Armed only with a computer and some chutzpah, a longshot snuck through the back door and into the Grammy Awards competition this year.
The resourceful Linda Chorney secured a Grammy nomination in the category of Americana album for her self-produced, self-released “Emotional Jukebox” by taking her mission directly to voters, employing the peer-to-peer function of the Recording Academy’s own site for members, Grammy 365.
Many in the tight-knit Americana community have reacted quizzically, and sometimes vehemently, to Chorney’s nomination, which trumped several well-known artists in the genre.
The virtually unknown Sea Bright, N.J.-based musician will face off on Feb. 12 against a field of nominees that has collectively garnered a total of 23 Grammys.
And while some question her methods, her online campaign falls completely within the academy’s parameters for acceptable self-promotion.
“I didn’t know anybody in Grammy 365, and they didn’t know me,” Chorney says. “I’m now known as ‘Who the Bleep Is Linda Chorney?’ Nobody heard of my music before, and they responded to what they listened to. And I was blown away by how many people supported my music.”
At 51, Chorney is the youngest of the 2012 Americana nominees. Since beginning her career in her mid-20s, she has performed her way around the world, and has played on all seven continents, selling CDs at shows. One fan, a Continental Airlines flight attendant, facilitated her travels with a pass good for unlimited stand-by business-class seating.
Chorney has no manager or booking agent; she runs her label with her husband, commodities broker Scott Fadynich. She acquired an attorney and publicist only after securing her nomination.
She has released six full-length albums on her Dance More Less War label. Production of “Emotional Jukebox” was funded by Jonathan Schneider, aka “the Roc Doc,” a New Haven, Conn., anesthesiologist and longtime fan. Among the musicians on the CD are Rolling Stones backup singer Lisa Fischer, bassist Will Lee of David Letterman’s house band and top session and touring guitarist Jeff Pevar.
The album fits, at times uneasily, within the ill-defined boundaries of the Americana genre. It features eight original compositions that straddle rock, folk and country; Chorney also covers songs by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, among others.
“Emotional Jukebox” was issued in January. Chorney pressed 1,000 copies of the album, available from the CDBaby Web site, which sells product by indie artists. Amazon.com and iTunes are also selling the collection. It is not represented by a national wholesaler.
Commercially, the album hasn’t registered as even a blip on the screen. Through the week before Grammy nominations were announced, Nielsen SoundScan had not reported any sales for the title. Her previous releases also sold in minuscule numbers: According to SoundScan figures through Nov. 27, “Chorneography” (2008) moved 15 copies, while “1 Kiss at a Time” (2005) shifted 18.
Nonetheless, Chorney, who joined NARAS as a voting member in February 2010, was determined to land a Grammy nomination for her work. She submitted “Emotional Jukebox” and its songs in eight different categories on the preliminary nominating ballot, which was mailed to voters in mid-October.
“I went for Americana album, because that’s what was advised to me (by associates),” Chorney says. “My album has rock, my album has R&B, my album has country, my album has classical. It has a political song. If you actually go on Wikipedia and look up what Americana means … it crosses a bunch of genres.”
Chorney likens Grammy 365 to Facebook: “You can’t have a friendship unless someone accepts your friendship,” she says.
Chorney and Fadynich laboriously contacted an estimated 6,000 Grammy voters online. (“I didn’t get dressed for two weeks,” she says.) She says that perhaps 2,000 voters ended up approving her as a contact.
The site also can link to an artist’s music. “Fortunately the people listened, and out of all the people they listened to, enough of ’em voted for me, which is really touching,” she says.
Bill Freimuth, VP of awards at NARAS, says there are between 12,000 and 13,000 voting members of the Recording Academy. Ballot holders are allowed to vote in the so-called “general field” of four major awards — album, song and record of the year and new artist — plus an additional 20 categories of their choosing out of 74 genre-based slots (pared this year from 105).
“There are some categories where there are a lot more people voting, and some where there are a lot less,” Freimuth says. “But chances are no more than a third of our voters are voting in any particular category, other than the general field.”
The number of people who voted on nominations for Americana album this year is known only to NARAS’ accountant, Deloitte & Touche. However, Chorney reached enough of them to become one of five nominees in the category.
“Emotional Jukebox” will compete against albums by: Emmylou Harris (12 Grammy wins), Ry Cooder (six Grammys), Lucinda Williams (three) and Levon Helm (two). Helm, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee as the Band’s drummer, won the first Americana album Grammy two years ago, when it became a stand-alone category (after three years of inclusion in the contemporary folk/Americana category).
Chorney’s nomination — ahead of such talent as veteran singer-guitarist Buddy Miller and rising stars Justin Townes Earle and Hayes Carll — lit up the Americana community, which was taken by surprise. Chorney is not a member of the Americana Music Assn., the 1,300-member Nashville-based trade organization, and has never attended its star-studded annual Music City awards show, now televised on PBS.
One veteran Texas Americana promoter, who declines to be identified, says, “Nobody in our field — managers, booking agents, radio promoters — knows who … this chick is.”
Al Moss, a prominent Atlanta-based radio promotion man and a member of the AMA board, says, “I’d never heard of her before. Nobody I talked to about it had ever heard of her before. … I don’t really know what’s going on.”
The AMA has remained uncharacteristically silent about this year’s Grammy field in the genre. The trade organization lobbied strenuously for adoption of Americana as a stand-alone category, and has traditionally congratulated nominees on its Web page and Facebook page. No such encomia appeared this year, however.
AMA executive director Jed Hilly attributes the lack of congrats to the org simply being too busy. “Don’t read anything into it,” he says. “We’re really proud of the artists.” He adds: “Everybody has their own opinion on what belongs and what doesn’t, and I’m really grateful to the Recording Academy for having an Americana category. I don’t know (Chorney’s) record. She’s not a member of the Americana Music Assn. I didn’t even listen to the record, so it’s hard for me to just say anything.”
NARAS’ Freimuth says there is no impropriety in seeking votes through the Grammy 365 site.
“In a nutshell,” he says, “the guidelines say that we’re fairly open to vote solicitation.” Preliminary ballots contain dozens of entries in each category, and NARAS rules say only that artists can’t openly ask members to vote for the number beside their name or the category number. We want people to at least look on the entry list to find them among the other names there.
“(Chorney) was very diligent in her pursuit of attention by the Grammy voters, and it evidently paid off. Enough of the voters received her communications, listened to her music, thought it was worthwhile and voted for it.”
Chorney defines her nomination in politically tinged terms.
“I am Occupying the Grammys — I am the 99%,” she says. “I’m the middle-class that got a friggin’ shot, and I got in there. And the irony of hearing that people are upset that the little nobody who hasn’t sold a thousand copies of her little album managed to get in there — somebody’s upset about that? Really? You want to just take it all, and not share the wealth? It’s so unbelievable.”
Tearfully, she adds, “I’ve been playing guitar for 41 years, and (working) in bars for 30. I haven’t made it to that (big) scale — not because I’m not good enough, but because nobody gave me the break. And Grammy 365 gave me the break.”
Final Grammy ballots are due Dec. 23. Chorney says of her promotional plans, “I’m gonna do what I did on the first round.”