LOS ANGELES — One year removed from her show-stealing breakthrough performance, Washington’s own Brandi Carlile found herself in the Grammy spotlight yet again. This time as a supporting star.
Rhinestones glistening under the Staples Center lights, Carlile appeared on stage seated at a piano next to country great Tanya Tucker, whose album she co-produced. With the grace of a Southern angel with whiskey-dipped wings, Tucker coolly cruised through her heart-stopping ballad “Bring My Flowers Now,” her voice sounding rested after skipping a scheduled performance the night before with Shooter Jennings due to a bout with bronchitis, Jennings said.
On music’s biggest night — which saw Carlile add another two trophies to her collection — Carlile felt like Tucker’s rock during the performance viewed by millions across the country.
During the week leading up to what’s billed as music’s biggest celebration, a scandal unfolded around the ouster of the Recording Academy’s newly minted CEO Deborah Dugan, who was placed on administrative leave following a misconduct allegation. Dugan, who arrived as a reformer for an institution scrutinized for under-representing women and artists of color, fired back, describing the academy as having a “boys’ club mentality,” and alleging voting irregularities, sexual misconduct and fiscal mismanagement from academy officials.
The scandal quietly looming over Sunday’s proceedings was outshined during the telecast by news of Kobe Bryant’s death earlier that day, as several artists including Run-DMC offered tributes to the NBA star inside Staples Center, “the house that Kobe built,” as host Alicia Keys put it.
“Tonight’s for Kobe!” shouted Lizzo before belting through her thunderous show-opening performance of “Cuz I Love You” and “Truth Hurts,” boosted by an orchestra and dance troupe. Lizzo went on to nab three awards, though it was Billie Eilish — the murmuring teen queen of goth-pop — who was the night’s big winner. Eilish swept the marquee categories — album, song and record of the year and best new artist — en route to five wins total. Eilish is just the second artist ever to win all Big Four categories in the same year, after Christopher Cross pulled off the Grammy coup in 1981.
Since winning three Grammys last year, Carlile spent much of her time on projects lifting up other women artists. Even though her critically acclaimed album with her Highwomen supergroup isn’t Grammy eligible until next year, Carlile scored three nominations, including for her work on Tanya Tucker’s career-resurging “While I’m Livin’” LP.
Team Tucker, which also included Carlile’s longtime collaborators Phil and Tim Hanseroth and co-producer Shooter Jennings, started out hot during the afternoon’s non-televised ceremony where most awards are doled out, picking up their first win early on for best country song with “Bring My Flowers Now.”
Clasping her hands on her cheeks as Tucker’s name was called, Carlile accompanied Tucker, who strode to the stage with a Texas-sized strut befitting a country queen who just won her first Grammy roughly five decades into her career. “It’s one of the great honors of my life to stand up here next to you, Tanya, while you get your first Grammy at 61 years old — a woman in country music leading the way!” Carlile said, her voice rising with excitement.
They didn’t need to go too far from the stage, as seconds later, Tucker landed the best country album prize, netting Carlile another trophy as the producer.
“I met Brandi, I’ve never known such a talented person in my life, and we did this record together,” Tucker said, referring to Carlile, Jennings and the Hanseroth twins. “I’m so honored, there’s no words to express how I feel right now. … Best [country] album of the year, are you kidding me?!”
In the song of the year category, Eilish and her “Bad Guy” hit beat out “Bring My Flowers Now” and Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts,” which was co-produced by Seattle-raised Tele. Carlile also missed on best country duo/group performance for her duet with fellow Highwoman Maren Morris, losing to Dan + Shay.
Earlier in the afternoon, Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament and his brother Barry nabbed Seattle’s first hardware with a best recording package for their art direction on the “Chris Cornell” double album — a posthumous career-spanning compilation of the Soundgarden and Audioslave frontman’s music.
“As a kid, my wildest dream was to maybe one day grow up to design album covers,” Jeff said accepting the award, recalling how he and Cornell had many conversations over the years about artwork. Last year Cornell’s children accepted a best rock performance award on behalf of their father for the album’s previously unreleased single “When Bad Does Good.”
Backstage, Jeff discussed the gravity of working on the project commemorating his close friend and former Temple of the Dog bandmate. “It was super emotional because when we first got involved, I just got a call about five or six days after he passed,” Jeff told reporters. “It felt too soon at that point to be thinking about that. It took us a few months, and I asked for a few months, for us to come up with some images. It was hard to have conversations with Vicky, his wife, asking for elements that we used in the package like photos of his home studio.
“More than anything we wish he was here accepting this with us,” he said.
Ament wasn’t the only Seattle artist who rose to prominence in the ’90s up for an award. Seattle kindie-rock favorite Caspar Babypants — who parents know as Chris Ballew of The Presidents of the United States of America — was up for best children’s album with “Flying High!” though he lost to Jon Samson. Ballew, who’s reinvented his career 25 years since his first Grammy nomination with his former peach-crazy band, skipped the L.A. ceremony for a previously booked Marysville Opera House gig.
The award for best jazz vocal album went to Portland native Esperanza Spalding, beating out Seattle-reared, L.A.-based jazz singer Sara Gazarek, who was slated to perform at the Grammys’ official after party. Spalding was the heavy favorite in the category and the nomination alone was an impressive showing for Gazarek’s self-released “Thirsty Ghost.” The Roosevelt High School alum’s reworking of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” was also nominated for best arrangement, instruments and vocals — an award that would have gone to arranger Geoffrey Keezer. After the ceremony, Gazarek smoothly serenaded a well-heeled crowd at the academy’s after-party in a Los Angeles Convention Center hall that felt like being inside an Arabian Nights-themed red velvet cake.
In other Seattle connections, Calexico and Iron & Wine, whose collaborative “Years to Burn” album was released by Sub Pop, struck out in the best Americana album and best roots performance categories.