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Musicians Face Tough Competition in Grammys' Contemporary Folk Category - 2004-02-02


The 46th annual Grammy Awards will be presented February 8 in Los Angeles. This year, 105 awards will be handed out, recognizing achievement in 31 different kinds of music from rap, to rock and classical to country. The "contemporary folk category" is a particularly tough one, with stellar releases by Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Tom Paxton, Lucinda Williams and Warren Zevon vying for the same award.

Let's first consider Tom Paxton's Looking for the Moon. This CD features The Bravest, Paxton's evocative ode to efforts of the New York City firefighters on September 11, 2001.

During his 41 years as a professional musician, Tom Paxton has written hundreds of songs. Several, including Last Thing On My Mind, Ramblin' Boy and Marvelous Toy, are now considered folk standards, and are performed by folk singers around the world.

The Bravest was already being sung by others even before Paxton made his official recording, and may earn the same status. But Looking for the Moon is a traditional folk album, and for the sake of narrowing down the field, let's say it belongs in that category. In 1998, Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road took home the "best contemporary folk album" Grammy. Her next release, Essence, didn't get a nomination. But World Without Tears, the bravest and most emotionally wrenching album Lucinda Williams has ever released, finds her once again in contention.

As a songwriter, Lucinda Williams has few peers. The title track to her newest CD shows why she's in the running for another Grammy award this year. World Without Tears is a magnificent album on all counts, but that might not be enough to take home the trophy this year.

And most years, a new CD from Emmylou Harris would make her the performer to beat. Stumble From Grace is the second album in a row in which Emmylou Harris, generally a song interpreter, has handled the songwriting herself.

Linda Ronstadt sings with Emmylou Harris on Strong Hand, a song about Johnny and June Carter Cash.

While it's true that others sell more records and enjoy greater fame than Emmylou Harris, she is blessed with a crystal clear voice and wonderful gift for the tricky art of harmony that few of her peers possess.

Emmylou Harris is usually the sentimental favorite to win any category she is nominated in, but this year there are two other choices, even more emotionally charged. The first is Rules of Travel from Rosanne Cash. The track, I'll Change For You, features Steve Earle singing with Rosanne.

Rules of Travel is the first recording of original songs Rosanne Cash has released in eight years. Add to that the fact that Rosanne's father, Johnny Cash, and her stepmother, June Carter Cash, both passed away last year. In many years, that alone would sway sentimental voters, but perhaps not this year.

In August 2002, Warren Zevon was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was expected to live only a few more months, perhaps not even to the end of that year. Instead of hiding away, he got to work and focused his energy on writing Dirty Life And Times along with the other songs that make up The Wind.

Warren Zevon's final album The Wind, featuring contributions by friends Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen and Dwight Yoakam, was released to rave reviews, and strong sales, less than two weeks before the songwriter died.

After three decades of fighting against convention, Warren Zevon would probably appreciate the irony of The Wind's Grammy nomination. The CD, with songs like Keep Me In Your Heart, is a wonderful closing note to Warren Zevon's career, and may deservedly take home the best "contemporary folk album" award when the Grammy's are handed out February 8.