The 58th Annual Grammys: The Backstage Report

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The 58th Grammys

One of the most poignant and emotional ceremonies in years due to the many memorials to recently lost artists David Bowie, Maurice White, Glenn Frey, B.B. King and Lemmy Kilmeister, the 58th annual Grammys looked back with love while also looking forward by honoring a vast range of musical excellence in every genre.

Recent American Songwriter cover subject Chris Stapleton won two Grammys, for Best Country Solo Performance for the song “Traveller” from the album of the same name, and Best Country Album for Traveller.

He also joined Bonnie Raitt and Gary Clark, Jr. to pay tribute to B.B. King, all three singing and playing lead on the classic “The Thrill Is Gone.”

Backstage after the show, Stapleton spoke first of that tribute. “If you are covering a song,” he said, “you should bring something different to it. Tonight I was doing a tribute to Mr. King though I don’t play or sing like him. Nobody does. So I did what I do.”

As for his own awards, he said, “This whole year has been an incredible, surreal, snowballing thing. I have been so busy, it is still soaking in. It has been a wonderful gift.”

Asked about the songs on Traveller, he said, “I wrote them over fifteen years. They were the best songs of my whole catalog. I have always written songs. It is what I do. If somebody else has a use for a song, and they want one of mine, that’s cool.  I don’t have to be the singer of the song. But I like it when I get that chance.”

When asked who his songwriting heroes were as a kid, he listed them quickly, like a mantra: “Waylon, Willie, Ray Charles, Otis Redding. The list could go on and on. But that is where it starts.”

As he won two major country awards in one night, he was asked how it feels to represent all of country music in such a powerful way on this night. He smiled, and then paused. “Country music,” he said, as if savoring the word. “I feel really good about it.” 

Jason Isbell was the winner of Best American Roots Song, a songwriter’s award, for “24 Frames” from his album Something More Than Free.

About that song, Isbell said, “‘24 Frames’ is a different song than I usually write, not a straight narrative. So I spent a lot of time keeping it from being too vague, but without forming it into a narrative, which is the usual thing we folk songwriters do. The inspiration was the passage of time – which you might say is always the inspiration for every song. But further from that, I started wondering about once your life and environment has coalesced, how do you challenge yourself? How do you maintain a relationship without someone being in your shadow? The song is mostly about that and taking a lot of photographs with your mind and trying to remember as much as you can.”

Jason, who also won the Grammy for Best Americana Album for Something More Than Free, spoke of his sobriety, and credited his wife Amanda Shire – who he thanked every time he won – for the strength necessary to stay clean. “I never hit bottom completely,” he said. “But I knew Amanda would not put up with my drunk ass any longer. I told her I needed to quit and she got me help so I wouldn’t back out. Since then I have been so much more focused and have enjoyed my life so much more.” 

The main songwriting award, Song of the Year, was awarded to Ed Sheeran and Amy Wadge for “Thinking Out Loud.” (For full coverage of all songs and songwriters nominated for this award, see “Grammy Songs of the Year.”)

It was announced by none less than Stevie Wonder, who in a great comic turn, opened the winner’s envelope himself, leaving all to wonder how he was going to read it. He then turned it on the audience and showed it was in Braille, and taunted, “And none of you can read this!” Being Stevie, he then added a message of relevance. “We need to make everything accessible to everyone with a disability.”

Ed Sheeran seemed stunned by his win, and admitted, “This is a song that Amy and I wrote on my couch in my living room. I didn’t think I would win. Every year I come – and my parents come – and every year I lose. This time was different.”

But when it came time for co-writer Amy Wadge to accept the award, the show cut to the Eagles tribute, and we didn’t hear her words.

Until now. American Songwriter contacted her after the show, to ask what her speech would have been, and how she feels about this profound songwriting honor.

“Had I done my speech,” she wrote, “I would have thanked my amazing husband and kids who were watching at home with all of my friends, and my amazing management Spilt Milk, who look after me so brilliantly. And, of course, Ed, as we have been on such a journey together. We started writing together eight years ago and to think we have won a Grammy is utterly incredible.

