The 49th Annual GRAMMY Awards Roundup: Folk And Blues Fields

  • Irma Thomas at the 49th GRAMMY Awards in 2007
    Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images
    Irma Thomas
January 19, 2007 -- 10:44 am PST

The GRAMMY Awards honor recordings in 108 categories across 31 fields, from rap to classical. To help readers get a better sense of the nominees and the wealth of recordings they’ve created over the past year, has prepared these field Roundups, which give quick details on the nominees in an easy-to-read format.

The South gave birth to the blues, an art form that went on to influence all American pop music. But in its purest form, the blues always tells the simple truth about the joy and heartache of the human condition. With two exceptions, all the nominees for BEST TRADITIONAL BLUES ALBUM have been playing for decades, but they still return to the blues to renew their music. Dion's Bronx In Blue is a tribute to the bluesmen that stirred his teenage soul — including the singing and picking of Jimmy Rogers and John Lee Hooker — recorded simply with acoustic guitar, vocals and foot stomps. Tab Benoit is a relative newcomer with a style that drops a bit of funky swamp rock into the mix. Brother To The Blues, recorded with Louisiana's Leroux, salutes the country sounds that influenced Benoit's development and includes guest shots by Jim Lauderdale, Billy Joe Shaver and fiddler extraordinaire Waylon Thibodeaux. People Gonna Talk, the third album from British singer/songwriter/guitarist James Hunter, caused a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic this year with Hunter's Sam Cook-meets-Ray Charles delivery harking back to the soulful swing of the early '60s. Duke Robillard's wide-ranging style includes rockabilly, swing, jazz and rock as well as the blues. On Guitar Groove-A-Rama Robillard turns in a pocket history of the blues with tracks that range from the swamp rock of "Sewed Up" to the swinging jive of "I'll Do Anything But Work." Before Ike Turner created the Ike & Tina Turner Review, he backed Howlin' Wolf and Elmore James and helped bring B.B. King to Modern Records. Risin' With The Blues shows off Turner's considerable piano playing skills and searing fretwork on a set that includes gospel, New Orleans funk, jive and boogie woogie.

BEST CONTEMPORARY BLUES ALBUM nominee Robert Cray was one of the artists who sparked the blues renaissance of the early '80s with a vocal style that tipped its hat to the great Southern Soul singers of the '60s. Live From Across The Pond presents the Robert Cray Band in concert at London's Royal Albert Hall turning in a set of career spanning tunes with extended arrangements that allow the band to show off its considerable chops. Dr. John & The Lower 911 recorded Sippiana Hericane in New York City to benefit the New Orleans Musician's Clinic, the Jazz Foundation of America and the Voice of the Wetlands in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The centerpiece of the album is Mac Rebennack's four-part "Wade: Hurricane Suite," a radical reinvention of the old spiritual "Wade In The Water." Keb' Mo' is another artist that slips a bit of soul, folk, pop and even reggae into the blues without straying too far from the basics. Suitcase explores the familiar minefield of modern relationships with songs that bounce from sunny expressions of fealty to more traditional tales of heartache and regret. On Hope And Desire, guitarist/singer/songwriter Susan Tedeschi temporarily sets her guitar aside to dig into her vocal performance. Recorded live, with seat of the pants arrangements, the set has a loose, down-home feel with Tedeschi turning in some of the best vocal work of her career. Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen Of New Orleans, continues to amaze fans with her vocal pyrotechnics and deep emotional range. The tunes on After The Rain were all selected before Katrina hit, but their images of floods, storms and survival take on added poignancy when Thomas sings them.

BEST TRADITIONAL FOLK ALBUM nominee Ramblin' Jack Elliott is the living link between Woody Guthrie and the '60s folk revival. I Stand Alone features Elliott's guitar and his well-weathered vocals knocking out a collection of folk and early country tunes in his own inimitable fashion. Like Elliott, Odetta came of age during the '60s folk revival, with a booming soulful voice that you could feel as well as hear. On Gonna Let It Shine the singer is accompanied primarily by pianist Seth Farber (the Holmes Brothers supply back up on three cuts), who brings a bluesy feel to this collection of spirituals mostly associated with the Christmas season. Linda Ronstadt's eclectic career takes another unexpected turn with Adieu False Heart, a collaboration with singer Ann Savoy of the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band. The pair trades leads and blends their voices in beautiful harmony on tunes from the pens of Bill Monroe, Richard Thompson and Julie Miller, but it's their Cajun reworking of the Left Banke's "Walk Away Renee" that really astonishes. We Shall Overcome — The Seeger Sessions is perhaps the most jovial album Bruce Springsteen has ever cut. The Boss took 13 tunes associated with Pete Seeger, the Godfather of the American Folk Movement, threw together a 13-member acoustic band, and recorded the tunes in two all-day sessions without rehearsals. The result is a big, sprawling, jumpy celebration of Seeger and American folk. Ralph Stanley is a living link to the style of music called bluegrass, a highly improvisational form that grew out of the primal folk music of the Southern Appalachians. Stanley's voice is starting to fray, but that only adds authenticity to a man who has lived the hard life he sings about. A Distant Land To Roam covers the religious songs of the Carter Family.

