At the Grammys, Making Very Nice
The Dixie Chicks Take Five, Including Album of the Year

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.

Was the 11,000-member Recording Academy sending a message -- a referendum on Bush, perhaps -- with its votes for the Dixie Chicks?

"I think the message is that the Dixie Chicks made a great album this year, and their music and commentary resonated with our membership as it did with the entire nation," said the group's president, Neil Portnow. But the evening's embrace of iconoclasm only went so far. Veteran rocker Neil Young, nominated in three categories for his anti-Bush broadside "Living With War," was denied in his latest bid for his first career Grammy.

Other artists had Iraq on the mind Sunday, including soul man John Legend, who performed his anti-war song "Coming Home," a modern-day answer to Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" After winning two awards (including best R&B vocal), Legend said, "A lot of artists care about the soldiers and what they're going through." He called the Bush administration's policy in Iraq "misguided."

Legend also addressed the elephant in the room: These are tumultuous times for the music business, which isn't exactly a thriving industry but nonetheless played one on TV Sunday, partying like it's still 1999. (Ah, those were the days! The value of recorded music shipped to U.S. retailers that year peaked at $14.5 billion. But the figure has fallen by more than 16 percent since, and actual album sales are off by about 25 percent.)

"It's a funky time for the record industry per se, but the music industry is about more than the record industry," said Legend, a former business consultant, noting that artists can still make a fine living from touring revenue and merchandise sales. Labels, however, "are in trouble, and they need to figure that out."

Yet it was business as usual when the Recording Academy threw a big old soiree for itself. Staples Center was dolled up in celebratory red, and the limousine and stretch-SUV line was as long as a Mary J. Blige acceptance speech: The diva speed-read her way through a list of thank-yous that was so long, it might have set a Grammy record for most people thanked in a single speech. (The Associated Press calculated that Blige mentioned 55 people by name after winning best R&B album.) She also shed so many tears that you were worried her fake eyelashes might fall off.

They were tears of joy, of course: Though Blige only won in three of the eight categories in which she was nominated, she said afterward that she was thrilled with the results: "This has been an incredible night for me."

Producers experimented with the show's formula, presenting some awards on a small island stage in the middle of the arena floor and introducing a reality-show dynamic to the telecast -- possibly inspired by last year's Nielsen ratings in which the Grammys were lapped by "American Idol." This year the Grammys featured an amateur singing competition that culminated in an unknown vocalist, Robyn Troup, being voted into a prime-time slot, singing on national TV opposite Justin Timberlake.

"My Grammy Moment," they called it. Bathroom break, we decided. (Sorry, but music's biggest night is not about inclusion. It's about the stars. Blige's voice. Prince's hair. John Frusciante's guitarwork. The look on Reba McEntire's face after the Dixie Chicks' win for best country group vocal.)

The big water-cooler performance, though, is bound to be the one involving the police. As in: The cops who are probably still scouring Staples Center, looking for Shakira, the Colombian pop star who surely broke some city ordinance by appearing in gold shrink-wrap while shaking her goods all over the stage during "Hips Don't Lie." Also a talker: The Police, who opened the telecast with a live performance of a nearly three-decade-old hit, "Roxanne." The band, which broke up in 1984, is expected to announce a reunion tour Monday. Coming soon to a very large summer venue near you, the tour is expected to be a blockbuster.

The Recording Academy gave out 108 awards, but only 11 were presented during the broadcast. (Lucky you, the viewer at home!) The balance of the awards were distributed earlier in the day during a dull three-hour ceremony in the adjacent Convention Center. Most of the stars skipped the sorta-ceremony: After announcing and then accepting folk-album awards on behalf of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan (traditional folk for Springsteen, contemporary for Dylan), presenter Vanessa Redgrave said, "Damn it, I wish these guys would show up so I could say hello!"

Speed metal stalwart Slayer won the first Grammy of its 25-year career, for best metal performance category, with "Eyes of the Insane," a song based on the story of a U.S. soldier who committed suicide days before he was due to return home from Iraq. Other Grammy first-timers included Peter Frampton, the British rocker whose 1976 release "Frampton Comes Alive!" is one of the best-selling albums of all time. Frampton's "Fingerprints" won for best pop instrumental album.

Ike Turner, 75, whose "Risin' With the Blues" won for traditional blues album -- his first Grammy since 1972 -- came dressed for the occasion. He wore a bejeweled lavender suit with a shiny lavender shirt. Asked backstage where one might find such a flamboyant outfit, Turner said: "Pawnshop."

The most embarrassed winner you didn't see? That would be Third Day guitarist Mark Lee. When his Christian group was named winner of the pop/contemporary gospel album award, Lee was busy flushing away his big moment. "Dude, we're winning the Grammy!" frontman Mac Powell said from the stage. "You can't hold it?" Lee materialized moments later, blushing.

(Backstage afterward, Lee explained he "wasn't literally in the bathroom" but just running late.)

The thank-you speeches included countless references to God and famed record exec Clive Davis (not necessarily in that order), plus two to L. Ron Hubbard. Those came from Chick Corea and his wife. Corea accepted the best instrumental jazz album award for "The Ultimate Adventure," based on the Hubbard book of the same name.

Also thanked, noted and otherwise acknowledged from the podium: "everyone ever born, who lived everywhere." That shout-out came from Lewis Black, winner of best comedy album for "The Carnegie Hall Performance." The caustic comedian from Silver Spring said he was "astonished" to win and also maybe a little bit embarrassed because the Grammys mostly acknowledge musicians.

"All I do is yak," Black said. He said he'd wanted to learn the piano, "but my piano teacher had arthritis. And that really sets you back."

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