searchsearch
Let Your Heart Be Your Guide: Adria Petty, Mike Campbell & More On The Enduring Significance Of Tom Petty's 'Wildflowers'

Tom Petty

Photo by Mark Seliger

news

Let Your Heart Be Your Guide: Adria Petty, Mike Campbell & More On The Enduring Significance Of Tom Petty's 'Wildflowers'

Ahead of Petty's long-awaited, expansive 'Wildflowers' reissue, GRAMMY.com speaks to those who know it—and its beloved late author—best

GRAMMYs/Oct 16, 2020 - 08:14 pm

For years, Tom Petty fans eagerly awaited the release of the second half of Wildflowers, Petty's esteemed second solo record, released on Nov. 1, 1994. Co-produced by multiple GRAMMY-winning producer Rick Rubin, Tom Petty and Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, Wildflowers was originally conceived as a 25-song double CD, though Petty’s new record label Warner Bros. asked that it be condensed to a 15-song one-disc album. Four songs from the Wildflowers sessions ended up on the She’s The One soundtrack. Another song, "Leave Virginia Alone," was recorded by Rod Stewart and debuted on "Saturday Night Live"'s 20th season finale. The remaining five songs never saw the light of day. 

Today, however, two weeks after the third anniversary of Petty’s untimely death and several days before what would have been the rock icon’s 70th birthday, Wildflowers & All The Rest has finally been released. Produced by Petty's longtime engineer and co-producer Ryan Ulyate, the collection was curated by Petty’s daughters Adria and Annakim, Campbell, Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench and Petty's wife Dana (the couple married in 2001). There are several editions available in various formats (digital/CD/vinyl), starting with a 2-CD/3-LP reissue of Wildflowers remastered and All The Rest comprising the previously unreleased 10 tracks, the Deluxe Edition (which also includes 15 home demos and 14 live performances ranging from 1995-2017) and the Super Deluxe Edition, which includes Finding Wildflowers and comprises 16 alternate studio takes.

A benchmark in his illustrious career and his fastest-selling record, Wildflowers, certified triple platinum within nine months of its release, held significant meaning to Petty. Speaking to author/journalist Paul Zollo in "Conversations with Tom Petty," Petty says, "I think it’s maybe my favorite LP that I’ve ever done. Though I’m kind of partial to a few of them. But I think, as a whole, it’s a real long piece of music—it’s almost 70 minutes long—but that’s the one that really gets me when I hear it. I can kind of go, ‘Wow, I’m really proud of that. That came out exactly like I wanted it to.'"

Sadly, as Petty wrote songs for Wildflowers, his marriage to his wife Jane Benyo was collapsing. (The pair married in 1974, had daughters Adria and Annakim, and divorced in 1996.) Filled with pain, loneliness and uncertainty, Petty’s songwriting shifted in accordance with the crisis in his personal life, reflected in Wildflowers' lyrics and song titles including "Hard On Me," "Time To Move On" and "Only A Broken Heart." More intimate and raw than ever before, Petty openly expresses his sadness, anguish and frustration amidst sporadic shimmers of light.

Recorded at Sound City in Van Nuys over an approximately two-year period beginning in 1992, Wildflowers wasn’t technically a Heartbreakers record but all the Heartbreakers still showed up with the exception of drummer Stan Lynch, who was replaced by Steve Ferrone when escalating tensions with Lynch reached a breaking point. Ringo Starr, who played drums on "To Find A Friend," and Carl Wilson, who contributed backing vocals to "Honey Bee," were the record’s special guests.

