Linda Chorney: Poster Child for A Paradigm Shift

“To create a new paradigm we must refrain from putting energy into the current one.” Fred M.

When I first read this story about an unknown and unheralded singer-songwriter who worked an internal NARAS social network to secure a Grammy Award nomination in the Americana category, I wasn’t sure what to think.

But after reading some of the reactions to the effort, I know exactly what to think:  You go, girl.

Recapping for those of you who may not be familiar with the story: Linda Chorney is an “independent” (i.e. no label support) singer-songwriter, touring performer and recording artist from Sea Bright, NJ (just over the bridge from my own home town of Rumson!) who has been working the circuit around the world for over 30 years (believe me, I know the type). As first detailed in this account in Daily Variety:

The resourceful Linda Chorney secured a Grammy nomination in the category of Americana album for her self-produced, self-released “Emotional Jukebox” by taking her mission directly to voters, employing the peer-to-peer function of the Recording Academy’s own site for members, Grammy 365.

Many in the tight-knit Americana community have reacted quizzically, and sometimes vehemently, to Chorney’s nomination, which trumped several well-known artists in the genre.

The whole phenomenon raises all kinds of interesting questions, starting with whether or not Ms. Chorney’s recording conforms withthe definition of the category she was nominated in, “Americana.”

The concept of of “Americana” really defies any clear or simple definition.  The Americana Music Association, which considers itself the guardian of the genre, defines_Americana as…

“…music that honors and is derived from the traditions of American roots music. It is music inspired by American culture traditions which is not only represented in classic man made / roots based sounds but also through new and contemporary artists whose music is clearly inspired by these great traditions.”

Since its inception in the late 1990s, “Americana” has come to encompass a broad range of musical styles.  Rosanne Cash probably put it best when she said from the stage at the 2010 American Music Awards show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium that “Americana is where they put you when you don’t really fit anywhere else…”

By that definition, Linda Chorney’s CD “Emotional Jukebox” certainly qualifies as “Americana.”  So why are so many in the Americana circle so bent out of shape that Ms. Chorney has secured a Grammy nomination in their category?

The indignant reaction reinforces the simmering, sub-surface criticism of  some observers who regard “Americana” as its own insular little world, dominated by a new generation of uber-insiders — despite its origins in the “alt” corner of country music.  These critics observe that certain names that are close to the nucleus of the genre keep coming up, and winning awards year after year.  Case in point: Buddy Miller has won so many “Instrumentalist of the Year” awards that one disgruntled commentator suggested after this year’s awards show that the time had come to rename the category ‘Buddyana.”

To get some sense of the discontent that Ms. Chorney’s nomination has generated within the Americana world, consider this thread of comments that followed the posting of the Daily Variety article to Facebook by Cary Baker, a Los Angeles-based publicist who counts among his clientele some of the luminaries of the genre.

What you see in that thread is a sense of outrage that Ms. Chorney “gamed” the system to secure her nomination, at the expense of numerous “more deserving” artists who either exhibit a higher caliber of artistry — or just fly closer to the center of the Americana orbit.

Did she “game the system,” as so many of these commenters seem to think?  Not according to a NARAS officials quoted in the Variety article:

NARAS’ Freimuth says there is no impropriety in seeking votes through the Grammy 365 site….”(Chorney) was very diligent in her pursuit of attention by the Grammy voters, and it evidently paid off. Enough of the voters received her communications, listened to her music, thought it was worthwhile and voted for it.”

So why all the sturm und drang over her nomination?  By whose reckoning is any one performer more deserving of recognition than any other?

The way I see it, Linda Chorney — whether you like her music, or think it holds up to your standards or not — represents the very essence of the quasi-official definition of Americana, which is buried in the real meaning of that word “roots.”

“Roots music” harkens back to an era before recordings redefined the role of music in our lives.  It recalls the time when people made music for themselves, on the front porch of their cabins, in their parlors, around a campfire, on instruments they played themselves, and sang with their own joyous voices.

“Roots music” invokes the time before music became industrial, before it morphed into a vehicle of mass culture, before there were gatekeepers and tastemakers who dictated what was worthy of a mass audience that could only be assembled by appealing to the lowest common denominator.

I dare say that a lot of the people who created the actual “roots” music the Americana format intends to honor would probably not qualify for any awards in the ears of its contemporary denizens.

But what could be more “roots” than people making music for themselves — as Linda Chorney has done for more than thirty years???  Ms. Chorney’s self-sustained, multi-decade career honors the “great tradition” of people making their own music as much as any of the higher-profile personalities whose possible nomination Ms. Chorney’s precluded.  And for that I say: give this woman a prize.

