James Beaty: OPINION: RAMBLIN ROUND: Of Kacey and Cash and country music

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Oct. 17—Pete Seeger's recording of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" proved such a great song The Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary and even Trini Lopez and Johnny Rivers had hits with it.

While it's a song pertaining to the human loss resulting from war, the song's final line can also be attributed to the music industry as well as it surrounding organizations — in this instance, the Recording Academy, which dispenses the annual Grammy Awards.

This time the issue revolves around Kacey Musgraves, the Texas-born singer who won a slew of Grammy Awards in 2019 related to her 2018 album, "Golden Hour" — including Grammys for Country Album of the Year, along with Grammys for a couple of singles from the album: Best Country Song for "Space Cowboy" and Best Country Solo Performance for "Butterflies."

Following her wins in the country music category, Kacey's "Golden Hour" went on to win the big one for Album of the Year, which includes all genres of music.

During her acceptance speech, she said: "I love country music with everything that I am. And I'm very proud to be able to share my version of that with the world."

It wasn't Kacey's first time to win Grammys in the country music category. She also won the Grammy Awards for Country Album of the Year in 2014 for her debut album "Same Trailer Different Park" and for Country Song of the Year for "Merry Go Round."

If Recording Academy executives have their way, though, 2019 could be the last year Musgrave wins a Grammy in the country music category.

That's because a Recording Academy screening committee has determined that Kasey's new album, "Star-Crossed" will not be considered in the Country Music category when the voting begins — moving the album to the pop music category instead.

Kacey responded on Instagram, saying: "You can take the girl out of the country (genre) but you can't take the country out of the girl."

She has a defender in Cindy Mabe, president of Kacey's label, UMG Nashville. Mabe fired off a letter to the Recording Academy protesting the action, saying that sonically, "Star-Crossed" has more country instrumentation than "Golden Hour" — which she noted won the Grammy for Best Country Music Album in 2019 before going on to win the Best Album Grammy across all categories that year.

So does Kacey's new album sound like a traditional county music record? Nope, is the short answer — but how do you define country music anyway these days? I haven't heard all of "Star-Crossed" yet, but the tracks I've heard have a distinctive pop sheen, brought to the forefront even more through its glossy production.

Still defining what country music is supposed to sound like can be a little short-sighted. Patsy Clines' resplendent 1960s recordings on songs such "I Fall to Pieces," "She's Got You" and Willie Nelson's "Crazy" had little in common with the music of Roy Acuff or Ernest Tubb, much less Grandpa Jones, but her Owen Bradley-produced recordings were embraced by the country music community at the time.

What if the electrified, driving country sounds Bakersfield-based Buck Owens produced with his Buckaroos had been rejected because they sounded nothing like the sometimes-syrupy over-orchestrated records that were often coming out of Nashville in the mid-1960s, such as "Make the World Go Away" by Eddie Arnold?

The self-contained Buck Owens and the Buckaroos — who recorded their music at Capitol Records in Los Angeles — sometimes seemed to have more in common with The Beatles than with much of what was coming out of Nashville in those days. The Beatles must have noticed it too, since they cut their own version of Buck and the Buckaroos' hit, "Act Naturally," with Ringo Starr on the vocals. They must have thought a lot of it, because The Beatles placed their version of "Act Naturally" on the "B" side of their newest release at the time, a little ditty you may have heard called "Yesterday" — which no doubt provided a cornucopia of royalties to the man who wrote it, Nashville ace singer and songwriter Johnny Russell.

Another thing regarding Kacey's new album. When she performed a couple of tracks from "Star-Crossed" on "Saturday Night Live" two weeks ago, "Justified" and "Camera Roll," she performed with a backing band — and the song's arrangements suddenly sounded a lot more country stripped down to their essence. Kacey, too!

The whole brouhaha regarding the Grammy eligibility reminds me of another time the Grammy Awards were involved in a situation regarding a country music singer.

Johnny Cash had fallen upon some tough times as far as his contemporary record sales were going in the mid-1980s, although he was still a major concert draw. Even so, he opened up the newspaper one day in 1986 and read that his longtime record label, Columbia Records, had unceremoniously dropped him from its roster at the behest of then- Columbia Records executive Rick Blackburn.

Yep, after making Columbia a fortune with years of hit singles and albums, ranging from "Ring of Fire" to "A Boy Named Sue," Cash found himself suddenly with a record deal.He soon rebounded to Mercury Records, where he did some fine work, including the album "Water from the Wells," featuring guest artists such as Paul McCartney and Glen Campbell.

Still, in the late 1990s, when Cash again found himself without a recording contract, he received an offer from an unlikely source. Producer Rick Rubin, who had worked with the Beastie Boys and a slew of other groups, approached Cash about making an album, featuring only Cash and his guitar. The 1994 album titled "American Recordings" proved a massive hit, rejuevenating Cash's records sales and bringing him a whole new audience. "American Recordings" won the Best Folk Album Grammy in 1995 — but none of the tracks received any notable airplay on country radio.

Cash and Rubin recorded a followup, titled "Unchained," featuring guest artists including Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Although the album hit #26 on the country music charts, both the country music industry and country music radio stations played little, if anything, from the album.

That prompted Rubin to take an add in Billboard magazine of a photo taken of Cash when the singer had performed a live concert as San Quentin prison back in 1969. When photographer Jim Marshal asked to take picture for the warden. Cash responded with a snarly look on his face and extended a finger — and it wasn't the index one.

Rubin included the photo of Cash — making a point, so to speak — in the sarcasm-soaked ad, stating: "American Recordings and Johnny Cash would like to acknowledge the Nashville Music Establishment and country radio for your support."

I'm sure Kacey is aware of the ad, because in the wake of her Recording Academy country music snub, she's posted a photo of her standing onstage, with a guitar strapped across her shoulders, making the same point Cash had made — except she's using both hands.

Artists don't need executives defining their music. They do it themselves every time they perform, write a song or walk into a recording studio.

I always go back to Kris Kristofferson's spoken introduction to his original recording of "Me and Bobby McGee," when he said "If it sounds country, man, that's what it is. It's a country song."

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

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