On the opening and title track, the sweetly melodic “Wildflowers,” Petty sings, “You belong among the wildflowers/ You belong in a boat out at sea/ Sail away, kill off the hours/ You belong somewhere you feel free." Though it was never released as a single, "Wildflowers" was a huge hit with Petty fans. In audio posted to Tom Petty’s official Instagram page, Petty reveals the ad-libbed song was a departure from his usual songwriting process. “The 'Wildflowers' song was one of the only times it ever happened to me in my life. I really just stepped up in my little studio at home and I put the mic on and played the whole song straight from the top to the end with all the lyrics and the music in one go. And then I stopped the tape and played it back and I really was kind of, you know, confused. I kept playing it again and again thinking, ‘Well, what do we work on and what would I change?’ And then I thought, 'I’m not going to change it. I’m just going to leave it stream of conscious.'"

While Petty wasn’t aware of it at the time, he actually wrote "Wildflowers" for someone very specific, someone who was desperately in need of compassion and freedom. He wrote it for Tom Petty. According to Warren Zane's bestselling book "Petty: The Biography" (2015), Petty’s therapist listened to the song and "asked the singer who he was addressing. ‘I told him I wasn’t sure,’ Petty says. ‘And then he said, ‘I know. That song is about you. That’s you singing to yourself what you needed to hear.’ ‘It kind of knocked me back. But I realized he was right. It was me singing to me.'"

Infused with rock, folk and blues, the critically acclaimed Wildflowers landed at number eight on Billboard’s 200 record chart. Rolling Stone gave the album a 4-star review. "Wildflowers' resolute passion and maturity grow more evident with each listen until the album acquires a haunting, enduring resonance." GRAMMY-nominated for Best Rock Album album, Wildflowers yielded four successful singles that each scored positions on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart; the tongue-in-cheek "It’s Good To Be King," "You Don’t Know How It Feels" (GRAMMY Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, and MTV Music Video Award for Best Male Video), "A Higher Place," and "You Wreck Me."

Originally titling the song "You Rock Me," Petty shared the backstory to "You Wreck Me" at VH1’s Tom Petty Storytellers session in 1999. "I was calling the song 'You Rock Me, Baby' and, you know, you can’t really say that anymore because it was pointed out to me, anyway, that the band kind of just held their heads and said, 'You can’t sing, ‘You rock me’ in a song,' which I suppose made sense...and then, one night, it hit me. It’s ‘wreck me.’ All I did was change ‘rock’ for ‘wreck’ and we had, ‘You wreck me, baby.” With that, Petty smiles, chuckles, and launches into the highly energetic rocker with the Heartbreakers. 

There’s a chance the song might never have been recorded at all. Campbell, who wrote the music for "You Wreck Me" and co-wrote several Petty hits including "Refugee" and "Runnin’ Down A Dream," says initially Petty liked the demo Campbell gave to him. But when Campbell asked about the song months later, Petty said he wasn’t sure if he knew where he’d put it. At the studio one day, Rubin asked Campbell if he had any songs. When Campbell played it for him, Rubin told him to show the song to Petty, but Campbell said he already had. Rubin suggested he show it to Petty again.

"I showed it to Tom again and kind of nudged him and said, ‘Why don’t you write to this?'" Campbell tells GRAMMY.com. "The funny thing is, I think maybe because Tom was busy writing his own songs and he was overwhelmed with that, he wasn’t really keen on that track at the beginning. He kind of did it under duress a little bit. I got the feeling as we were recording it that it wasn’t one of his favorite songs. But when we went on tour, a couple of days into the tour, we played that song live and it went down so well, he leaned over to me and said, 'I get it now. This is really a good song.'"

Filmmaker/photographer Martyn Atkins, who directed both the "You Wreck Me" music video and the documentary "400 Days,” which he shot during the recording of Wildflowers and its tour, designed the record’s tastefully understated packaging and cover; four black-and-white photos, one of which shows Petty looking out the window of a van on his way to the recording studio, set against a craft paper-brown background with a red circle surrounding a red beaded flower in the cover’s lower-left corner, providing the only splash of color. Petty’s name and "Wildflowers" are written across the top in lowercase letters in Atkins’s handwriting. 

