At the Grammys, Making Very Nice

John Mayer performed
John Mayer performed "Gravity" off his album "Continuum," which won for pop vocal album. (By Mark J. Terrill -- Associated Press)
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 12, 2007

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 11 The Dixie Chicks got the last laugh Sunday night. Rejected by the country establishment, the polarizing group was tickled to find itself in the warm embrace of the broader Recording Academy, which honored the Chicks with five Grammy Awards -- including the three biggest: album of the year, record of the year and song of the year.

The Texas trio also won for best country group vocal and best country album. The latter award was especially surprising, since they were excommunicated from the church of country music in 2003 after singer Natalie Maines popped off about President Bush and the war in Iraq. Upon bouncing to the podium after the result was announced, Maines said what just about everybody inside Staples Center was probably thinking: "That's interesting." She closed her gaping mouth just long enough to grin mischievously, then said, "Well, to quote the great Simpsons, 'HA HA!' "

"Not Ready to Make Nice," the group's defiant answer to the angry country fans who'd criticized the group for criticizing Bush, won song of the year, the industry's top songwriting award. "I am, for the first time in my life, speechless," Maines said. Earlier, the protest singer Joan Baez had introduced the Dixie Chicks as "three brave women who are still not ready to make nice."

"I think people are using their freedom of speech here tonight with all of these awards," Maines said. "We get the message."

The group appeared at the lectern so many times that Maines finally threw up her arms and said, "I got nothing clever now; I'm all out of jokes."

R&B songstress Mary J. Blige won three awards, including best R&B album for "The Breakthrough," and the Red Hot Chili Peppers took home four. The impossible-to-categorize not-really-rap group Gnarls Barkley won for both alternative music album and urban alternative performance, two wildly different categories. Country prom queen Carrie Underwood also had a pretty nice night, performing two songs and winning a pair of awards: best new artist and female country vocal for "Jesus, Take the Wheel." (The song also won its authors the award for best country song.)

Asked backstage about the country establishment's reaction to the Dixie Chicks' winning the genre's top album award, Underwood demurred. "Next question, please." After someone else came back at the question, Underwood ducked again, smiling all the while.

"I'm happy for them, and I'll leave it at that," she said, before a handler whisked her off the pressroom stage.

Hunky singer-songwriter John Mayer recalled working in the same studio complex as the Dixie Chicks when they were recording "Taking the Long Way" and said he could hear the greatness down the hall: "Every time that door opened up and you could make out the music, it was almost an instant classic." Mayer wound up playing guitar on "Taking the Long Way," which beat out his CD "Continuum" for album of the year.

"It's hard enough to make a record when you're chasing the ghost of your last record," he said. "But they were running from a lot of ghosts." Mayer said he admired their artistic restraint: Though "Not Ready to Make Nice" is defiant, the album isn't quite a direct rebuke to the group's critics. Nor is it overtly political.

"Most people would have made a record four times as brash," he said. "To write great songs as your weapon, it's all you need."

It was the first time since Eric Clapton in 1993 that the three major categories were swept by one artist. Rick Rubin, the bearded zen master who guided the Dixie Chicks through the recording process, was named producer of the year.

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