Call Jackson Browne a folk artist, singer/songwriter, balladeer, or anything else you like. His folk-based melodies and literate lyrics set a high standard for singers and songwriters, and his BEST CONTEMPORARY FOLK/AMERICANA ALBUM-nominated Solo Acoustic Vol. 1 shows him in fine form, playing some of his most famous tunes in an emotionally naked setting that intensifies their simple beauty. In the process of writing Black Cadillac, Rosanne Cash lost her father (Johnny Cash), her stepmother (June Carter Cash) and her mother Vivian, so it's not unexpected that the album deals with loss and limitation. Cash has a gift for transforming grief into transcendent emotional statements and that magic that makes Black Cadillac a triumph. Texas songwriter Guy Clark invited his buddies along for a co-writing hootenanny and Workbench Songs was the result. Clark romps through hardcore honky tonk, Norteño, folk and blues. Bob Dylan almost single-handedly created folk rock and in the last decade he has returned to the folk and blues of his youth, winning four GRAMMYs since 1997 in the process. Modern Times is as much blues as folk, as ancient as it is modern, a nod to the roots music that runs through all pop from Edison's cylinders to today's downloads. When talents as unique as Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris get together, something extraordinary is bound to happen. All The Roadrunning was put together over a seven-year period, but it sounds seamless and spontaneous. The blend of Knopfler's rasp and Harris's angelic tones sounds as timeless as the tunes they composed for this low-key charmer.

Native American music is the "world music" being created in our own backyard, and it is currently undergoing an artistic resurgence as Native artists blend the sounds of today with their own ancient traditions. Black Eagle's Flying Free won the GRAMMY for BEST NATIVE AMERICAN MUSIC ALBUM in 2003 and they return with their Voice Of The Drum, a collection of hand drum and round dance songs that captures all the power of their live performance. During the winter, the Native people of Saskatchewan and Alberta, Canada, gather for all-night social dance ceremonies; Northern Cree hosts one of the most celebrated of these winter gatherings. Long Winter Nights was recorded live in Hobbema, Canada, a town south of Edmonton and is credited to Northern Cree & Friends. The Friends include some of Canada's best known Native singers and drum groups, including Ken Pooyak, Bear Creek, Big River Cree and Arnold Pete. Robert Tree Cody plays the Native cedar flute and is a leading artist in the current renaissance of that instrument. On Heart Of The Wind, Cody collaborates with the distinguished drummer/percussionist Will Clipman to create soundscapes that blend the rhythms of Native and Latin America, Arabia and Africa. GRAMMY winner Mary Youngblood is the premiere female Native flute player and a singer as well. Dance With The Wind is an expansive album from an artist who is forging her own unique identity by blending Native, world, jazz and singer/songwriter impulses into her music. Jana's American Indian Story is an ambitious and musically diverse project that includes dance, traditional Native, gospel and pop rock, complimented by string-heavy, sweeping cinematic quality.

Slack key guitar — a method of tuning the guitar to a major chord and ornamenting the melody with slides and bell-like harmonics — continues to be one of Hawaii's signature sounds. This year two slack key compilations and a slack key album are in the running for the BEST HAWAIIAN MUSIC ALBUM. Hawaiian Slack Key Kings, produced by Chris Lau & Milton Lau features work by fledgling rock star Jack Johnson, Dennis and David Kamakahi, 15-year-old guitar wiz Danny Carvalho and Ledward Ka'apana. Legends Of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar — Live From Maui, produced by Daniel Ho, George Kahumoku Jr., Paul Konwiser and Wayne Wong also features Ka'apana as well as Cyril Pahinni, Martin Pahinni and Da Ukulele Boys. Ledward Ka'apana is also in the running for his own album, Grandmaster Slack Key Guitar. One of the first musicians to take slack key to the mainland, Ka'apana has been an acknowledged master of the style for more than 30 years, incorporating country, Latin, jazz and rock into his playing. Amy Hanaiali'i is one of the prime movers in the revival of Ha'i, a female falsetto singing tradition that almost died out. On Generation Hawai'i, her jazz vocal training and love of R&B bring a new direction and some contemporary polish to this ancient art form. As one half of Cecilio & Kapono, Henry Kapono helped create Hawaiian folk rock and became one of the few Hawaiian acts ever signed to a major label. After years of making more traditional sounding music, Kapono returns to rock and roll with The Wild Hawaiian.

Reggae music continues to grow and mutate, although most of this year's BEST REGGAE ALBUM nominees hew close to more traditional forms. Too Bad is Buju Banton's return to dancehall, the rude, crude Jamaican style of rap that first brought him world acclaim. Ziggy Marley had some big shoes to fill but has found his own voice, and his Love Is My Religion adds the flavors of jazz, blues, ska and rock to his palette to bring forth another celebration of peace, brotherhood and freedom. Matisyahu, a Hasidic Jew who uses roots reggae and dancehall to expound upon the righteous life, balancing jam band energy with a profound mystical vision, is in the running with Youth. The GRAMMY-winning duo of Sly & Robbie (drummer Sly Dunbar and bass man Robbie Shakespeare) has been writing, producing and playing genre-bending music over the past 30 years without ever straying too far from their Jamaican roots. Rhythm Doubles shows off their ability to deliver the goods in any style they choose including salsa, hip-hop, reggaetón, bhangra and dancehall. UB40 is still producing vital, exciting music after nearly 30 years together, and their Who You Fighting For? shows the band's songwriting and social consciousness in full force.