For 60 years, Seattle has defied music conventions all the way to the Grammys
Washington music has never been a monolith. Our mental list of local legends runs the gamut from old-school crooners to forward-thinking rappers, groundbreaking rock bands to jazz players who became giants.
Toss them onto the same playlist and it might be hard to hear many commonalities. But there’s at least one trait shared among many artists with Evergreen State ties whose careers have gone all the way to the Grammys, the music industry’s highest honor. Call it an independent spirit, a willingness or innate sense to break the norm or create new sounds and pathways. They’ve bucked trends and made their own, sometimes ruffling feathers and opening doors for others along the way.
It’s true of artists whose careers began decades before the Grammys’ 1959 inception and those being recognized at this year’s ceremony, which takes place Sunday at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles (5 p.m., CBS). And it’s especially true of three local artists up for some of the Recording Academy’s top honors: Brandi Carlile, now a perennial contender, is one of the leading nominees with seven total nods; and hometown rock heroes Nirvana, and Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson are each set to receive lifetime achievement awards at a nontelevised ceremony the night before the main event.
Although their paths to music’s center stage have differed, the marks they’ve left have been indelible. And in some ways, their legacies are still being written.
By the time Nirvana released “Nevermind” in 1991, rock’s underground rebellion had been fomenting for years, and certainly not just in Seattle. The potent power trio’s tightly wound ball of searing punk and caked-in-mud noise rock infused with tussled-pop melodies hit like the first brick through the window. Nothing would ever be the same. From their reluctant, media-imposed position as the movement’s figureheads, the punk rock ethos they carried with them permeated pop culture, instilling a militant authenticity in rock music. Death to dollar-chasing fakes became code of conduct for a generation, even as record execs dangled checks in front of carbon copies.
For more than 30 years, Nirvana’s infectious and serrated anthems have served as an open portal between the mainstream and punk, or whatever constitutes “underground” rock in the streaming era. Without them, do legions of Nirvana-reared youth discover headwater ’80s punk deities like Black Flag or Bad Brains and the myriad tributaries flowing from that scene? And without Nirvana’s unprecedented commercial impact, do Green Day, Blink-182, Paramore or (eeew) MGK get the opportunity to become pop-punk arena headliners, constructing for subsequent generations of angsty kids similar gateways before they’re old enough to even know how to find the underground?
Beyond Nirvana and the grunge explosion, Washington has had a rich history of women claiming space in male-dominated rock scenes, from Olympia’s riot grrrl movement to contemporary favorites like Tacocat. But it all starts with Heart and the Wilson sisters. The matriarchs of Seattle rock not only put the Emerald City on the post-Hendrix map, they were one of the first women-led hard rock bands to break through in the ’70s, battling rampant sexism among the industry and press (that only worsened in the testosterone-fueled ’80s) while racking up platinum albums. Between Ann’s powerhouse vocals and Nancy’s guitar heroics, Heart’s talent couldn’t be denied.
While much of their ’70s output — which includes motoring classics “Crazy on You” and “Barracuda” — holds up as canonical expressions of the era’s folk-inflected hard rock, Heart underwent a glammy reinvention in the mid-’80s, winning new legions of fans and taking the band to its greatest commercial heights. The Rock & Roll Hall of Famers’ resurgent second act really began with 1985’s self-titled smash, which yielded the band’s first No. 1 album and single — the high-polished power ballad “These Dreams.” These days, you’ll likely hear Heart crowds at their wildest during colossal power rocker “Alone” — a song Brandi Carlile knows well, having covered it at her annual Gorge Amphitheatre show last year.
Carlile, who’s up for album and record of the year with “In These Silent Days” and soft-rocking single “You and Me on the Rock,” may not have shattered rock’s glass ceiling as overtly as the Wilsons. But she has made a point of uplifting other women during her somewhat improbable-for-the-times route to the center of popular music. Though she may not care for the “pop” part.