Which brings me to the other Big Question this dust-up raises: Should Linda Chorney win a Grammy? I dunno.  While others surely think she is not deserving of a Grammy, I’m inclined to think exactly the opposite. I’m not convinced the Grammys are worthy of her.

WTF?

I have watched the Grammy Awards telecast over the past few years with an increasing sense of bafflement.  The Grammy telecast has become a dazzling, pyrotechnic and acrobatic triumph of spectacle over talent. If you don’t believe me, have a look at Pink’s Cirque du Soleil performance at the 2010 Grammy Awards telecast. The woman can sing.  Why does she need to be hoisted into the rafters on a hoop?

And suddenly it dawns on me:  the real purpose the Grammy Awards is not to honor musical achievement, but  to gather the largest possible television audience.  Given that dubious threshold, why is it objectionable that one diligent — if unheralded — performer should find her way into the arena?

Over the past decade everything about the music industry has been disrupted by new technology.  What makes anybody think that the Grammy Awards should be exempt from that disruption?

Those who take issue with Ms. Chorney’s nomination simply fail to recognize the full extent to which the landscape of their business has shifted.  First, new technology transformed the way way music is produced and recorded.  Then it transformed the way recorded music is distributed.   Now somebody has actually used new technology — a social network — for the direct, singular purpose of obtaining a nomination for an award.

And people are  surprised by this?  Does their calendar still say “1994”?

The ramparts of the industrial music monolith have been are crumbling for at least fifteen years now.  That somebody could come out of nowhere — with no  industry sanctioned machinery behind her  — and garner a nomination for a (supposedly?) prestigious award is just one more stone falling out of that wall.

And that stone has fallen on the heads of some of  the erstwhile gatekeepers of Americana.  Linda Chorney has ignored the gatekeepers and gone over the wall.   By landing in the middle of the Grammy party, she’s made herself the poster child for the new paradigm.

Yeah, you go, girl.

–Paul Schatzkin – December 14, 2011



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  • Mlove2k2

    Well done! I don’t know Ms. Chorney’s music, but I am sure to go look for it now. And as for the “system”, isn’t it meant to be challenged and provoked into change? Isn’t that how these dusty old institutions evolve? Good for her, and good for you!

  • Thomas Hutchings

    Linda’s nomination gives the entire Grammy’s process more integrity AND she’s providing an inspiring story for all those thousands musicians that are out there making great music just for the joy of it! 
    God Bless her for being so damn diligent and dedicated in so many ways!

  • Tonisilver

    Just listened to lindas new CD..incredible,,totally deserves the grammy,,,
    I’m glad she is the new poster child

  • Jm

    Good piece Paul..and she very well could win!!!

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  • Guitaralph

    Bravo on a ballsy, well written article about a ballsy artist. It’s quite satisfying to see someone rattle the golden cage for a change!

  • Lrouffe

    Before deeming this a paradigm shift, let’s all mark our calendars and see how Ms. Chorney’s career is progressing a year from now.
     Also, you state that Americana “has its own insular little world, dominated by a new generation of uber-insiders” Funny, if I remember correctly your 1861 Project showcased at the Americana Music Conference this year as well as other indies: The Vespers,
    Farewell Milwaukee, Matrimony,Malcolm Holcombe, Ryan Tanner, plus more.

    • driver49

      There is a paradigm shift afoot whether Ms. Chorney’s career has advanced (by whose measure?) a year from now or not.  Her current visibility is just another symptom of the shift that started when Napster first appeared.  Please read my “Music 3.0” essay if that’s not clear to you. Or the short version.  Or the 280 word version.  Links in the column above/left.

      As for “Über-insiders,” hey… guilty as charged.  If I remember correctly, I was on the committee that formed the AMA back in… whenever that was.  You don’t get any more “insider” than that.  And not that it matters, but the 1861 Showcase was the first thing I’ve asked of AMA in the decade-plus since.

      Despite being one of it’s founders, I do not think there is anything sacrosanct about the Americana Assn with regard to the genre now recognized by NARAS.

      The difference between us, I think, is that I welcome stuff that gets our attention from the periphery, particularly if it forces us to rethink our belief systems.  

      All those other acts you mention, just the fact that they showcased at AMA means that they went through the channels (or the gates) and now wear the imprimatur of the AMA, as Ms. Chorney (and countless others) does not.  It’s just unfortunate that so much of the vitriol directed at Linda has derived in no small measure from her being “an outsider” (never been to a conference, not a member, etc etc) — which, you would think, would be the very essence of “Americana.”