“I’ve woken up today,” she continued, “thinking that it must have all been a dream; as a writer it’s the biggest accolade you can have, and to say I am thrilled is an understatement.  The icing on the cake was Stevie Wonder giving us the award. It’s a moment that will stay with me forever. It was an incredible night and I am on cloud nine today.”

In a previous conversation, she confirmed the humble origins of the song. “I initially started playing around with the chords that turned into the song when Ed was in the shower,” she said, “and he heard it, and then started singing ‘take me in to your loving arms’ while he was walking round upstairs… Ed came up with the title. It came when he was vocalizing it, and I knew it was perfect.”

A song which has become an almost instant classic is the exultant “Uptown Funk,” co-written by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, which won the Grammy for Record of The Year, as well as for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance.  Asked how the song was born, Ronson said, “It started as a jam. We were in Bruno’s little studio in Hollywood and we thought, ‘Let’s jam something out.’ He was on drums and I was on keys, and it started out just as a fun jam. And then we got to that groove. And when Jeff [Bhasker] came up with the line about Michelle Phillips, we knew it was something special. But it took us seven months then to write the song. But the initial creation came from this joyous jam.”

“The song is dedicated to the fans,” said Mars. “We wouldn’t be up here if people weren’t dancing to this song.”

“This man,” Ronson said of Mars, “has done more for the word funk than we could dream of our whole life.”

Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy won a Grammy for Best Blues Album for Born To Play Guitar. Asked by this writer if this award might cause the world to wake up to the fact that he’s the best guitarist ever, he said, “Nawww… B.B. King is the greatest guitarist ever, not me! He taught us how to squeeze those strings.”

In his autobiography, When I Left Home: My Story, Guy surprised those of us who have long revered the legendary Willie Dixon by saying that Willie often took his songs “to register,” and would then register them in his own name, effectively stealing Buddy’s credit.

Asked if this was accurate, Buddy said, “Oh Willie was just one of the ones who did that. They all did that. They would put the name ‘TBA’ on it. I kept asking ‘Who is this TBA?’ I wrote a lot of songs they stole.”

“Time and time again we find solace in the healing power of music,” said Stevie Wonder, as a tribute to the great late Maurice White, one of five touching tributes to beloved artists we lost in the past year. “Maurice White,” said Stevie, “may you rest in eternal blessing and peace.” He then launched into a great a capella doo-wop rendition of one of White’s most famous songs, “That’s The Way of the World” that was simply stunning for its purity and soul.

NARAS Chairman Neil Portnow spoke to the press after the awards about how they were able to tailor the show, with little notice, to incorporate not one but five tributes.

“The tributes made this a very emotional show on every level,” he said. “Music people always represent the sociological situation that happens in our culture, and create changes.  And this was a very emotional year. The tributes were not only sad, but they all came so close to the show. This is a big ship, this show, and to make this ship move is not easy. Yet we need to be nimble and make changes. Fortunately, we have an A-plus team and we do what we have to do. The focus is on the artists, and we were blessed with great artists like Stevie Wonder and Lady Gaga to do the tributes for us.”

Other great songwriters awarded last night include Joni Mitchell, though she was not present, who won for Best Album Notes, for the liner notes she wrote for Love Has Many Faces: A Quartet, A Ballet, Waiting To Be Danced.

And Bob Dylan, indirectly, won a Grammy, as The Basement Tapes Complete, the famous full collection of recordings by Dylan and The Band that came out last year, won for Best Historical Album.

Awarded to compilation producers Steve Berkowitz, Jeff Rosen and Jan Haust, it was Haust who explained the breadth of work that went into this immense labor of love. “It was eleven years in the making,” he said. “We used every bit of usable material we could use. At times it was like the process of uncovering a painting under a painting. Sometimes things were recorded over other things. Other times the recordings were very distorted. Keep in mind the engineer was also the keyboard player (Garth Hudson). Some of these reels had as many as 25 songs. Though nobody remembers recording these songs.”

“They made these tapes for many reasons,” he explained. “It was time for Bob to play again. Also they wanted these songs to go out to other artists, and many of these songs got covered. But they were all done quickly on inexpensive tapes. These tapes were kept in a barn, baked in the sun and frozen in the winter.  Some were literally moldy  and muddy, and had poor signal. It took several years to effect transferring these.