Atkins spent a lot of time with Petty, taking photos and shooting film footage, letting ideas spark organically. Inspired by the intimacy of Petty’s songs, Atkins opted for a low-key design. “My thought about the packaging and graphic for "Wildflowers" was that it should feel a little more homemade, something crafted that Tom was crafting. I got that feeling from the music. It was much more internalized coming from Tom. It felt like you were getting something personal,” says Atkins over the phone. He cut and printed negatives from his 16mm film footage for the cover photos instead of using a regular camera. “I wanted the grittiness and real grain for the album artwork. The idea was not to have something glossy.” 

He explains the red beaded flower's significance. "Tom had a tobacco pouch at his house, an American Indian suede pouch with a beaded flower on it. I think somebody had given it to him. He wondered if we could use it in some way. I took it away and photographed it and suggested we make it like a seal on the cover, something graphic that could become a motif. He liked that idea as the pouch meant something to him. We did stickers of it and included them in the CD packaging."

Petty himself stuck a Wildflowers sticker onto the upper-left corner of one of his favorite guitars, his blonde Telecaster (nicknamed "Torucaster" for luthier Toru Nittono), where the sticker remains to this day. Some of Atkins's Wildflowers-era photography, along with pictures taken by photographers Mark Seliger and Robert Sebree, are included in the new box set. 

For years, Petty longed to reissue the beloved Wildflowers along with its second half. "He thought it was really important because the legacy of the Wildflowers album loomed large in this career and he knew that the second half of Wildflowers was an important statement," said Rick Rubin, speaking to bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell on their "Broken Record" podcast in 2018. 

Ulyate and Petty first cracked open the Wildflowers vault in 2013, poring over tapes during breaks between recording sessions for Hypnotic Eye, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ final studio album. By 2014, they'd remixed the 10 previously unreleased Wildflowers tracks, which Petty sequenced and named All The Rest. Petty also selected some home demos to release as bonus material. He told Rolling Stone about a two-disc Wildflowers release slated for that Christmas. A year later, Petty released the Wildflowers-era song "Somewhere Under Heaven" as promotion for a Wildflowers: All The Rest collection that didn't have a release date yet. He was waiting to release Wildflowers: All The Rest when he could give it his undivided attention and promote it properly with a tour. Between touring Hypnotic Eye, working with his early '70s band Mudcrutch (whose members include Heartbreakers Campbell and Tench), and the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour in 2017, he held back Wildflowers: All The Rest until he could prioritize it. 

"He wasn’t putting out music by the pound," says Ulyate over the phone. "He thought about it and was like, ‘I don’t want to just toss this thing out.’ He was never into flooding the market with stuff. If he had just put it out without promoting it, he felt it wouldn't have gotten the reception he thought it deserved so he decided to hold back. He was going to get back to it, take stock, and figure out how to move forward when they got off tour in 2017."

Throughout Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' 40th anniversary tour, the 18-song setlist included five Wildflowers songs, alongside a bevy of classic Petty hits including "American Girl," "Free Fallin'," and "Mary Jane’s Last Dance." Two days after the tour wrapped, after three sold-out nights at the Hollywood Bowl, Petty told the L.A. Times that the Wildflowers project was probably where he'd turn his attention next. While he said he still had some research to do, he speculated that a three-city theater residency, instead of stadiums and arenas, might suit the material best. 

"We had several discussions about doing a tour of only Wildflowers songs, maybe in theaters," says Campbell. "For so many decades, it was a greatest hits tour, which is great, but this would have been a different type of thing. We could share this intimate album and we'd have different guest singers come in with the band to give it a different vibe and experience from the touring we’d been doing, which would have been artistically rewarding for us." Campbell says among the potential guest singers they’d discussed were Jeff Lynne, Eddie Vedder, Norah Jones and Stevie Nicks.