      • Jack Williams

        “The difference between us, I think, is that I welcome stuff that gets our attention from the periphery, particularly if it forces us to rethink our belief systems. ”
        Perhaps that criticism has some validity with respect to the AMA.  I thought that a lot of their picks for the AMA music awards were quite conservative.  I’m not sure it the criticism applies quite as well to the community of roots music fans, though.

        The biggest sports story in the US right now is the success of Tim Tebow as quarterback for the Denver Broncos football team.   Now there is someone who is challenging the conventional notion of what skills are required to succeed as a quarterback in the NFL.  However, he’s doing it by actually playing football.    Linda Chorney, on the other hand, has found a way to leap frog over many other relatively obscure artists who put out great albums this year, such as Hayes Carll, Eilen Jewell, Zoe Muth, Jason Isbell, and Dave Alvin.   These artists are treasured by the Americana music fan ommunity and have plied their trade the old fashioned way.    So, this  nomination sticks in the craw a little.  In fairness, the Grammys were probably not going to pick one of those anyway,  given the past track record of the Grammys(although the fact that they past over Hayes Carll boggles the mind a little, given how critically acclaimed his album was and how it was the #1 played album on Americana radio programs),  Maybe they would have given it to Jeff Bridges.

  • Jack Williams

    I’m a passionate American roots music fan and many of my favorite artists are often identified as “Americana” artists.  If someone was described to me as a Americana artist, the default visual I would get would be a white persion with an acoustic guitar.  In this respect, it appears that Linda Chorney would qualify.

    Last year, the Grammy for Americana album of the year went to Mavis Staples for her album You Are Not Alone.  Great album and one of my favorites for 2010.  I watched the non-televised part of the Grammys on the internet.  Watching Mavis accept her award would “bring a tear to a glass eye.”  She was just moved to tears and trouble getting through her acceptance speech because she was so, so happy.  After all of these years of making music, she had finally won her first Grammy.  I think it’s pretty safe to say that this win was embraced by the “Americana community” even though very few, if any, people would use the word “Americana” to describe Mavis’ music.  Her music is American roots music, though, and I suspect that is why many of us in the “community” treasure it. 
     
    Now we have Linda Chorney as a nominee.  I frequent many roots music web sites and I have never, ever heard of her.  I have now istened to some of her music and it just doesn’t appeal to me as a roots music fan.  That’s what might be wrong with this nomination if my reaction would be a common one.  That is, perhaps it doesn’t appeal much to the fans of the genre.  But hey, whatever.  You go, girl!

    The Grammy categories that I tend to pay any attention to are Blues, Bluegrass, Folk, Gospel and now the relatively new Americana category.  I’m often underwhelmed by the nominations as they typically seem to go to the artists with the highest visibility within the respective genre.  For example, if Buddy Guy puts out an album, it would shocking to me if he didn’t get nominated in a blues category.  This year’s other Americana nominees (Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Levon Helm and Ry Cooder) are fairly high profile to the point that may outside of the Americana community have heard of them.  Linda Chorney is unknown to everyone INCLUDING  Americana music fans!  If an artist largely unknown by the general public but treasure by Americana music fans (e.g., Eilen Jewell, Zoe Muth, Sarah Jarosz), I doubt there would be such a controversy.

    • driver49

      I believe Jack Willliams has FINALLY given us a concrete definition of ‘Americana:” “A white person with an acoustic guitar.”

      • Jack Williams

        Aren’t we clever?  Did you even read past my first paragraph?  

        • driver49

          I  read the whole thing several times.  Sorry you took offense at my excerpt.

          • Jack Williams

            Just to be clear, though.  That is not my definition of an Americana artist, although many can pass that superficial visual test (e.g., Patty Griffin Allison Moorer, Steve Earle, John Hiatt).  Ms.  Chorney passes that test as well.

  • Thepeev

    I applaud Linda’s talent and vivacious energy to get where she wants to be. I appreciate the thoughts and comments in this article and  agree…YOU GO GIRL!!!

  • Jack Williams

    I’ve gone over to CDBaby and sampled all of the songs from Emotional Jukebox.  Seems like a nice album.  I like her selection of covers, too.  I bet she has a great album collection.    Until recently, there was a Grammy category called Contemporary Folk.  It got squeezed out as a result the Grammy category downsizing effort last year.  Shawn Colvin won the Grammy inthat category once.  So, I think that category would be a good fit for Ms Chorney, but the category doesn’t exist anymore.    The Americana category still seems a stretch to me, but perhaps it’s the best fit for her music, given what’s available.  

