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Interview with Americana Grammy-nominee Linda Chorney

Linda Chorney created quite a stir in the music community with her Grammy nomination.
Linda Chorney created quite a stir in the music community with her Grammy nomination.Photo by Larry Busacca

While music awards tend to bring out differences in opinion amongst music lovers every year, this year's Grammy nominations sparked something of a firestorm in one category, and probably not in one you might expect. In fact, probably not a category you even knew was on the ballot.

When the 2011 Grammy nominations were announced for the Americana music category, there was a name in there that for all practical purposes, no one in the established Americana community recognized. Not only did it inspire a heated (and an increasingly nasty) debate, but a new nickname for the artist herself -- "Who the [expletive] is Linda Chorney?"

For the artist formerly known simply as Linda Chorney, 2011 wase quite a rollercoaster ride. After 30 years of paying her dues as a musician, she got the nod many artists dream of -- the Grammy nomination. Sounds like something to celebrate, right? A real "independent unknown hits the big-time," feel-good kinda story that inspires everyone.

Not so fast.

To be sure, the initial reaction was amazing for Chorney, as one would expect from her friends, family, and fans. But then something ugly crept into the blogs and forum posts, and not only were people criticizing the music, but getting downright personal. Then accusations of "gaming" the system by networking on the Grammy365 site for votes, and some going so far as calling on Chorney to give up her nomination.
The lynch mob had escalated to the point where the only thing missing was a stake and a lit torch.

"At first, I got an amazing reaction from all of my fans and friends and family -- they were just ecstatic. It was like a Cinderella story and just wonderful. I was so excited that so many people supported me to get me in the top five, and people really listened to the music -- so I was totally touched by that. Then, it turned and all of a sudden, hearing the other stuff, I was a little surprised, actually. I guess I'm naive."

The real irony is that such a backlash would come from some of those in a genre that arguably prides itself most on representing the independent spirit in music.

"I actually thought the reaction might be 'Wow, who is this person who had no backing, who had no label, who had no team, but got so many votes -- let's listen to this music because she must be good.' That's kind of what I thought the reaction would be, not 'Let's burn her at the stake.' If this was going on in Salem, I would have been burnt as a witch already."

Chorney's great crime in most of her critics' eyes wasn't so much about the music, but about networking on the Grammy365 site, simply asking people to listen to her music and consider it. Not only is this common practice for labels, but seriously -- is there a musician or artist of any kind who isn't out trying to network and get people to look at or listen to their work? Somehow that has now been translated into "gaming the system" like it was cheating. And like the voters would be so easily swayed to vote for an album simply because of networking -- a rather condescending assertion to Chorney and voters alike. Which isn't to say there aren't critics of the music, as well.

"My favorite quote about my music was 'I listened to her music and I wanted to projectile vomit,'" Chorney laughs. "I thought it was hysterical. I didn't take it to heart -- some are going to like your music and some aren't."

In a further twist of irony, Chorney has found herself an outcast in a group who prides itself, and even defines itself, by its outcast status. As Roseanne Cash said, "Americana is where you go when you don't fit anywhere else."

So where do you go when you don't fit with the kids who don't fit anywhere else? Wherever the hell you want to. And that is exactly what Chorney set out to do with her album "Emotional Jukebox."

As she will tell you -- and as she wrote in the liner notes -- this was going to be her last album. The 51-year-old had been trying to catch her break for 30 years, coming close 10 years ago when she landed a record deal and her single "Living Alone" cracked the Top 40 charts at No. 31 in adult contemporary. But then her label went broke after a little incident involving two airplanes and a couple of big towers in New York City.
And so it was back to square one.

But fortunately, Chorney found a benefactor, Jonathan Schneider, aka the "Roc Doc," who helped her make one more album -- and wanted her to be able to make the album she always wanted to make, rather than what a commercial market might demand. Or what being too poor and having to rush through the studio might demand.

"I thought this was going to be my last album ... and it was a blast. It was an album of just the love of music and not caring about anything else but making good music, period."

And many people seem to agree -- namely, voters who have forwarded many supportive letters, or, as Chorney calls them, her "peers with ears." Of course, it isn't only her peers listening -- there are fans out there, too, and their feedback has been far more important than the naysayers.

"The most memorable thing for me or the most fulfilling thing for me is when I touch people and they come up to me and cry and they say to me, 'Your music, your words, they help me and I know I'm not alone and you say things that I think that I don't have the [guts] to say.'"

Like her song "Looney Bin," from her previous album, "Chornography," which was her own therapy after the end of a relationship.

"I had this tumultuous break-up where my heart was so crushed I wanted to die, and I wrote this song and from the first verse to the end, I healed myself. When people come up to me and tell me they receive some relief from their pain through my songs, there's nothing more precious than that."

In addition to giving some of her fans a voice to their troubles and, of course, that whole Grammy-nomination thing, her life as a musician has had a few more highlights. Chorney had the privilege to meet and perform for none other than Nelson Mandela and spent some time in Africa in a village picking up bits and pieces of the language. Her blog has a video of her singing along and thanking her hosts for the porridge in their native tongue, much to the delight of the children. And then she taught them to sing "All You Need Is Love."

Despite the genre party-poopers trying to rain on her parade, Chorney has weathered tougher times to be sure, where things looked bleak, indeed, for her music career.

"I never wanted to stop singing, but I definitely ... I stopped hoping. The hope of reaching my goals to get discovered or get the recognition on a larger level -- I kind of gave up on that, and it hurt. So to have gone from kind of giving up and just thinking its never going to happen for me to getting nominated in the same year was a huge thrill. I've always had faith in my music, but not in the music business."

But it seems it's those few critics who are really stirring the pot that seem to keep getting heard again and again as they campaign so fiercely against Chorney. While her skin may be a bit thickened by her years in the music business, many fans weren't so unaffected by the personal attacks. That was bothersome.

"I received so many letters saying, 'This story is so inspiring, it gives me so much hope that I can, at my age, still strive for what I want,' and it was so touching for me to receive that. But then again, I received a few calls after the smear campaign came out from people who were actually crying and saying, 'This is so unfair, this is such a happy story -- why are they doing this?' and it breaks my heart for them."

And when all is said and done, regardless of whether you like her music or not, there's no denying her late success is an inspiration to us all, not just women or "women of a certain age." And a lesson that it is never too late, even if you may hit some roadblocks and traffic jams along the way that slow you down. But even those setbacks are all about how you see them -- as delays or as taking the slow route and enjoying the journey.

Or as Chorney says, "I took the scenic route to the Grammys." Indeed.