I. More Than One Blues Grammy Award Now Exists

There’s a big change in the way the Grammy’s will celebrate the blues next year. Ordinarily the Grammy’s have one award specifically for blues music: Best Blues Album. That’s it. No Best New Blues Artist. No Best Blues Song. Considering that virtually all of the other popular music categories are in some way derived from the blues, it’s kind of ironic, and kind of sad. But just recently, a change was announced by The Recording Academy. Next year, The Grammy Awards will boast, not one, but two, TWO whole blues music awards. We’re coming up in the world, guys! But seriously, this is a significant change here. What is the significance for the blues? First we must understand what the new award is and how it differentiates itself from the old award.

II. The New Grammy Award: Best Contemporary Blues Album

Whereas over the last few years there has been one combined Grammy Award for the Best Blues Album, this year is different. The Recording Academy has introduced a new blues award that differentiates a traditional blues album from a contemporary one. What’s the difference between the two? You can read the Recording Academy’s announcement about this and other significant changes to the Grammy Awards over on Hybebot’s cool music industry blog here. Here’s how The Recording Academy describes each of the two categories:

  • Best Traditional Blues Album
    Blues recordings with traditional blues song structures, harmonic structures, and rhythms, that may also employ traditional blues instruments such as acoustic and electric guitar, piano, organ, harmonica, horns, and electric bass and drums. This category includes various subgenres such as Delta blues, Piedmont blues, jump/swing blues, Chicago blues, and classic/Southern soul.
  • Best Contemporary Blues Album
    Blues recordings that vary from traditional blues song and harmonic structures. These may employ non-traditional blues rhythms such as funk, hip-hop, reggae, and rock, and may also include both traditional blues instruments and non-traditional blues instruments. Recordings may also feature contemporary techniques such as the use of synthesizers, programmed tracks, and loops. This category includes various subgenres, such as funk blues and blues-rock.

The new Grammy guidelines are pretty clear. It should not be too hard to distinguish between a traditional and a contemporary blues album. But what does this change actually mean for Joe Bonamassa and for the blues? Let’s look at both sides of the issue.

III. Why This Change Is Good for Joe & The Blues

The change is good for Joe because it gives him a greater chance to win. I am actually kind of surprised that “blues-rock” is grouped with the contemporary category. Blues-rock has been around long enough now to be considered traditional blues. It’s been over 50 years since the first blues-rock explorations, after all. And electric Chicago Blues is not SO far away from its evolutionary cousin, blues-rock. Nevertheless, that’s how they classified it. And in a way, this helps Joe. If for no other reason than that it gives blues musicians two shots to win. And if someone in the blues-rock genre goes up against, say, Buddy Guy, who won last year, Buddy Guy will now almost certainly be classified in the traditional blues category as a classic Chicago blues musician. So, even if Buddy Guy wins, Joe could now win too. It is worth pointing out that over the last several years, contemporary blues had made a strong showing at the Grammy’s. Look at the winners:

2012 – Tedeschi Trucks Band
2013 – Dr. John
2014 – Ben Harper with Charlie Musselwhite
2015 – Johnny Winter

Those are arguably all contemporary acts. But still, there is more opportunity to win all the way around. Not only is this good for Joe, but it’s great for the blues. The blues has now doubled its presence at the Grammy’s. It will lead to more artists being nominated. This means more exposure. And more exposure for the blues is a great thing. It will probably spur album sales and maybe even streaming of albums that would not have been nominated had this new award not been created. So splitting the award into two is good for the blues. Or is it? Some would disagree. Here’s why:

IV. The Argument Against This Change

An argument could be made that the Contemporary Blues Category is bad news for the blues. Why? Some would argue that the introduction of other genres into the blues could water down the authenticity of the blues. Is blues-rock really blues, or is it rock? What about hip-hop influenced blues? Does blues need to have the traditional blues structure? What about traditional blues instrumentation? This is a fair point. And if you’re a true blues purist, it’s a real worry.

I, on the other hand, am not such a person. For me, the blues needs space to grow in order to thrive. It can’t all sound like Muddy Waters did in the 1950’s or it’s going to become  a stale art form. We need our blues musicians to be adventurous. To take risks. To try new things. Joe does that. And I think a lot of great blues musicians do, too. There’s a place for traditional blues, but that’s exactly the point. Having two categories acknowledges that there’s room for both traditional and contemporary blues. The blues comes in many shapes and forms, from the more to the less traditional. All of it is worthy of being acknowledged as the blues.

So this is a great step in the right direction for the Grammy Awards. Now we just need there to be awards for Best Blues Song and Best New Blues Artist and we’ll be really on to something…

– Brian M. Reiser,
J&R Adventures

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