    • driver49

      Thanks for the comments, Jack.  You’re right, from its inception “Americana” has been a mercurial genre, and the fact that it has now absorbed the “folk” genre (for NARAS) purposes along with the twang/roots form does muddy the waters even further.  Brings us back to Rosanne Cash’s statement re: “Americana is where they put you when you don’t really fit anywhere else…”  Which just means that those who consider themselves the guardians of the format have their work cut out for them, lest “Americana” become the musical equivalent of “None Of The Above.”

      • Jack Williams

        You’re welcome, driver49.  Just to clarify, though.  When I wrote that the Americana category was the best fit for her music, what I really meant was that with the small number of categories available,  Americana might be the most logical one for her to pursue.   That’s not the same as me thinking she’s a good choice for a nominee.   Also, she shouldn’t be surprised if there’s a strong negative reaction  not necessarily from the “gatekeepers”, but from the passionate Americana music fans, the vast majority of which never heard of her (and we’re quite enthusiastic about finding out about new artists in the field) and if they hear her music, perhaps might find that her music doesn’t resonate with them.   

        I wonder if you’re interpreting Rosanne Cash’s statement a little too broadly.  Another definiton that one hears is “too rock for country, too country for rock.”  Sometimes, I would even add “too country for country ” and would give Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale and Elizabeth Cook as examples of this.   Given that Ms. Cash made her statement among “Americana friends” at the Ryman and that this other definition could describe a lot of her own work, I wonder if this definition is closer to how Ms. Cash feels about Americana.

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  • Chance Austin

    I like it when someone figures a way around the system that has kept the status quo for so long. It always makes those “Uber Insiders” squirm when anyone points out that the game is meaningless.  If you follow the history of the Americana format (Yes that is what you get when you combine genres, a radio format) the Gavin inspired chart looked much different then the current chart. Is it that the definition of Americana has changed? Or is it that the stations that report to the Americana Airplay Chart have changed? The idea that at one point Dale Watson was a top 5 artist and now can barely hit top 20 lets you understand that those “Uber Insiders” who decide who reports to that chart have allowed so many AAA stations onto their chart that the new definition of Americana looks like a serious HYBRED of the Americana format that existed in 1998.  Right or wrong the moment “What is Americana” is determined by the group of “Uber Insiders” that have managed the “Official” chart that has gone from 825 spins (Rodney Crowell’s Fate’s Right Hand) to this week’s Ryan Adam’s 375 at #1 you realize that it has NOTHING TO DO with “What is Americana” and that a chart that is unmonitored with impossible spin counts doesn’t mean anything to anyone in the “Know”.  

    Grammy Voters most of which are NOT IN THE KNOW when it comes to music outside of their own interest get to vote in up to 20 categories, so if someone sends them something marked “Americana” it is a name with little to no definition and can range from Emmylou Harris to Bright Eyes or the Decemberist based on the Official Chart. They might vote for a CD that just sounds good and figure it’s Americana because someone said it was.

    So what does the Grammy mean when it comes to Americana?  Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, Ry Cooder ?  You know Classic Rock. 

    I say when Hayes Carll, Eilen Jewell, The Band of Heathens, Slaid Cleaves and The Avett Brothers get a nomination it will actually mean something. But until then its just more meaningless crap that doesn’t help anyone of the many “Real” Americana artists to sell even one CDs.

    Thank you Linda for proving its just more of “never mind The Man Behind The Curtain”.

    Americana is determined by the listener’s ear at coffee houses, dank bars, car radio and living rooms around the world. like we all used to say “I can’t describe it ,but I know it when I hear it”

    Yes Linda Chorney you have again proved “The Emperor Has No Clothes”

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  • Will Lee

    “There is two kinds of music-the good and bad. I play the good kind” This great quote (credited to Louis Armstrong, among others) has so much irony and humor, that a person has to keep these profound words in his/her mind while listening to or reading an opinion from any fellow human. I’m only one person & can’t speak for anyone else, neither can a critic/journalist/blogger, so the judge of what is good or bad is YOU. I’m so happy about Linda Chorney’s “Emotional Jukebox” album being nominated, since she embodies what recorded music is meant to do-move you! Listening to the tracks of the album you’ll feel the  passion, honesty and courage of an artist that deserves all the attention she is finally getting. My opinion. What’s yours?

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