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The 2021 Grammy nomination list is covered in tar-heeled footprints!
More impressive than the large number of nominees from North Carolina is the diverse range of categories in which they appear, including hip-hop, progressive R&B, classical, jazz, country, children's music, folk, and American roots.
The most nominations came in for rapper J. Cole, who was raised in Fayetteville and can frequently be found at the top of Billboard's Hot 100. J. Cole's sixth album, The Off-Season, spawned four Grammy nominations — one in every single rap category — including Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song. "My Life (feat. Morray and 21 Savage)" also earned the rapper a nomination for Best Rap Performance.
Rhiannon Giddens, a Greensboro native, received two nominations for her folk album They're Calling Me Home, created with Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi. Nominated for Best Folk Album, They're Calling Me Home features the song "Avalon," which earned Giddens a nomination for Best American Roots Song. Recorded in Ireland during the pandemic, They're Calling Me Home highlights Giddens' idiosyncratic ability to mix genres and blend styles, seamlessly alternating between classical, Celtic, folk Americana, and the blues. Giddens has six nominations under her belt already, and she brought home a win in 2010 with her band The Carolina Chocolate Drops. Not only a powerfully prolific musician, Giddens also possesses a wealth of knowledge about American music history. She made several appearances in Ken Burns' invaluable documentary series Country Music.
On the subject of virtuosic women, Caroline Shaw received a nomination for Best Classical Composition for her work Narrow Sea, which also marks her second Grammy appearance. Composed for the group Sō Percussion, Narrow Sea highlights the more melodic features of percussion instruments normally utilized for their rhythmic qualities. The work pulls hymns and folk tunes from the 1844 collection The Sacred Harp, curated as a historical preservation of American Protestant music that developed during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Blending such traditional music with strikingly soft percussion makes Narrow Sea something beautifully marvelous and offers delightful surprises at every turn. Born in Greensville, Shaw became the youngest Pulitzer Prize winner at age 30 when she won the prestigious award in 2013 for her composition Partita for 8 Voices.
Though indirectly, another classical voice — or rather, chorus — from North Carolina made it onto the list of nominees: Eastern Carolina University Chamber Choir. Directed by James Franklin, the choir's most recent album, Appear and Inspire, shows up on a long list of albums produced by powerhouse record producer Blanton Alspaugh. For his work on ECU's Appear and Inspire and six other albums, Alspaugh rightly received a nomination for Classical Producer of the Year; it marks his 25th nomination and may contribute to his 11 prior wins. Recorded in St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Greenville, Appear and Inspire demonstrates ECU Chamber Choir's ability to balance delicacy and precision, resulting in an enlightening and spiritually thirst-quenching experience.
Among other nominees from the Tar Heel State, Durham-based vocalist Nnenna Freelon was nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album for Time Traveler, her first release in over a decade. But Freelon won't be the only representative from Durham at this year's Grammys; her son, Pierce Freelon, got a nomination for Best Children's Music Album for his album Black to the Future. With tracks that feature his mother and his children, Black to the Future brings three musical generations together into this entertaining work, and it does so in a way that won't just appease the kids. Pierce Freelon, who once led the jazz hip-hop group The Beast, brings his chops to this new album, demonstrating his versatility. Black to the Future inspires hope and fosters a kind of creativity essential for any child-centric art, but the album offers the same potent experience for adult listeners as well.
Luke Combs received a nod for his earworm hit "Forever After All." The Asheville-raised country music favorite has had quite a successful few years. The New York Times called him the "most promising and influential new country star of the last five years," which is no surprise for someone who has topped the charts 11 times since 2017.
Additionally, the supergroup Dinner Party received a nomination for Best Progressive R&B Album for Dinner Party (Dessert). Featuring Terence Martin, Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, and Winston-Salem native 9th Wonder, Dinner Party (Dessert) takes contemporary music to new levels; each musician involved is dynamite in their own right, but they work so collaboratively and so cohesively that they succeed in creating a brand-new sound. 9th Wonder has had a particular influence in the production world since the release of his 2003 album, God's Stepson. A remix of Nas' 2002 rap album God's Son, 9th Wonder's breakthrough album started a trend of unofficial "homemade" remixes, which has become immensely popular in the last 20 years. This marks his first Grammy nomination, though his influence on music history is already indelible.
The overwhelming presence of North Carolina musicians comes on the heels of a major change in Grammy voting procedures. The process was formerly driven by generic review committees, mysterious groups of musical experts in each genre field. This year, however, the voting process became much more democratic as the nomination power fell into the hands of the entire Recording Academy membership body. In short, anyone in the Academy could submit and vote on their favorite projects from the entire year. This opened the competition up to a more diverse set of musicians and cast a wider net of recognition for musical achievement.
It will be thrilling to see what happens at the ceremony on January 31, 2022, and I would be willing to place a bet on North Carolina taking home several gilded trophies.