Tragically, five days after his L.A. Times interview, Petty, who suffered from emphysema, coronary artery atherosclerosis, knee pain and a fractured hip, died suddenly at 66 years old from an accidental overdose of prescription pain medications. But Petty’s incomparable legacy lives on with Wildflowers & All The Rest, which arrives on the heels of two previous Tom Petty posthumous releases: An American Treasure (2018) and Best Of Everything (2019). 

Over the past few months, several Wildflowers & All The Rest songs and videos have been released: Petty's home demos of "Wildflowers," "You Don’t Know How It Feels" and "There Goes Angela (Dream Away)," which was unearthed after Petty’s death. "We didn't find that when Tom was around," says Ulyate. "We found about half the demos with Tom and he approved them and liked them and then after he passed, we really scoured the bottom of the vault to try to find everything. That’s when we found more demos."

"Confusion Wheel," the first official single from All The Rest, epitomizes Petty’s tormented and highly confessional Wildflowers-era songwriting. Petty sings, "So much confusion has torn me apart/ So much confusion has made me afraid/ That I don’t know how to love/ I don’t know how to trust/ And I don’t know why that is." Yet Petty hasn’t lost all hope for a fresh start as he sings, "One of these days, we'll drive away/ Drive away singing a brand new song/ We'll wake up singing a brand new song."

Mindful that the material was close to her father’s heart, Adria is also highly cognizant of its significance to the Wildflowers narrative. Speaking to GRAMMY.com over the phone, she says, "If the 'Wizard Of Oz' had another reel or if 'Let It Be' had another album you’d be like, ‘Woah! To me, that’s what Wildflowers & All The Rest is, and that’s why it’s so important for us to get it right because it’s a little gem in the archive."

"Everybody involved is trying to honor and use their sixth sense as to what it is he would like, to carry on the legacy as he would have if he were still here," says Ulyate, who worked closely with Petty for more than 10 years. He misses Petty terribly but notes that being immersed in his music has helped his grief somewhat. "I don’t think any of us will ever get over the loss but, in a way, working on the music has made it easier because he’s still here and he’s still coming out of my speakers. Finding this stuff and putting it out feels like we’re all doing our job in honoring him and his legacy. In that way, we’re doing the right thing and doing justice to his legacy so we’re keeping him around in a way and that part of it makes me feel good."

Exploring Petty’s archives was tough for Campbell, however, whose history with Petty dates back 50 years. "It was a bittersweet experience going through the stuff and not having Tom there to do it with us," he says. "Going over the songs brought up a lot of joy and grief as well. He really wanted this stuff out though, so we worked very hard on it and took the best stuff of what was laying around. It was as if he was sitting there with us and we made decisions based on that.

Some of the tracks I’d almost completely forgotten about until I heard them and it was nice to hear this good music that we could share with the audience. At the same time, I’m still grieving and it was kind of hard to sit there and hear Tom’s voice in the speakers and him not be there. Sometimes I would just have to leave the room for a while, but we got it done."

Adria says when her father died, "It was such an eternal primal scream of disbelief to have him die on us so suddenly." She says it felt like a universal loss and that while the world mourned along with her family, they also gave Petty’s heirs a lot of support. As to her grief, three years later, she says, "I feel like I’m turning a corner with it, and as time goes on, I feel like parts will get easier. But no one ever gets over the death of their parent." At times, however, her grief is overwhelming. "There are times when you just don’t want to hear those songs...when they come on in the grocery store and you’re like, ‘That’s a lot.'"

She says, however, that listening to Wildflowers is uplifting. "There’s a lot of joy in listening to this particular era of the music for me. It touches my soul. It touches my heart and makes me feel good. It’s not the kind of stuff that makes you really think necessarily about the live shows or the hit-run of Dad’s catalog but it’s a little bit more of a pure experience." As of late, Adria says she’s been getting lost in her dad's lyrics and the purposeful manner in which he chose each word, constantly editing himself, as reflected on studio notes, legal pads and notebooks where he constantly scratched out and replaced lyrics.