“Jeff Rosen and I listened to each and every one. It was great work of love for art and music and care of these geniuses who ended up imploding the future of roots music in America into something brand new. The brilliance going on in that basement was phenomenal, and we spent so many years to preserve it. And now we won a Grammy!”

David Bowie was honored with a remarkable performance by Lady Gaga, who sang a chromatic medley of his iconic songs, and also paid tribute to his many guises and styles. He also won a Grammy, indirectly, when Maria Schneider won for Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocals for her arrangement of his song and track “Sue (Or In A Season of Crime.)”

“It was the greatest privilege to work with David,” she said, “and experience his creativity and his wish to go into an entire new realm. This music lives in its own universe. We did this wild little oddity. We were both just very proud of it.  I am a jazz musician, so to have somebody like David Bowie come into our world with such appreciation and spirit of collaboration, and have his final chapter be in our sphere, oh my God – that was wonderful. Not many people get to connect with an artistic genius like that.”

“This was a man,” she added, “who knew so much literature, so much music, so much art. It was intimidating to be around that. It was such a mountain of things he collected that came out in his music.” 

Meghan Trainor was awarded Best New Artist.  Although “All About That Bass” was a hit in 2014, the album it was on didn’t come out for several months after the release of the single, in mid-2015, thus making her eligible in this round.

“It feels unbelievable,” she said afterwards. “I still can’t breathe.” Given that she put out her first album independently when she was only 15, we asked her how it feels to be the “Best New Artist” after all these years.

“It means everything to me. It is great for me to win a Grammy for a song. But I know I am a good songwriter; I know my songs are cool. But I always wanted to be the artist, the face of the music. So to be the winner of this means more to me than anything in the world.”

For Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical, Shawn Everett won for engineering Sound and Color by Alabama Shakes. “Soon as I met Brittany [Howard, lead singer-guitarist] I knew she was such a creative and open person. From the get-go I realized there was no standardized approach. She wanted it to be cool. So we recorded live all together and we set up the environment that was conducive to creativity and excitement and non-stress.

“Sometimes,” he continued, “I find that if you put up an expensive microphone it might intimidate the singer. And I quickly realized she felt better singing in the control room with a crappy microphone. Or not even a microphone. We would wire speakers the wrong way, and she would sing into these old speakers. We also did that to headphones, which we strapped to her face. She looked like Bane from Dark Knight.”

“[Alabama Shakes] have such an amazing unique story. Everything about their story is entrancing and mystical. They are unique. There is nobody like them. They are doing something totally different from what is in music. They are genuine, and people know that and respond to it. I think in 60 years they will truly be known as legends.”

One of the first awards to be given out in the pre-televised portion of the show was Best Pop Vocal Album, which was won by Taylor Swift for 1989, which also won Album of the Year. For the first award, she was not in the audience, so co-producer Jack Antonoff accepted on her behalf. But to include her, he dialed her up on his cell and put it on speaker.

After he told her the news, we heard a loud sustained squeal, and then “Oh my GOD, we won!” After the crowd stopped laughing, she asked if one of her competitors for this award, James Taylor, was there. Jack said he didn’t think so. “Well,” she said loudly, “will anyone who knows James Taylor please tell him I love him?”

Kendrick Lamar won many Grammys for songs and for the album To Pimp A Butterfly, including Best Rap album, Best Rap/Sung Collaboration and for Best Rap Song for “Alright.” “First off,” he said, “all glory to God, that’s for sure. Thanks for taking these kids out of Compton and putting them right here on the stage to be the best we can be.”

Lamar even got applause backstage, from the cynical and often wary press, who applaud little.

Unlike the upcoming Oscar Awards, which have been pilloried for a lack of diversity, with multiple awards for Lamar in addition to all the world and ethnic Grammys awarded, this night embraced diversity in a real and meaningful way.

I think the core of this diversity,” said Neil Portnow, “is that music is different than other areas of entertainment. Music is passed down and is spread among real people. It is all about its collaborations and different genres and cross influences. The DNA of music and the Grammys is collaboration. Our job as the academy is to represent the reality of what happens in the studios and stages all over the world.”

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