LOS ANGELES — Country radio stations might want to consider changing their playlists after Grammy night.
Traditional country and bluegrass music — virtually ignored by country radio stations in favor a slicker pop sound — dominated Wednesday’s ceremony. The “O Brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack, with its mixture of roots music, classic country and folk, had five wins, including album of the year. Its awards total tied the evening’s other big winner, soul newcomer Alicia Keys.
And it wasn’t just “O Brother”; other traditional country or bluegrass performers also took home Grammys.
“I think a lot of radio programmers are probably holding their breath right now (and thinking), ‘This is going to pass,”’ said Barry Bales, part of Alison Krauss and Union Station, which picked up two awards for the evening. “Maybe it won’t this time. They might actually have to play the songs on their stations.”
None of today’s more commercial country stars, like Tim McGraw and Faith Hill — the kind of artists who have dominated the country Grammys the last few years — won a single award Wednesday.
Instead, the awards went to old-timers like Ralph Stanley and Dolly Parton, plus younger stars like Alison Krauss and Union Station, who reflect the classic country sound. Even the country album of the year reflected Grammy voters’ retro thinking: “Timeless,” a Hank Williams tribute featuring Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris and others.
A live interpretation of the “O Brother” soundtrack, “Down From the Mountain,” won best traditional folk album.
“Is it too late to get on the ‘O Brother’ soundtrack?” quipped Crow before announcing yet another award for the disc.
Mike Kraski, senior vice president and general manager of the Sony Nashville label, said Grammy voters are more in touch with fans’ tastes than radio stations are.
“It can be seen as a reinforcement of what’s been going on with consumers for a long time,” he said. “They’ve become disengaged with the contrived and pop nature of a lot of the music being churned off the Nashville assembly line.”
Lucinda Williams, another Nashville artist whose music is ignored by country radio, also was rewarded; her song “Get Right With God” won best female rock vocal.
“I think it’s real significant, what we’ve seen today,” she said. “There are a lot of different kinds of music there.”
Though the “O Brother” soundtrack was one of the year’s 10 best-selling discs, selling more than 4 million copies, it did not generate hit songs. But T Bone Burnett, who conceived of the soundtrack and won producer of the year honors, said radio’s rejection didn’t hurt the album.
“Radio doesn’t have the stranglehold that it once had on the distribution of music, to say the least,” he said.
Country music has gone through cycles of pop influence and return to basics since the 1960s, when artists like Eddy Arnold added orchestras and lush background vocals to offer an alternative to rock ’n’ roll.
The most recent pop push was aided by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed corporations to own multiple stations in a single market. That has resulted in radio station chains not wanting stations to compete for the same audiences within a market. Country radio stations have targeted females age 25 to 54 as their desired audience. Researchers and consultants believe that audience prefers lighthearted, pop-leaning songs, and attractive artists like Shania Twain.
Mike Flood, program director for KUSO in Norfolk, Neb., said “O Brother” did not get much play on his station because listeners weren’t asking for it.
“There does seem to be a disconnect. I don’t ever get requests for any of these songs,” he said.
He called radio “a niche business. We target 25- to 54-year-old females. They like Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and new groups like Emerson Drive. ... It’s more of a male audience that likes the ’O Brother’ music.”
Still, the demand for more traditional or alternative country music is clear. Lost Highway, a relatively new label, put out the “Down from the Mountain” disc and has found success with nonconformist artists such as Ryan Adams and Williams.
Sony Nashville has a subsidiary label, Lucky Dog, which handles rootsy country artists like Charlie Robison and The Derailers.
Stanley, who at 75 won his first Grammy Wednesday for his “O Death” track on the “O Brother” soundtrack, hoped the attention would persuade radio programmers to add his kind of music to their rotation.
But he wasn’t counting on it.
“It looks like it should, but I don’t know,” he said. “If that won’t, I don’t think anything will.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — Associated Press Writer Jim Patterson in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this story.