Rick Rubin and Tom Petty 
Photo by Robert Sebree

Renowned for his anthemic songs, witty lyrics and compassion for underdogs, along with his uncanny skill for conveying profound wisdom and emotional depth using plain and concise language, part of Petty’s artistic genius was how deceptively simple he made his thoroughly relatable yet equally epic songwriting seem. In truth, he was a blue-jeaned, tirelessly working poet, inducted into the Rock and Roll Of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

While the more comprehensive editions of Wildflowers & All The Rest are a treat for fans, they also serve as a masterclass in songwriting as you hear the evolution of Petty’s songs. Some demos were reworked before being recorded in the studio. For example, before he changed the chorus for the completed studio version of "Crawling Back To You," on the demo Petty sang "coming back to you" and "running back to you." Other demos were set aside entirely, with portions of their lyrics transplanted into other songs. "There’s a Break in the Rain" is a beautiful and heartfelt demo that Petty never developed further. Instead, he used its lyrics "in a memory of a dream," in "You Don’t Know How It Feels," the first song recorded for Wildflowers. Years later, he recycled its chorus in "Have Love Will Travel" on The Last DJ (2002). 

"He really cared about writing good songs and performing them well," says Ulyate. "He always wanted to keep getting better and better and refining his craft. He was more into that than being a famous guy," says Ulyate who says Petty’s meticulousness was all-encompassing. "He was into every facet of songwriting. The song had to be good, the first line had to grab you and the song had to have good construction, and he was into production, and how the songs were arranged in the context of an album was important. He wanted to make sure he was telling a story."

Petty would continue to scrutinize and change songs even after they were recorded. "I’d go into mastering and say, ‘OK, we’re going to master the album and finish it up’ and he’d call me two days before and say, ‘I have a better line for the third verse,'" says Ulyate. "Luckily, we had a set-up that made it easy for me to drop in a line at his studio and we’d listen back and I’d say, ‘Man, I’m so glad you called me. That was so much better.’ He was always thinking of ways of improving stuff."

Ulyate partially attributes Petty’s songwriting prowess to his "encyclopedic knowledge" of music. "If you want to be a good songwriter, you have to be a good song listener," he says. "Tom Petty was probably the best song listener of anyone I knew." Petty’s extensive and colorful musical palette ranged from the most obscure music Petty could find to the blues to his heroes Bob Dylan, the Byrds, The Beatles, Beach Boys and Elvis Presley

He laughs incredulously when recalling Petty’s meeting with director Thom Zimny who, at the time, was making the documentary, Elvis Presley: The Searcher. "Thom Zimny asked a couple of questions about Elvis and Tom Petty went into this thing where, basically, for the next 45 minutes he just schooled the guy about Elvis! He knew more about him and I was like, ‘How do you know this much about Elvis?!'"

"Even if you never shook his hand, you knew him, and it will always feel like we lost a friend, not just the standard-bearer for great songwriting." —Cameron Crowe on losing Tom Petty

In fact, when Petty was 11 years old, growing up in his native Gainesville, Florida, he was taken to meet Presley by his uncle who was working on the set of a Presley film shooting nearby in Ocala, Fl. Petty relays the Presley anecdote in Oscar-nominated director, screenwriter and author Peter Bogdanovich’s four-hour documentary, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down A Dream (2007). "Elvis appeared like, you know, a vision. He didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen and I’m just dumbstruck...I went home a changed man," Petty said at the time. "When I hit the street the next day, I was trying to find some Elvis Presley records. The music just hypnotized me and I played these records to the point my parents began to worry that something was wrong with me."

