Grammys spotlight singer-songwriters

All five Record of the Year and Best New Artist nominees wrote their own material.

In 2001, Grammy voters gave us rapper Eminem's antisocial-lyric controversy and rewarded Steely Dan's '70s-revisited studio wizardry.

This year, they're digging the "love yourself" message of new R&B vocalist India.Arie and celebrating mountain-born bluegrass melodies.

For the 44th annual Grammy Awards (Feb. 27, CBS, 8-11 p.m.), nominators have proffered a widely approved slate of awards hopefuls, disappointing music pundits, who've been robbed of their annual pre-award carping opportunities.

(That will come after the winners are named, says a joking Ben Kline, national sales vice president of Lost Highway Records.)

Even if Irish rock heroes U2, nominated eight times this year in seven categories, squash all competitors and top their trio of wins last year, there may be few complaints.

Maybe the national mood is just less confrontational. Or maybe U2 really is rock 'n' roll's savior, as magazine covers declared when U2's "All That You Can't Leave Behind," nominated for Album of the Year, was released. (U2 frontman Bono certainly has become rock's unofficial goodwill ambassador to the world.)

"This year, it seems like so many of the nominations are about uplift," says Anthony DeCurtis, a contributing editor of Rolling Stone magazine. "U2, clearly, and [new "neo-soul" singers] Alicia Keys and India.Arie, are all artists that are both musically credible and the sort of performers that [Grammy voters] could feel good about voting for, about listening to - about having their kids listen to."

Even hip-hoppers Outkast, up for Album and Song of the Year for "Stankonia" and "Ms. Jackson," are considered "good" (read: unoffensive) rappers, Mr. DeCurtis says.

The 4.5 million buyers of another contending album, the country-bluegrass "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" film soundtrack, further indicate there's a large audience eager for meaningful, honest, - and non-teen-pop - music.

"The thought of ["O Brother Where Art Thou"] getting a best-album nomination a year ago was ridiculous. And now we think we have a legitimate chance to win," says Lost Highway Records executive Kline.

"O Brother" was one of 16 releases by the year-old Lost Highway, an alternative country/Americana label.

"It's really the year of the singer-songwriter," notes Michael Greene, president and CEO of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which sponsors the Grammys.

He points out that all five Record of the Year and Best New Artist nominees wrote their own material, a rarity.That translates into more "organic" performances, he says, promising this telecast will contain "fewer blondes in Christmas ornaments" prancing through overproduced dance routines.

Like his industry peers, Mr. Greene says the tragedies of Sept. 11 "just put a capper" on an already-changing musical mood. Even heavy-metal acts and hard-core rappers are pulling back, he says.

"They're still tough, they're still talking about difficult subject matter, but ... I think it's less gratuitous violence and sex than it was," Greene says.

One nominee who's acutely aware of that mood change is John Ondrasik, who wrote and recorded the hit "Superman (It's Not Easy)" under the name Five for Fighting.

The song, which describes a hero's struggles, was already popular before Sept. 11, but became a post-9/11 theme song. That earned him a performance at last fall's Concert for New York City and likely clinched his nomination.

"It shows that music matters beyond the dance floor, and ... can be a powerful force in comforting people," says Mr. Ondrasik, who's somewhat miscategorized in the category Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal. He's competing against R.E.M., U2, 'N Sync, and the Backstreet Boys.

Bluegrass singer-guitarist Dan Tyminski is having a similar rush of fame for his contributions to the "O Brother" soundtrack.

"I was always content with the level of popularity that bluegrass had," says Mr. Tyminski, who is also nominated as a member of the group Alison Krauss & Union Station. "And now to see ["O Brother"] become so popular in such a short time ... it makes my heart soar."

Peter Edge, a vice president for another new label, BMG/Arista spinoff J Records, says this year's nominees signify a return to artistry in music.

Mr. Edge, who signed six-time nominee Keys to his label, calls her melding of classical piano with Motown and hip-hop influences "some real-deal soul, some music from the heart."

If any category showcases singer-songwriters, it's Best Contemporary Folk Album. For several years, rock writer DeCurtis notes, it has been the Grammys' strongest category, with each nominee "an extremely worthy choice."

If the voters for Bob Dylan and Lucinda Williams cancel each other out, the Grammy might go to "Poet: A Tribute to Townes Van Zandt," which features Williams, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Ray Benson, Guy Clark, Willie Nelson (also nominated separately), and other alternative-country favorites.

Without the Grammy spotlight, Mr. Benson says, such "incredibly underplayed" releases would remain unknown.

"The Grammys has done a great job for the last five years of opening up a little bit" in broadening its list of nominees, record producer Kline says.

"But when push comes to shove ... the nominees are usually far hipper than the winners. That's the Grammys' problem, and I hope that starts changing."

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