What it’s really like to be nominated for a Grammy
It is a surreal experience.
Here you are standing in a $16 Goodwill tuxedo on the red carpet at the 60th Grammy Awards in Madison Square Garden in New York City. There are five pieces of tape positioned along the red carpet path, and you are instructed to stop and stand at each one so that photographers all have an equal chance to get your photo.
“Wayne, look over here.” “Right here, Wayne.” “Look this way.” “Wayne, look over here, please.” The photographers command this at each stop. And at the end is a group of people clapping and shouting.
This is what it’s like to be nominated for a Grammy Award. Even if it’s for a low-tier … OK, lowest-tier … category like “Best Liner Notes,” for which my buddy Bradley Reeves and I were nominated for having contributed to the CD package “Arthur Q. Smith: The Trouble With the Truth.” For a brief moment, you are someone who people care about … whether they really know why or not.
But let’s go back a little. This adventure began because Bradley convinced Bear Family Records that lost songwriter Arthur Q. Smith, whose given name was James Arthur Pritchett, needed to be immortalized with a CD release. Bradley had been fascinated by a column I had written about Q, as we came to call him, in 1992. Q was a character in which I had been interested since my friends Red and Parker (Ernestine) Rector had told me about him in the 1980s.
Here was a brilliant songwriter who had written classic songs, including “Wedding Bells” (recorded by Hank Williams, Rosemary Clooney and others), “Rainbow at Midnight” (Ernest Tubb, Carlisle Brothers and others), “I Overlooked an Orchid While Looking for a Rose” (Carl Smith, Mickey Gilley) and many, many other songs. A severe alcoholic, Q had sold the vast majority of his songs outright, generally for $15 or $25 a pop, to people who often later would claim to have written the songs themselves. The great songwriter himself died in obscurity in 1963.
Bradley invited me to help write the book that would go along with the CD project. We made no money from it; we simply wanted to get the true story out.
“Arthur Q. Smith: The Trouble With the Truth” was well-received. We had a CD-release party and concert. We were able to give Q some recognition, his family some much-needed validation and that was that.
Well, sort of. Bradley decided we should submit the project for Grammy consideration. He joined the National Academy for the Recording Arts and submitted the book for consideration. East Tennessee State University professor Ted Olson, then a five-time Grammy nominee, gave it a nod to the Academy, as well.
On Nov. 28, 2017, the nominations were announced, and both Bradley and I – and Olson, for his work on “Big Bend Killing: The Appalachian Ballad Tradition” – made the cut in the “Best Liner Notes” nominations. I found out when my publicist friend Krista Mettler posted it on Facebook and asked, “Wayne, is this you?”
Not only were WE nominated, but our friends and fellow Knoxvillians Vance Thompson, Daniel Kimbro and Jamel Mitchell, as members of the Jerry Douglas Band, also were part of the nominations for “Best Contemporary Instrumental Album.”
Both Bradley and I found good deals on hotels and flights and decided to attend the ceremonies with our daughters in tow. He and his daughter, Sophie, decided to forgo the Grammy nominee reception at the Zeigfeld Ballroom the night before the awards. My daughter, Lauren, and I, however, wanted the full experience.
We also wanted the free food and free booze.
Upon arriving, nominees were herded in a line to receive a Grammy nominee medallion. Tiffany & Co. makes these things. The metal isn’t precious; I’m not even sure it’s a minor metal, but that didn’t matter. For us minor nominees, it might be the only thing we’d get to prove we’d been here. Some people wore the medallions through the entire party; some never seemed to take them off all weekend. I’m sure that I wasn’t the only person who noticed there wasn’t a celebrity anyone would recognize in this crowd, except for maybe new-age great Kitaro, and even I couldn’t quite put my finger on who he was until after he had disappeared.
It was hunger that brought us together with the members of Stile Antico, nominated in the classical division for “Best Small Ensemble Performance.” We hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and Lauren spotted the channel through the crowd where the hors d’oeuvres made their first entrances. Members of Stile Antico had recognized the importance of standing at the same place at almost the same time. Jet-lagged and not wanting to compromise the quality of their performance at the awards ceremony the next day, our new friends drank lightly. Lauren and I took their share. Not living up to the moniker “The City That Never Sleeps,” this party was over at 9 p.m., so we met Knoxville expatriate buddy Jake Winstrom for dinner while the Stile Antico singers went back their hotel to claim the title of “The Group That Finally Gets to Sleep.”