Speaking over the phone, Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, Mask) says though he and Petty were both proud of the documentary, which won a GRAMMY for Best Long Form Music Video in 2009, ("I was thrilled. What director gets a GRAMMY?"), it's forever "tinged with sadness" due to Petty’s untimely death. He says when Petty had a three-week window between tour dates in 2017, the pair discussed adding material to Runnin’ Down A Dream. "We talked about maybe adding 10 to 15 minutes to it to include the last 10 years to bring it up to date. We had a nice talk about it and he was keen on the idea but it didn’t work out because he died."

Bogdanovich says he last spoke to Petty after he attended his penultimate concert at The Hollywood Bowl three years ago, and called Petty to rave about his performance. "It’s tragic. I miss him dearly. I just loved the guy," he says. "He was a real artist who cared about the art, singing terrific songs that he put his heart and soul into. It was everything to him. It wasn’t about the money. It was about the work."

Petty’s dedication to his fans matched his commitment to his art. During the 40th anniversary tour, Atkins expressed concern to Petty about carrying a heavy guitar every night while suffering from a cracked hip that needed surgery. He says he suggested the idea of stopping the tour to get better and touring the following year instead. Petty said, "I don’t want to stop the tour because people book their holidays around coming to see me and it’s important in people’s lives and I don’t want to let them down."

Dating back to 1981, Petty famously fought his record label MCA who wanted to add a dollar to the price of his record Hard Promises. He withheld the album until MCA relented and didn’t raise the price. Petty describes his fan-philosophy in director and Oscar-winning screenwriter Cameron Crowe’s 1983 MTV hour-long documentary Heartbreakers Beach Party, which was Crowe’s first directing credit. Facing the camera directly, Petty says, "At the risk of sounding corny, you have to thank the fans. I’m still very reverent about that. I will stop and sign the thing because it’s that important. I think that if you lose that, if you get where they’re just them, then it’s all gone."

"Tom always carried himself as a fan," Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) tells GRAMMY.com over the phone. "First and foremost, I think, he was somebody who never forgot his music-loving roots in Florida and remained an avid music lover and collector his entire life."

Crowe says Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were one of his favorite artists to write about when he was a Rolling Stone journalist and that it was "a dream come true" for which he’ll forever be honored that Heartbreakers Beach Party was his directorial debut. As a matter of fact, but for Petty (and executive producer Danny Bramson), it would have taken Crowe much longer to have become a director, if it even happened at all. "We were on the way to the video shoot for 'You Got Lucky' and he said, 'Pick up a camera and I’ll play you a song.' I said I wasn’t a director. He said, 'Just film me.' So I did. He played the novelty song ‘I’m Stupid’ and when it was done, he said, 'Guess what. Now you’re a director.' Can’t think of a better person to convince to jump in the deep end and start a new career."

He says Petty contributed music generously to Crowe’s film soundtracks over the years, including an exclusive mix of "It’ll All Work Out" for Elizabethtown. He also gave Crowe an opening quote to use in the first trailer for his TV show "Roadies."

"He was as down to earth as down to earth gets," says Crowe. "Even if you never shook his hand, you knew him, and it will always feel like we lost a friend, not just the standard-bearer for great songwriting, and a band that can pivot in any direction to deliver his songs."

In honor of their father’s unique relationship with his fans, both Adria and Annakim switched their private social media settings to public when Petty died. "His fans really came first for him in his career," says Adria. "That’s a lot of our job and our responsibility, to say, ‘We are here to still treat you well and to make things affordable and to give you access to all sorts of cool stuff he left behind.’”

Earlier this month, on the third anniversary of Petty's death, Adria posted a home video shot at Petty’s home studio at the family’s last Christmas together. Petty's strumming an acoustic guitar and singing "Crawling Back To You (one of Petty’s personal favorites) while Cammie, one of Adria’s and Annakim's younger cousins, plays the piano. In the caption, Adria writes that as soon as Petty heard Cammie playing the song, he took everyone into his studio to sing along and encourage her. The caption ends with, "I miss you too much every day, dad." On that same day, Annakim posted a selfie, captioned, "This was me a month after my dad died I feel greatful [sic] to feel alive again." 

