Grammy Shammy

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.

"Every member of the recording academy has the opportunity to nominate product in to the awards process. That does not constitute a nomination. You don't become a nominee until the voters have sifted through all the entries."

Asked if in her experience bands claiming bogus "Grammy-nominated" status was a common occurrence, Morgan said no. "I've heard of bands saying that, but not, like, publicizing it."

So to put it in a nutshell, there's a big difference between being nominated for a category and being nominated in a category. It's if and only if your band's name is in one of the little envelopes that's opened on- or off-stage on the big night that you can truly call yourself Grammy-nominated, and only five acts make that cut. In the early stages of the process, there can be hundreds of bands vying for the five spots on the final ballot -- as you might expect, because all it takes is an entry from an academy member, who can nominate himself. (And NARAS isn't all that hard to get in to -- all you need to become a voting member is six commercially released album credits, which can include anything from being a band leader to a producer to other stuff. For example, I got in by writing the liner notes to a bunch of albums back in 1999.)

So I called Rapier and asked her about the alleged nomination. "Right. Yeah. I was misinformed by someone at the Grammys. I'm a voting member, too, because I'm a producer. I've gotten this from one other person, so that's why I double-checked. We are being nominated as one of many in October. It's funny -- there seems to be some pretty headbanging dispute about it, but as I understand it, unless you're part of the top five, you're not supposed to say that." (Interestingly, Morgan could not find Rapier as a member in the NARAS database. Rapier claims that she sent her membership in four to six weeks ago and has yet to receive her canceled check. Morgan replied that it's possible that her application is still pending.)

I speculated to Rapier that they had been told to say they were nominated by Parrish, their own producer. Rapier denied that. "Actually, it wasn't Robbie that told me," she said. "It was somebody at Sugar Hill."

I wondered if that somebody could be Andy Bradley, Sugar Hill co-owner and engineer of Nowhere But Gone. But, come on, Sugar Hill is Houston's foremost recording studio. And Andy Bradley was once on the board of governors of the Texas chapter of the academy. Surely he couldn't be that ignorant of or cynical about the awards process. And he isn't. Bradley vociferously denied telling Rapier any such thing. And then Rapier herself admitted that it wasn't Bradley or anyone else at Sugar Hill, nor Parrish -- but Rapier herself. In another e-mail to me, Rapier explained herself thusly: "For the official record, my bad. I am guilty, THROUGH NO FAULT OF ANYBODY BUT ME, of using the wrong language when referring to the process of being nominated. What I am allowed to say is, as of October 2004, we will be officially entered into the Grammy nominating process. I must have taken bad notes during my meeting at Sugar Hill. I want to be really, really clear: This is neither Robbie Parrish's, nor anyone at Sugar Hill's doing but mine."

Questions remain: 1) How do they know they are even entered for a category if the process hasn't started? 2) If Rapier's application is still pending, how was she able to even put the CD forth for consideration? 3) If she didn't, then who did? Alas, my column space doesn't permit exploration of these intriguing lines of inquiry...

But as it happens, Sugar Bayou is not the only band claiming false "Grammy-nominated" status. Pianist Anita Kruse -- interestingly enough, the wife of Sugar Bayou producer Robbie Parrish, who is a member of the academy -- claims several nominations, which I found interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that she was, for a time, a piano instructor at my son's elementary school. The Celtic band the Rogues claims nominations too, as does local gospel-bluegrass band White Dove -- which gigs mainly at nursing homes. Jazz/R&B artist and nightclub owner Scott Gertner claims to be thrice Grammy-nominated -- one wonders then why he leads a cover band. (Or maybe Kruse and Gertner don't actually claim to be Grammy-nominated -- but the newspaper and magazine articles that link to their Web sites sure do, and if the claims were made in error, neither Kruse nor Gertner has seen fit to ask for corrections.)  

No doubt, some of these people are ignorant of the process, but others have definitely got a little hustle on. But they all have this in common: According to the academy's awards department in Los Angeles, none of them can claim a legitimate Grammy nomination.

And the moral of the story is this: If you don't like one of our reviews, feel free to complain. Call us names if you want to. Insult our taste, intelligence, even our ancestry, if you feel so inclined. Round up your posse of fans and have them all do the same. Just don't drag the Grammys into it unless you have earned that privilege.

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