And the Grammy nominees for this year’s best Americana album are: Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Levon Helm, Ry Cooder, and . . . Linda Chorney.
That was the resounding response that rippled through the roots-music community when Chorney, an unknown singer-songwriter originally from Sudbury, was announced in November as a nominee for this year’s Grammys, which will take place Sunday in Los Angeles.
Chorney, 51, is a dark horse among those well-established artists. Her story would seem to be a celebration of the independent artist finally breaking through on her own with no record label or publicist working behind the scenes.
Instead, her path to the Grammys is a testament to the increasing role of social networking in defining the music industry.
Chorney - whose sound draws equally from folk, adult contemporary, and classic rock - got on the Grammy ballot after directly connecting with Recording Academy voters through Grammy365.com, the organization’s social-networking site that’s not unlike Facebook. Using that route has drawn her as much fire as it has praise.
With two weeks left in the nomination process last fall, Chorney and her husband, Scott Fadynich, holed up in their New Jersey apartment and personally appealed to voting members. Without ever using the words “vote for me,’’ they asked members to listen to her latest record, the self-released “Emotional Jukebox,’’ and consider it for best Americana album. To everyone’s surprise, they did.
“People do not vote for you just because you ask them to listen to your music,’’ Chorney said earlier this week a day before she and Fadynich drove to Los Angeles for the Grammys. “Nobody’s obligated to do that. There were 165 people in my category competing for Americana album. Ten were household names, and the rest of us slobs were indie artists trying to get a chance to be heard.’’
Her unlikely nomination promptly infuriated much of the Americana community, with outspoken blog entries and tweets suggesting Chorney was a second-rate musician who didn’t belong in the category and had gamed the Grammy system.
“She did not do anything that went beyond the letter or the intent of the guidelines we have,’’ said Bill Freimuth, the Recording Academy’s vice president of awards, adding that the organization loosened its rules on vote solicitation about seven years ago. “It’s still up to the voters to vote.’’
Jim Berkenstadt, an author and entertainment consultant in Madison, Wis., was one of those voting members. He had never heard of Chorney when she approached him on Grammy365. He checked out the links to her music and liked it. At 55, he said, he related to her rootsy songs about life transitions and appreciated her taste in covers of tunes by the Beatles and Led Zeppelin.
“I heard her album and thought, ‘I really like this album,’ ’’ Berkenstadt said. “Even if she doesn’t take home the Grammy, in my opinion she has triumphed for all the unsung musical heroes we may never get to hear.’’
Membership to the Grammy365 site costs $100 a year. Through it, Chorney and her husband sent out thousands of contact requests, 1,500 of which were accepted. (“I thought it was hysterical that I was accused of gaming the system. I can barely use my remote control,’’ Chorney said.)
In so many respects, Chorney compels you to root for her. For 30 years, she has been a full-time musician, self-releasing six albums and playing gig after gig, be it in resorts, sports bars, or house concerts.
Why, then, such a backlash for such a hard worker?
“I think people are upset about Linda’s nomination because of the artists who were not nominated - artists who tour and work full time in the Americana genre and that have sold more records and had more press and radio play than Chorney,’’ said Tamara Saviano, a Grammy-winning Nashville-based producer, manager, and publicist. “Until this Linda Chorney controversy, most of us thought it was still illegal and against academy rules to lobby voters.’’
Chorney’s critics weren’t happy that she edged out albums by the likes of Robert Earl Keen, Hayes Carll, and Abigail Washburn, all beloved artists who have paid their dues in the Americana trenches.
“None of the backlash has been from the nominees,’’ Chorney said. “I think it’s the suits who put all the big bucks in the 1 percent, and I, being in the 99 percent and asking for equal rights, got in without all the money backing me.’’
Her detractors also quibble with the fact that Chorney is not particularly steeped in the already broad field of Americana. Chorney is the first to admit that, if anything, she aligns herself more with musical heroes like the Beatles and Rolling Stones.
She said she hasn’t fit neatly into a specific genre since the beginning. To little fanfare, Chorney started her career in the Boston area in the mid-1980s, managed for a few years by Fred Taylor, the local music impresario who books Scullers Jazz Club. With a band, Chorney played around town at places like Copperfield’s and long-gone venues such as the Channel and Zoots.
Even though she left the area in 1990, off to pursue her musical dreams wherever they led - from New York to Colorado to New Jersey - Chorney still sees herself as a Bostonian. (She’s probably the only Grammy nominee this year who signs her e-mails, “Have a wicked awesome weekend!’’) And she sees a parallel between her story and that of a certain hometown team.
“I am like the Boston Red Sox before 2004,’’ she said. “The nominees in my category won’t know the joy I will feel if I actually pull this off and win.’’
Few skeptics fault Chorney for her tenacity, but several have complained that her music simply isn’t good enough to warrant a Grammy. William Michael Smith, a music writer at the Houston Press, has been especially harsh.
“On one hand, we have to applaud Chorney for her effort and determination and for her ability to work the system to her advantage,’’ he wrote in mid-December. “On the other hand, after hearing her music, we want to projectile vomit.’’
Chorney said that kind of brittle commentary initially upset her, but she has learned to take it in stride. She’s even poking fun at it. On her website, www.lindachorney.com, she sells T-shirts that capitalize on the controversy.
As she prepares to attend the Grammy ceremony on Sunday, she is already aware of just how much the tide has turned in her favor.
“For the most important part, I’m not sad anymore about my career,’’ Chorney said. “I stopped believing in the business, but I never stopped believing in my music. I’ve already won by being a nominee. The whole game has changed.’’