work on the gong, and, interestingly, Hollywood composer Adam Berry, known for his work on South Park, Kim Possible and The Penguins of Madagascar. The album cover features a mandala specially painted for the group by Nepalese artist Ganesh Lama, and the album features special guests Malian kora player Mamadou Diabate and fiddler Gabe Witcher of the Punch Brothers. The album topped out the world and new age Billboard charts and even made the Heatseeker chart last year, buoyed by the large public demand for yoga music. The unusual juxtaposition of Sikh artists performing music intended for yoga, a largely Hindu practice, is tied to the specific tradition of kundalini yoga. Yogi Bhajan founded this practice in the U.S. in the late ‘60s and many of his followers congregate at to the Sikh Dharma, an institute based in New Mexico. The Sikh Dharma institute has connections in surprising places, including the fact that they own and produce Yogi Tea. They also have direct ties to a billion dollar private security firm. And while their practice of bringing yoga to Sikhism is not without controversy, the music on White Sun’s album is lush and eminently accessible. It’s a beautifully-produced album with what must be one of the more interesting backstories at the Grammys.
African-American gospel singer Kirk Franklin’s win at the Grammys for Best Gospel Album was hardly a surprise: he’s a huge star of the genre. But, it marked the rise of gospel in today’s hip-hop (a theme reflected in other wins throughout the night), and it referenced both gospel and hip-hop’s continued difficulties in dealing with LGBT issues. With Chance the Rapper taking home Best Rap Album and Best New Artist for an album that was deeply spiritual and brought actual gospel artist and choirs into the mix, as well as Kanye West’s nomination for “Ultralight Beam”—a stunningly beautiful seven minute opener on his new album that featured both Chance and Franklin—it was clear that hip-hop has embraced black gospel music. This means star gospel singers like Kirk Franklin are beset on both sides. On the one hand, he’s taken heavy flak from his own community for collaborating with West on a typically-Kanye album filled with profanity, vainglorious boasting and uncomfortable sexual references. On the other hand, the spotlight of the mainstream now shines on both gospel and hip hop’s uncomfortable past dealing with homosexuality. This includes comments that Franklin made a few years back (for which he apologized) claiming homosexuality as a choice and referencing gay people as sinners. But in a gesture of hope, Franklin recently issued a more extreme apology for all the people the church has hurt by attacking homosexuality and homosexuals, and went so far as to explain that the Bible was never intended as an attack on homosexuals. Small steps to be sure and we’re far from a time when the basic humanity and goodness of gay people, or even women, is accepted by the faithful masses, but they’re steps in the right direction.
As far as raw stories of human struggle and courage go, bluegrass/folk duo Joey Rory may have had the most powerful and affecting. This husband and wife duo recorded their new album as Joey was dying from cancer. Afflicted by radiation and chemotherapy, she struggled to record the classic hymns on this album, all favorites of hers. It was her request to end her career re-examining these old songs of faith and inspiration, and Rory’s acceptance of the award, televised earlier in the day, was a powerful moment of grief and acceptance. He spoke of his wife recording her parts while dying of cancer in hotel rooms, and related her words that she’d know about the Grammy win before he did because of her passing. It’s also an interesting note that Joey Rory, a duo known best for their rural Christian bluegrass roots, would win in the Roots Gospel category, a relatively new and surprisingly adventurous Grammy category that dates to 2015. There’s such a rich history of gospel music in American country music, that it’s nice to see the roots of this part of the tradition get a nod of recognition.
Just as 2017 was the year that hip-hop went gospel, it’s also the year that jazz went country. Jazz guitar veteran John Scofield, known for innovative past projects like an album of Ray Charles covers, released the cleverly titled Country for Old Men, an album of jazz covers of classic country tunes. In the new century, jazz struggles to remain relevant both to modern culture (the groundbreaking work of Kamasi Washington with Kendrick Lamar paves the way for this), and its own past: the old standards on which jazz is based are so old now that even your grandparents barely remember the originals. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see such a great jazz artist dipping into a new well of inspiration. In any tradition of improvisation, much of the fun of the music comes from the way the artist plays with a familiar framework. If nobody really remembers or cares for a song like “Sweet Georgia Brown”, then what anchors the improvisation a jazz artist would do around it? But here Scofield creates a whole new point of entry to the genre. Anyone who loves and recognizes country classics like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” or Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” now has a new way to appreciate the incredible sense of joy and play in this album’s music. As Scofield blazes through an electric guitar solo on “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” the track he won a Grammy for in the category of Best Improvised Jazz Solo, it’s hard not to get swept in his explorations of these much-loved melodies.