Handicapping the Country Grammy

In the spirit of seasonal vacuity—the irresistibility of which, obviously, will hinge on the masochistic inclinations of a given reader—this column outlines the merits and demerits of the five nominees in what the academy designates as Field 8, Category 42, “Best Country Album”…

 

In Missouri in February, few pleasures rival for vacuous irresistibility that of contemplating the nightly weather forecast—recall here Disraeli’s “lies, damned lies, and statistics”—but such pleasures will always include speculating on the outcome of awards programs of whatever stripe. As fate would have it, fast approaching is the forty-fifth annual installment of one of the exemplars of programs like that, the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences’ Grammy Awards, to be broadcast Sunday, February 23, by CBS (locally KMOV, Channel 4).

In the spirit of seasonal vacuity—the irresistibility of which, obviously, will hinge on the masochistic inclinations of a given reader—this column outlines the merits and demerits of the five nominees in what the academy designates as Field 8, Category 42, “Best Country Album”: Home by the Dixie Chicks, Drive by Alan Jackson, The Great Divide by Willie Nelson, Man With a Memory by Joe Nichols, and Halos & Horns by Dolly Parton. A tidy paragraph on each nominee, in alphabetical order by artist, follows:

Attitude—in its contemporary (brainless) connotation—fires the Dixie Chicks’ Home (Open Wide), at least superficially. Sad to say, below a surface spun—in the political connotation of that verb—in equal measure around tough litigation and tender motherhood, the trio’s latest CD qualifies as much of a muchness, less of an exercise in bare knuckles than bare shoulders (regarding which obliquity, see the disc’s cover). Assuredly, “White Trash Wedding” is fast, nasty fun, and “Long Time Gone” probably deserves its nominations as “Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal” and “Best Country Song.” All spin aside, though, Home advances the Dixie Chicks not one whit. Odds: 4–5

Alan Jackson’s Drive (Arista Nashville) starts well enough with the title track, which incorporates engaging commonplace detail before lapsing into metalanguage in its last third; it also includes “Work in Progress,” a number memorable because it simultaneously qualifies as affable and annoying (think “Conway Twitty”). That said, Drive will likely land the Grammy on the strength of “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” itself nominated in the categories of “Best Male Country Vocal Performance” and “Best Country Song.” So it goes. Despite blessedly disdaining the brutish jingoism of Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American),” the tune still remains treacle. Odds: 3–5

Although Willie Nelson has previously and frequently surprised critics, reviewers, and other panjandrums, The Great Divide, his Lost Highway nominee, feels light, even forgettable, especially—and perhaps unfairly—compared to 1993’s similar, magisterial Across the Borderline. “Mendocino County Line,” his duet with Lee Ann Womack, is contending for a Grammy in the categories of “Best Country Collaboration With Vocals” and (more or less) “Best Country Song,” but so what? It scarcely qualifies as the CD’s most memorable offering. (That would be the mournful, minimalist title track.) Sad to say, not even a late cover of “Time After Time” (Cyndi Lauper, yeah!) can redeem this disc from feeling fatigued. Odds: 6–5

On this particular raceway, Man With a Memory (Universal South), Joe Nichols’ debut, looks like the dark horse because Nichols himself looks like an extra from the WB’s Smallville—roughly as country as Madison Avenue, that is. Nevertheless, the disc comes as a pleasant surprise: though he looks like a pup, Nichols bays like a blooded hound. Less metaphorically, he sounds both much older and more authentic than he appears—making him a one-man anti–Rascal Flatts. Moreover, either Nichols or his handlers chose material here with wit in more than one sense of the word. (In that regard, “The Impossible,” the not-deplorable lead track, is vying for two other Grammy Awards.) Still and all— Odds: 7–5

To an extent, Dolly Parton’s Halos & Horns (Sugar Hill) suffers from the sort of glory daze that hazes The Great Divide—it doesn’t quite rise to the heights of its two immediate predecessors. Unlike the Nelson CD, though, Halos & Horns bops. To be sure, “Dagger Through the Heart” earned a nomination as “Best Female Country Vocal Performance,” but other offerings hereon top the academy’s choice in one way or another—“Sugar Hill,” “Shattered Image,” “These Old Bones,” and (oh, my!) “I’m Gone.” Grammy matters notwithstanding, this CD clearly leads the field; Parton’s (still) playing at the top of her game, and but for Jackson’s 9/11 nod and the Dixie Chicks’ in-your-face return, Halos & Horns would’ve enjoyed stronger odds. Odds: 1–1

So ends the Sports Desk’s tout twaddle—almost. Before closing this column, I should remind readers both that any complaints regarding the preceding assessments (hate mail from Dixie Chicks fans, say) should go, as ever, to the Sports Desk’s agent, the right honorable Kevin Renick, Esq., and that personal bankruptcy beckons for anyone foolish enough to follow bookmaking advice from a man whose tossed coins always seemingly land on edge.

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