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Grammy Shammy

Sugar Bayou's bad review spotlights a shady Houston trend

This little tale of falsely claimed Grammy nominations begins a few months back, when I received a package from a local band called Sugar Bayou. It looked promising -- the producer was Robbie Parrish, one of the better drummers in town and one of the best drum technicians in the country.

Alas, I found the CD a disappointment -- I would call what was in the grooves "roots Muzak," a nonstop, albeit agonizingly poky, train to Blahsburg. I was going to mail the CD on to Press contributor Bob Ruggiero, but he told me not to bother, as Sugar Bayou had already sent one to his home. Ruggiero sent in the review in early February, and it ran in the issue of February 26. Ruggiero -- as always -- found something to both like and dislike in his review. On the plus side, he called the core group of Bob Oldreive, Joe Lindley and April Rapier a "fine amalgamation of singers and multi-instrumentalist pickers and pluckers." He also praised, among other things, Rapier's "jazzy" vocal lead singing on the title track, the fine harmonies on "Carolina Wind" and the "peppy," "hooky" tune "Sometimes." But on the whole, the review was definitely a pan. Ruggiero called the material "mostly listless, overpolite and monotonously tempoed songs" that were "sung through the gauzy lens covering you see on Hallmark card commercials." They were, he said, "embarrassments in terms of arrangements and lyrics and not even fit to be called MOR." "Nowhere But Gone," he concluded, "lacks any real sense of musical passion." "It seems," he continued, "this band is actually less than the sum of its parts. Reportedly their live show is much more engaging, but on disc, Sugar Bayou's waters run placid and sticky sweet."

On Monday, I had a response from April Rapier awaiting me in my inbox. Prefaced by Hunter S. Thompson's now dog-tired "shallow money trench" quote about the music business, Rapier's missive stated how hard they worked on both the CD and their publicity campaign, and reiterated her pride in the disc. She then moved in on Ruggiero's review, calling it "a curiously personal, mean-spirited and inaccurate attack." She added, "It's one thing not to like a certain style of music, and that's cool -- Heaven knows, I'm picky. But it's kind of like choosing a bunion doc to do a boob job -- wrong person for the task..."

One wonders then why she sent the CD to Ruggiero in the first place. Wouldn't that be like going to a podiatrist and demanding that he give you a boob job? And Ruggiero denies that there was anything personal in the review. "As for her accusation that I wrote a 'mean-spirited' review," Ruggiero write in an e-mail to me, "keep in mind that I decided to write something about it as a Local Rotation even before I heard the CD itself, so it wasn't a matter of I listened to it, thought it sucked and then decided to write a slam just for kicks."

Rapier went on to urge a letter-writing campaign, calling for Sugar Bayou fans to contact Press editor Margaret Downing to complain. Ruggiero, Downing and Press publisher Stuart Folb were copied on the message.

But there were also an intriguing couple of sentences about halfway through the letter. After Rapier rallied the Sugar Bayou troops with a few healing words, she went on to say, "It is a great honor to be part of this band. And speaking of honors, in October 2004, we will be officially nominated for a Grammy in the Contemporary Folk category!"

Take that, you no-taste, ignorant-as-hell Houston Press! You might have thought our CD was lame, but next year we're gonna be up on stage with OutKast, the Neptunes and Norah Jones, you musical morons!

Or maybe not. As a Grammy voter myself, I was stunned to learn that the ballot for 2005's award show had already been decided -- and I hadn't even had a chance to vote. Usually it takes nine or ten months for the Grammy nominees to be determined. I got on the phone to Wendy Morgan, the executive director of the Texas Chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS for short), the "Grammy people" to lay folks.

Reached at her Austin office, Morgan was astonished when I told her that Sugar Bayou claimed to be a Contemporary Folk nominee in the 2005 Grammys. "Well, that's interesting, especially because the entry process hasn't even been opened," she said with a laugh. "The awards process doesn't even open until mid-summer. So no artist has been slated as a nominee, and no artist has been submitted as an artist in the entry process in the 2005 Grammys."

Morgan brought up a key distinction. There's a huge difference between being "Grammy-nominated" and "an artist in the entry process." "Every member of the recording academy has the opportunity to enter commercially distributed product into the Grammy Awards process," Morgan explained. "From that process, then the voting members of the academy will vote for the nominees. Then the voting members will vote -- out of the five nominees that are selected in each category -- the members will vote on one of the five nominees, which will then select the winner.

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