Hundreds of Petty fans responded to the sisters’ posts. "His music has made many of us feel alive," wrote one fan while another wrote, "I've loved your dad's music since I was 10 yrs old. I'm 52 now. Was lucky to see him in concert about 19 times. Always the best and most memorable shows. Crying now...still hurts so much."

As to the possibility of a future Wildflowers & All The Rest tour, Campbell, who toured with Fleetwood Mac for a year and a half and has since been focused on his band The Dirty Knobs, becomes emotional at the thought of moving forward without Petty. "I’ll tell you how I feel about it," he says. "I don’t know how many stages of grief there are but I’m still in probably stage four or whatever it is. I don’t ‘feel emotionally comfortable with having all the Heartbreakers in a room and going ‘one, two, three, four’ and playing without Tom there. It’s a little too painful, but I’m not opposed to the idea only because this was something Tom really wanted to do. I would remain open to the idea when our grief settles to do what he would have wanted, and maybe get the band back together with some singers and learn the songs and do that Wildflowers tour in his honor." 

After a pause, Campbell says, "I need more time. It’s such a huge loss. He was my best friend for 50 years. I’ll probably never get over it completely and I am doing well but for something that close to Tom’s energy and soul, I need to be a little stronger to take that on."

In the meantime, Adria says she's currently in discussions with a director about a Wildflowers documentary, and that there will definitely be more Tom Petty music to come. "We have a big beautiful archive,” she says, “We’re just going to take our time with it and work on this one for the time being and then sit down and think about what should happen next."

"It's hard. And it's still hard": The Heartbreakers Keyboardist Benmont Tench On Life After Tom Petty

Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

news

Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.

GRAMMYs/Jan 6, 2023 - 12:17 am

Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!

The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.

Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.

So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.

Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.

About GRAMMY U:

GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.     

Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.

As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.

Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.

A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
Franc Moody

Photo: Rachel Kupfer 

list

A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea

James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.

Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.

Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.

In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.

Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.

There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.

Say She She

Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.

While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."

Moniquea

Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.

Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.

Shiro Schwarz

Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.

Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.

L'Impératrice

L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.

During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.

Franc Moody

Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.

Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.

The Rise Of Underground House: How Artists Like Fisher & Acraze Have Taken Tech House, Other Electronic Genres From Indie To EDC

Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
Billy Idol

Photo: Steven Sebring

interview

Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage

"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:19 pm

Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP,  Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.

Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.  

Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face." 

But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life. 

His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves. 

Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)

Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") —  their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.

While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens. 

Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.

Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up. 

Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically. 

"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?

We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds. 

We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick. 

I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?

Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol. 

You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way. 

Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about  freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?

I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier. 

I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff. 

So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.

[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.

I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.

Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?

I did, yes.

You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?

I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.

It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.

But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is]  informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.

Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.

We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.

It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].

We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.

You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.

It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.

When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.

You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?

Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."

We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.

You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.

With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.

Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.

You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?

I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.

But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.

I remember when you went on "Viva La Bamback in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?

I think it was his car.

Did he get over it later on?

He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.

Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?

In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.

We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.

The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.

There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.

It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.

It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.

Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?

Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.

The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.

The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?

Yeah.  Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].

Living Legends: Nancy Sinatra Reflects On Creating "Power And Magic" In Studio, Developing A Legacy Beyond "Boots" & The Pop Stars She Wants To Work With

Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
2023 GRAMMYs

Graphic: The Recording Academy

list

Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards

The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.

GRAMMYs/Nov 23, 2022 - 03:01 pm

Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.

Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.

Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."

Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business. 

As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.

Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"

In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.

Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt." 

There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.

Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"

Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.

After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon. 

"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.

Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"

Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.

In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."

Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall. 

Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"

When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.

Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production. 

Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.

Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"

Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."

Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar. 

Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.

2023 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Complete Nominees List