A month before last year’s nominations were revealed, Carlile offered some foretelling feedback to the Recording Academy, wrapped in more of a personal declaration staking her claim in the Americana genre/community. In a move the veteran folk rocker wasn’t exactly thrilled with, the Grammys instead classified her knee-buckling “Right on Time” as pop. (Beyond her general-field nods, this year, Carlile’s also nominated in rock and Americana/roots categories.) Separate the piano-driven ballad from the rest of her catalog and, sure, the power-noted track is a pop tune in the broad, traditional sense, her vocal thunder holding similar appeal as hits from Adele or Sam Smith, Carlile’s “Party of One” duet partner. But when the nominations dropped a few weeks later, the self-described “40 year old crooning lesbian mother” was an outlier in a field that included a number of teeny-boppers past and present.
Her commitment to the community she’s forged her career in was admirable and artists should have some agency over how their music is considered. Though on some level, the classification was a testament to Carlile and the Hanseroth twins’ transcendent songwriting. In the years since the leveling-up success of 2018’s “By the Way, I Forgive You,” Carlile has become a household name, graduating from the hallowed Ryman Auditorium to Red Rocks and the red carpet, grabbing nominations in pop, rock, country and Americana fields along the way. (I’m convinced she’s just one more Soundgarden collab away from her first heavy metal nomination.) While some of her general-category peers — mostly pop stars in the more conventional sense — got there with of-the-moment qualities that in various ways encapsulate their times, Carlile and her familial unit, a true-blue rock ’n’ roll band, arrived with a built-to-last craftsmanship in their songs that would sound as sweet in 1973 as they will in 2033.
60 years of against-the-grain Grammy success
Nirvana, Heart and Brandi Carlile are hardly the only Washington-linked mavericks to hit the Grammys. These are just some of the game-changers and industry shakers who have made it to “music’s biggest night” throughout the years.
17 wins, 37 nominations
Grammys breakout: 1961
One of the most essential American musicians of all time, the godfather of soul helped fundamentally reshape popular music with his fusion of jazz, blues and gospel that set the course for contemporary rhythm and blues as we know it. In 1961, Charles hauled in four trophies at just the third-ever Grammy Awards, including two for his work on “The Genius of Ray Charles,” which featured several arrangements from his old Seattle buddy Quincy Jones.
Signature win: lifetime achievement award (1963)
Generations before Elvis did “Blue Hawaii” or Will Smith pivoted from rap phenom to A-list actor, the Spokane crooner was a groundbreaking multimedia star on the stage, the silver screen and the radio airwaves. Although the Christmas king’s career began more than 30 years before the Recording Academy formed, Crosby was honored with the first-ever lifetime achievement award in 1963.
3 wins, 18 nominations
First nomination: best country & western vocal performance, female, “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” (1967)
The late country great, a Kentucky native who lived in Whatcom County before becoming one of her generation’s most courageous singer-songwriters, always rejected the feminist label. But the 2010 lifetime achievement award recipient never shied away from controversy while singing about reproductive rights (“The Pill”), sexual autonomy (“Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’”) and sexist double standards around divorce (“Rated X”) — subjects few women in country would touch at the time — with honesty, empathy and levity.
Sole nomination: best contemporary instrumental performance, “The Star-Spangled Banner” live at Woodstock (1971)
Top honor: lifetime achievement award (1992)
No box could confine arguably the greatest guitar player to ever inhabit the Earth, whose style — at once beautifully expressive and completely unbridled — pushed the limits of how the instrument was played and redefined rock ’n’ roll performance. The lone nomination of Hendrix’s brief but profoundly influential career contained a fraction of his multitudes as a Black military vet interpreting the national anthem at the counterculture event of a generation during the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s.
28 wins, 80 nominations
Signature win: album of the year, “Thriller” by Michael Jackson (1984)
So unprecedented is Q’s journey from Jackson Street trumpeter to entertainment-industry renaissance mogul that the producer/composer’s staggering 28 wins — tied with Beyoncé for the second-most in Grammys history — feels like a biographical footnote in a 70-year career dotted with “firsts” for African Americans in showbiz. Today, it’s harder to envision a certified jazzman, who earned one of his first Grammy nods as a hard-swinging big band commander on 1959’s “The Great Wide World of Quincy Jones,” going on to help shape the King of Pop, co-piloting Michael Jackson’s superstar-making ’80s run.
Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Nirvana and Pearl Jam
4 wins, 35 nominations
First nomination: best metal performance, Soundgarden’s “Ultramega OK” (1990)
Sonically inventive in their own disparate ways, the grunge gods collectively helped make “alternative rock” the preeminent sound of the ’90s, upending the music industry from the Upper Left corner of the country. The counterculture became the culture in a way we haven’t seen since.
1 win, 3 nominations
The win: best rap solo performance, “Baby Got Back” (1993)
His rap cred already solidified on 1988’s platinum “Swass” album, Mix’s crossover smash was as subversive as it was irresistible. The Central District rapper’s rump-shaking takedown of impossible Eurocentric beauty standards arrived in Calvin Klein’s “heroin chic” era — decades before the curve-positive “thicc” entered the lexicon — and 30 years later still slaps as hard as any contemporary twerk anthem.
1 win, 2 nominations
Signature win: best rap performance by a duo or group, “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” (1994)
Across the country from his hometown, Seattle’s Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler was a key figure in the East Coast jazz rap movement, strengthening ties between two great Black American art forms, creating sonic ripples still felt today. Digable and their peers offered a smoothly poetic alternative to some of the harder-edged “gangsta” rap of the day, and in a hypermasculine genre, few rappers were man enough to deliver an overt abortion-rights anthem as the Butler-penned “La Femme Fétal.”
1 win, 17 nominations
First win: best instrumental composition, “Forever in Love” (1994)
No one’s drawn the ire of the irascible jazz police more intensely than Franklin High School alum Kenneth Gorelick — the easy listening king of the ’80s and ’90s — never mind the fact that he never considered his music jazz. The jazz crowd may have turned their noses up at the saxiest man alive’s surprisingly populist balladry, but the Grammys got it, with Gorelick’s 17 nominations coming in non-jazz categories. Or at the very least, they grasped the unexpected commercial might of an artist behind two of the few instrumentals to reach Billboard’s Top 10 in the last 40 years, with 1986 lovemaker “Songbird” and holiday classic “Auld Lang Syne” at the end of 1999.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
4 wins, 7 nominations
Signature win: best new artist (2014)
How two Seattle dudes without a record deal became the biggest thing in pop music stands as one of the 21st century’s greatest music biz feats. Mack and Lewis had been making indie-rap inroads for a while and the runaway success of “The Heist,” which pushed against several hip-hop tropes (materialism, homophobia), presented a new blueprint at a time when traditional artist-label dynamics were being renegotiated. Own your masters, kids.
First nomination: best country song, “Mama’s Broken Heart” recorded by Miranda Lambert (2014)
The pride of Morton, Lewis County, has become a perennial Grammys contender as an artist straddling the country/Americana divide. But it was her songwriting that first got the singer-songwriter on the academy’s radar, penning hits for the likes of Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves — including the latter’s acceptance anthem “Follow Your Heart,” with an LGBTQ+ ally line that ruffled feathers in conservative circles. As country music continues to grapple with representation, Clark has been one of Nashville’s brightest openly gay stars.
This year: best dance/electronic music album, “The Last Goodbye” (2023)
The ascent of Seattle’s arena-slaying electronic stars occurred as EDM reached its corporatized precipice, the mainstream’s formulaic figureheads and press-play performances becoming an “SNL” parody. With a genre-blurring deployment of live instrumentation, producers Clayton Knight and Harrison Mills have artfully walked the tightrope between the big-tent dance music world and their boundary-pushing indie peers, making their own wave en route to headlining some of the biggest U.S. festivals like this summer’s Bonnaroo.
First nomination: best country solo performance, “Something in the Orange” (2023)
Mainstream country fans have resoundingly embraced the former Washington Navy man who has largely rejected the genre label and the Nashville establishment altogether. That’s probably why one of the year’s biggest breakout stars was a best new artist snub — not that the denim-clad rebel gives a damn. After releasing his “All My Homies Hate Ticketmaster (Live From Red Rocks)” last month, Bryan went all Pearl Jam and announced a 2023 tour skirting Ticketmaster-affiliated venues (possibly why there’s no Seattle date). In fighting the good fight against exorbitant ticket prices, a new working-class hero was born. Your move, Springsteen.