Linda Chorney is the feel-good, do-it-yourself success story of this year's Grammy Awards. Or she's an unworthy impostor who broke the unwritten rules regarding self-promotion for music's top showcase.
It just depends who you talk to.
How the little-known 51-year-old singer-songwriter parlayed pluck into a career milestone provides an interesting window into the inner politics of the Grammys and the role influence can play in shaping nominations. Chorney's nod for best Americana album at the February 12 ceremony has drawn a range of reactions, not all of them kind. She's been mocked on Twitter and by a majority of taste-making bloggers, and only occasionally has anyone come to her defence.
Since her November 30 nomination for her self-produced independent double album Emotional Jukebox, she's been taking advantage of the opportunities while turning some of the criticism back on itself in the same irrepressible way she's carved out a career in music over the past three decades.
"It's not cool," she said. "But what can you do?" The positive reaction has outweighed the negative, she says: "I've had an outcry of letters from people my age who have said what an inspiration this is. That it gave them hope. So that's been pretty nice. I didn't expect to hear that, which was really beautiful."
Her critics say Chorney's use of a National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences social-networking site to introduce her music to voters ran afoul of informal rules about lobbying. David Macias, a Grammy winner based in Nashville, thinks her nomination could have damaged the credibility of music's most prestigious showcase.
"The Grammys run the risk of being diluted," Macias said.
Chorney has defended herself, saying she simply took advantage of the Grammy365.com social-networking program the academy encouraged her to use. And Neil Portnow, the academy's president, agrees. He says her story shows there truly is a level playing field for all artists.
"It shows everybody has a shot," Portnow said. "That really is the truth."
Her competition is previous category winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Levon Helm, Country Music Hall of Fame member Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and Ry Cooder — owners of nearly two dozen Grammys collectively. Chorney's detractors say she doesn't belong.
In what seemed to be a veiled swipe at Chorney, when Lost Highway Records congratulated Williams on her nominations on its website, it added: "One might think Lucinda would be up for the award alongside the likes of amazing albums such as KMAG YOYO (& other American stories) from Hayes Carll or Robert Earl Keen's Ready For Confetti, but alas, here is a full list of the Americana Album nominees," then listed Chorney's name first.
Chorney, a resident of Sea Bright, N.J., has made a living as a musician for 30 years outside the label system, visiting all seven continents and releasing six albums along the way. While she never achieved her larger goals, she engineered a career with a willingness to barter and surprisingly lucrative gigs in resort locales — at one, she memorably sang in exchange for rounds of golf.
"Will sing for greens fees," Chorney said. "Seriously. It's an alternative way. I tried making it in the business, to get the big record deal, but I've had a pretty good life singing all around the world. I like to climb. I went to Mount Everest. So it's been pretty rewarding."
Along the way she made lifelong friends who contributed to her career in interesting ways. One gave her a pass that allowed her to fly standby anywhere in the world for seven straight years and she crisscrossed the globe. Another friend, anesthesiologist Jonathan Schneider, sent her career in a completely unexpected direction when he offered to pay for Emotional Jukebox, dropping around $80,000.
Backed by a strong crew of musicians that included Saturday Night Live band member Leon Pendarvis, Late Show bassist Will Lee and famed session singer Lisa Fischer among others, Chorney produced what she feels was the best album of her career. The first disc includes eight original songs and covers of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones. A second disc includes an original classical symphony.
She became an academy member at another friend's suggestion. With two weeks to go until the close of nominations, someone else urged her to use the Grammy365.com website to seek voter support. About 1,500 of the academy's 12,000 voters accepted her contact and after that it was up to them to listen to her music and make a decision.
"I think the system is a wonderful opportunity for independent artists," Chorney said. "Basically a one-year membership is $100. Grammy365 to me is, you buy your $100 lottery ticket and the odds are like winning the lottery. Except, rather than having a number, you have your music, which can make your odds better if your music speaks for itself and gives you an edge."
It's that edge Macias objects to. He says over the years, NARAS officials had made it clear in "unwritten rules" that blatant self-promotion was out of bounds. Not only was it always difficult to determine who voters were, if a publicist or artist did cross into forbidden territory they were asked to step back in line.
Macias, a Nashville-based artist manager who runs the management and marketing firm Thirty Tigers, is one of the few members of the loose-knit roots rock community willing to talk on the record about Chorney's nomination. He makes it clear that his opinion is his own and not that of the Americana Music Association, of which he is the outgoing president.
AMA's executive director Jed Hilly declined comment. And interview requests extended to the publicists or managers of the category's nominees and the artists who produced the top 10 most-played Americana albums in 2010 went mostly unanswered.
Macias realizes that he's coming off like a jerk for going after Chorney, but he believes she broke the unwritten rules about promoting yourself, depriving artists like Carll, Jason Isbell and John Hiatt of a well-deserved nod.
"I guess it just comes down to the question: What do the Grammys mean?" he said. "... Honestly, I think people voted for it because she asked them to and she worked really hard. And I think the Grammy voters by and large — I hate to say it — I feel like maybe they just weren't paying as close attention."
Portnow and Bill Freimuth, the academy's vice-president of awards, said it's as easy as ever to make educated decisions, however. A listening function available to voters offers more than 90 per cent of music that's eligible for nomination.
That's one of a handful of recent changes that Chorney was able to capitalize on while seeking her nomination. Freimuth said about four years ago the academy changed its outlook on lobbying and now embraces the practice within certain guidelines. Along with the Grammy365.com website, the academy worked with Billboard Magazine this year to produce a voter's guide that included "for your consideration" style advertising, for example.
Chorney simply used the system to her advantage.
"She kept herself very busy reaching out to the voting membership and tried to make sure as many people as possible, especially those who were voting in that category, knew about her work," Freimuth said. "All of that is perfectly legitimate as far as our process goes."
Enough people heard Chorney's voice that she's being fitted for a new dress, borrowing $6,000 earrings and heading to Los Angeles next month. And she intends to have a blast.