Viewing the 2023 Grammys through a Nashville lens

The 65th Grammy Awards, held this past Sunday in Los Angeles, featured several fascinating firsts and notable new additions.  

The broadcast began with a rousing performance of material from the first Spanish language project to be nominated for Album of the Year, Bad Bunny’s Un Verano Sin Ti. The Puerto Rican superstar led a train of colorfully attired dancers down the aisle of Arena, and joined his expansive band, featuring horns and an array of polyrhythmic percussionists on stage. That type of celebration of Latinx cultural and musical innovation has often been relegated to a separate award show, the Latin Grammys, in the past. 

Dance was also a dynamic centerpiece of the lavish, Questlove-curated hip-hop medley marking the art form’s 50th anniversary. As emcees from an array of eras, regions and movements stepped forward with some of their famous verses — from Grandmaster Flash to Method Man, Queen Latifah, Big Boi and Missy Elliott — they were flanked by dancers whose sharp moves helped accentuate the landmark musical moments the artists were revisiting. It was, by far, the greatest amount of attention that hip-hop has received at the Grammys. 

Especially exciting for Nashvillians who’ve followed the story of Tennessee State’s groundbreaking marching band gospel album, The Urban Hymnal, was the news that it had won in the Best Roots Gospel album category, over big-name contenders including Willie Nelson and the Gaither Vocal Band. The grand ambitions of co-producers Sir the Baptist and Professor Larry Jenkins were realized, as the Aristocrat of Bands became the first college marching band program to win a Grammy.  

Nashville’s subtle tweaking of familiar templates was in the spotlight 

Many other nominations and wins placed the spotlight on the subtle tweaking of several familiar Nashville templates and tropes. Dan Auerbach, of the Black Keys, was nominated in the producer of the year category for selecting an array of elders and emerging voices who have strong senses of lineage to come to his studio and record country, blues and rock albums, a nod to how he combines reverence for what’s come before with auteurist curation.  

More: Celebrating local Grammy winners

Maren Morris and Miranda Lambert were each nominated for country songs that drew new meaning from old mythologies — Morris’s “Circles Around This Town” updating the tale of arriving in Nashville with musical dreams and Lambert’s “If I Was a Cowboy” breezily flipping the gender of all of those cowboy songs that romanticize the stoic, unattached cattleman riding free. 

The fact that Molly Tuttle was nominated in both the bluegrass album and genre-spanning new artist categories points to how the success she’s experiencing diverges from many of those who’ve preceded her in the genre. She came up in a multi-generational bluegrass community that places great emphasis on learning traditional techniques and canonical material inside out, and carrying it all forward. In the past, breakout stars like Alison Krauss have expanded their audiences by leaning into other stylistic sensibilities. Tuttle’s proven that she’s capable of that on previous projects, but she found a bigger spotlight with her nimble take on straight-ahead bluegrass, introducing new audiences to her contributions to the sturdy songwriting and hot-picking that are valued so highly in her home genre. 

After being purely a pop contender for several years, Taylor Swift received nominations for new renditions of country-pop songs from the earlier part of her career. Her grown-up business savvy has been a thread underlying her quest to rerecord her older albums and offer them up for reconsideration — her way of gaining ownership of the masters. Her sole win last night came in a music video category, for the short film treatment that she gave the extended version of her song “All Too Well.” 

Brandi Carlile, who recorded here with producers Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings in historic RCA Studio A, was one of the most nominated artists going into the show, and not for the first time. The variety of ways that she was visible throughout the broadcast blurred established ways of understanding genre and gender. Before the telecast began, her song “Broken Horses” had already won in two rock categories, and the full-length it’s on, In These Silent Days, had been named best Americana album. Her Grammy performance of the song, which has the operatic drama of ‘70s classic rock and glam rock, was introduced by her wife and children, and hotel ads aired throughout the show depicting Carlile singing the kids to sleep after a show. Carlile embodied the role of the virile rock hero, and showed that in 2023, that can exist alongside roots stardom — classic rock is Americana nowadays —and being a family woman, in a queer household no less.  

Country categories went to sturdy, time-tested sensibilities 

There have been years when artistic gestures that were seen as gently pushing country’s boundaries have won.

But from nominees to winners and televised performances, this was largely a year recognizing the pleasures and sturdiness of the time-tested. Trophies went to a song made famous by Cody Johnson, a current paragon of steady traditionalism, and to Willie Nelson’s wise meditations on mortality. While it was notable that two singing, songwriting women collaborators, Carly Pearce and Ashley McBryde, won, their duet “Never Wanted To Be That Girl,” reinterpreted the classic theme of women sorting out the mess of being cheated on.

When it was time to pay tribute to music luminaries who died in the last year, Kacey Musgraves strummed an acoustic version of Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miners Daughter,” and the one contemporary country hitmaker who sang his own music on the show was Luke Combs, the everyman superstar whose heartiness hearkens back to ‘90s country.  

Hearing from the devoted fans of nominated artists was new 

The Grammys have often felt far removed from the people who actually listen to and love the music, and have no say in the voting. But this year, the Recording Academy introduced segments with devoted fans of nominated artists engaged in roundtable discussions about why their idols deserved to win. Short video montages introduced who these fans were and why they connect so deeply with these performers.

Was it staged? Certainly. But it served a real purpose.

Hearing people rhapsodize about what albums by Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, Bad Bunny, Brandi Carlile and Harry Styles contributed to their own lives made the impact of those extremely popular releases on real audiences, music scenes and cultural communities feel a lot more tangible.