The next day at 2 p.m., we were only a block and a half from the Madison Square Garden red carpet entrance. Had we been real celebrities, we would’ve used our limo pass to hire a real limousine, even for just that short amount of time. However, having a Lyft driver drop us off from his Buick wouldn’t have made quite the same impact, so walking in the rain, even with Lauren holding up her gown and hopping over sidewalk grates, seemed a better bet.
I think we all knew that when we got to the spot where photographers were taking our photos that the photographers had no idea who we were, and if they DID know, they wouldn’t be taking our pictures. A handler held up our names so everyone knew what to call us, and, hey, we MIGHT BE someone sometime. If a nominee were actually a rising star or later were revealed to be a serial killer, at least they had a photo. And those people applauding? They were being paid for their enthusiasm. I later talked with a young man who was hired to sit in a celebrity’s seat while he or she was off performing, winning an award or maybe just going to the bathroom who had also been paid to be part of that applauding crowd.
“I KNEW you people didn’t really care about ‘Best Liner Notes!’” I told him.
Still, like every Uber or Lyft driver with whom we talked, he was impressed at just being nominated.
The early awards, and that’s most of them, were given out in this streamed-only presentation held in the theater at Madison Square Garden, not the actual arena. For this part of the event, it’s non-assigned seating. Most of the biggest stars don’t show up, but it still was pretty impressive.
Paul Shaffer and the World’s Most Dangerous Band were reunited for the first time since David Letterman’s retirement to be the house band, and they had to keep playing while the presenter scanned the audience to see if the winner was indeed making his or her way to the podium. My favorite entrance was Jason Isbell, who walked from all the way in the back of the hall, saying when he got to the podium, “Hey, I ain’t running for internet-only!”
There also were performances between nominee divisions, and they were more intimate (and often better) than the televised performances. It was here that Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’, Body Count, India.Arie, Jazzmeia Horn and Stile Antico all performed.
The “Best Liner Notes” award came early; it was the 11th category out of 75. I correctly had anticipated the winner, “Otis Redding: Live at the Whisky A-Go-Go, The Complete Recordings,” but hearing Neil DeGrasse Tyson read our names at Madison Square Garden was sweet enough. From that point on, I think Brad and I finally could relax. Ted Olson, who ended up getting his sixth nomination in the same category we were in, didn’t win, either. Neither did the Jerry Douglas Band.
Afterwards, I found Vance Thompson and the rest of the Jerry Douglas Band and asked Jerry how things were going. He of course said, “Well, it COULD be better!”
We couldn’t leave between ceremonies, so we waited around until 7 p.m. to find our reserved seats in the arena. The nominees for the televised awards sat on the floor while our divisions and non-nominated ticket holders sat in the first balconies. From there on, what we saw was pretty much what everybody else saw – minus the pleas during commercial breaks for everyone to take their seats. And, just to be clear, we don’t know what was going on with U2, either. Did they helicopter out to perform near the Statue of Liberty? We saw them in the hall with us, and then they were in the middle of the water on a video.
In the end, we spent a lot of time trying to identify popular artists by the back of their heads. Bruno Mars won a lot of awards, we were wowed by some vocal team-ups and there were a lot of fireworks and acknowledgements of political stances.
The after-party was held at the Marriott Marquis. Again, free food and booze, which was really good because there was nothing to eat between 3 and 11:10 p.m., when the ceremony ended. Nile Rodgers and Chic played on one floor while Jimmy Green led a jazz set on another.
If you were looking for celebrities, though, you were out of luck. The big-name artists were at private parties. Still, there was a sense that everyone was looking around wondering, “Are YOU anybody I should know?”
I should have worn that Grammy-nominee medallion around my neck!
While private after-parties were probably going on until after sunrise, the official Grammy after-party was pretty much down to the dregs by 3 a.m. We turned in our coupons for our gift bags. Suddenly, we were going to leave the Big Apple richer in hair products than we had found it.