Bride of Handicapping the Country Grammy

In the main, shooting fish in a barrel becomes incredibly difficult in Missouri in February because of the cold: the water freezes, the vision dims, and the targets (along with the will to live) all but vanish. Happily enough, though, those craving piscine potshots can always depend on the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.

In a ceremony to be broadcast Sunday, February 8, on CBS–locally KMOV, Channel 4–that organization will present the forty-sixth annual round of its Grammy Awards, and as happened last year, this column similarly presents the odds on the six nominees in what the NARAS calls Field 8, Category 43, “Best Country Album”: releases from an Outlaw and an old pard of his, from the former in concert, from one of the genre’s most endearing and enduring mavericks, from a corps of musicians saluting what no less an authority than Bill C. Malone has dubbed “arguably, the greatest duet in country music history,” and, independently, from the Betty and Veronica of commercial country.

Less allusively, nominated this year were Run That by Me One More Time by Willie Nelson and Ray Price, Live and Kickin’ by Willie Nelson (“& Friends”), My Baby Don’t Tolerate by Lyle Lovett, Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’ by the ubiquitous “various artists” in homage to the Louvin Brothers, Cry by Faith Hill, and Up! by Shania Twain. All of the preceding appeared in 2003 except the Hill and the Twain, which arrived in 2002; following is a pithy or pissy paragraph on each, in alphabetical order by artist:

This summer, Faith Hill will co-star in a remake of The Stepford Wives. Imagine that. In the meantime, the blonde bombshell from Mississippi is competing for the country Grammy with Cry, a 14-track release from Warner Bros. Records. It would calumniate Hill to suggest that her music in general and this disc in particular approximate genuine country as much as Velveeta approximates brie. No, she hasn’t quite popped out of the genre. Still, on the radio-friendly title track, a thing of big vocals and swelling instrumentation, Hill sounds so relentlessly late-countrypolitan that Billy Sherrill might’ve had a hand in producing it as well as the rest of Cry. Would NARAS voters grant the laurel to a release this tedious? Oh, no–never. Odds: 2–5

“Interstate 610/Highway 45/Some drunk redneck/Barely left me alive,” begins “Cute as a Bug,” which begins My Baby Don’t Tolerate, Lyle Lovett’s 14-track fete from Lost Highway, and the song and the CD alike charm, baby, they charm. A curiously moving listening experience, My Baby Don’t Tolerate conducts itself with an understated self-assurance in heartening counterpoise to these increasingly strident, craven times. By turns bluesy and swinging, Lovett’s latest (which even incorporates some glorious gospel) deserves this award and many others for its nonpareil heart and soul; witty and wonderful, it’s funny and funky and finer than a May morning. If only he looked like one of the photogenic nothings from Rascal Flatts. Odds: 1–1

Gauche though it be to blue-sky such a thing, positing a sub rosa country music dead pool sympathy vote, Live and Kickin’ from Willie Nelson “& Friends” should nab it. A sonic memento of Nelson’s seventieth birthday, all but the first of the 15 tracks here team him with a small army of collaborators, ranging from Shelby Lynne and Ray Price to Eric Clapton and Steven Tyler to Wyclef Jean and Norah Jones. A Lost Highway production recorded live in New York on April 9, 2003–three weeks to the day before the (once) red-headed stranger turned 70–it should remind the NARAS that, no matter how woefully many country giants have died of late, the genre’s foremost ambassador of good will hasn’t yet tramped to boot hill. Odds: 4–5

In a far better world than this, Run That by Me One More Time, the Willie Nelson–Ray Price collaboration from Lost Highway, would enjoy not only a better shot at the silly little award under consideration but also a much larger audience than it will likely receive. On the 11 tracks of this disc, Nelson, Price, and Nelson and Price should delight any fan of classic country. On such songs as “I’ve Just Destroyed the World I’m Living In,” the two septuagenarians have produced a recording that feels almost willfully anachronistic if not downright atavistic; its stately cadences and grand sonorities defy this manic moment–by no means a bad thing. Still, its very strengths likely make Run That by Me a long shot for the Grammy. Odds: 6–5

As implied earlier, Shania Twain’s music mirrors bona fide country as little as an Archie comic book mirrors contemporary teenage life–a fact established beyond doubt by Up!, her weird 19-track double CD from Mercury Records. With its color-coded conceit–the red disc putatively rocks, while the green disc duplicates and putatively countrifies its content–Up! constitutes a schizoid autogenerated tribute disc, an exercise in recursive ur-sampling, a product of considerable slickness and zero soul. (In a line sure to quicken with hope the hearts of those who loathe her, Twain, on the title track, intones, “I just wanna disappear.”) Sad to say, by its mere nomination, this piece of sonic smarm comes too, too close to being a sure thing. Odds: 1–2

In this particular race, the mantle of the dark horse perforce goes to Livin’, Lovin’, Losing’, a 15-song Universal South tribute to the Louvin Brothers, Charlie and Ira. Although one can scarcely deny the historic importance of the duo (born not Louvin, of course, but Loudermilk) and although the CD features contributions from more than two dozen musicians ranging from giants like Merle Haggard to neophytes like Joe Nichols, Livin’, Lovin’, Losing’ makes frustrating listenin’. Of its interpretations of works from the Louvins’ catalog, only two excite something beyond acknowledgment of technical proficiency: Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell on “My Baby’s Gone” and Dolly Parton and Sonya Isaacs on “The Angels Rejoiced.” Odds: 3–2

Okely-dokely, as Ned Flanders oft exclaims on The Simpsons. Six contenders. Six capsule critiques. Now a solitary caveat. In last year’s Grammy competition, the Sports Desk marginally favored Alan Jackson’s Drive over the eventual winner, the Dixie Chicks’ Home. Although at a certain level that suggests surprising perspicacity, discerning readers and pari-mutuel pros will recognize that an also-ran, in this life of horseshoes and hand grenades, remains nothing more than an also-ran. Translation: don’t bet the farm on any of the preceding.

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