Article - #1 By Kathy Flanigan of the Journal Sentinel (06, 2009)
Polka fans are used to being mocked and maligned, but now things have gone too far.
The Recording Academy, which doles out the annual Grammy Awards, has announced it's
eliminating the polka category after 24 years. And this, during National Accordion
Awareness Month. In a statement to The New York Times, the academy said the decision
was made "to ensure the awards process remains representative of the current musical
landscape." Translation: No one listens to polka, and you're not relevant.
In Milwaukee, home to many polka potentates, the news took the oomph out of their
"It's a disappointment," said Steve Meisner, 48, who grew up playing with polka bands,
including the one led by his late father, Verne Meisner. "I was a little upset with
the way the they worded it. It made it sound like it wasn't considered roots music,
and it wasn't considered mainstream music. In their assessment, it didn't deserve
a place in American music." Polka, the music that powers Wisconsin's official state
dance, was the only genre yanked from the Grammy's unwieldy list of 110 categories.
One other category, Latin urban album, was combined with best Latin rock or alternative
album into best Latin rock, alternative or urban album. "I think it's a step back
again," said Jim Kilian, who'll perform with his band Honky Chicago during Polish
Fest, June 19-21. "They fought so hard 25 years ago to get it as a category for the
Grammys," he said. "Now it's really going to lose exposure." If the Recording Academy
thinks polka is too dull for the Grammy Awards, well, they're wrong. Behind the scenes,
polka has as much jockeying for position and competitiveness as an episode of "Gossip
Girl." One theory among many comes from Jimmy Sturr, Grammy's undisputed polka favorite.
Sturr is credited for bringing polka to the masses with a Polish style of music heavy
on trumpets, and says Dick Blaha, "Milwaukee's Polka Ambassador," for wowing the
crowds with "his fancy clothes." Sturr's 18 Grammys put him one shy of the number
won by Bruce Springsteen, a much bigger name. The New York polka king thinks one
reason the Recording Academy dropped his category is because they don't want him
to squeeze past the Boss. "They didn't want the polka to be the leading winner in
the Grammy Awards," Sturr said by phone from his home. "I don't know. Who knows?"
He said he was disappointed but had come to terms with the news. "I'm not upset.
I'm a little bit sad," said Sturr, who'll perform at Polish Fest. "I wish we still
had our category. I don't think they realize how big polka music really is." In fact,
the original polka king, Frankie Yankovic, "did not realize the magnitude of the
award or the ceremony until we were there," said Jeff Winard of Milwaukee, who played
with Yankovic and sat next to him in 1986 when he received the first Grammy for polka
music. But Winard isn't surprised that polka has had its last waltz with Grammy.
"When you look at polka music compared to anything, it's very minor," said Winard.
"Do they have a category for klezmer music next? How far do you take it?" The Grammy
snub is enough for Meisner to give up his membership with the Recording Academy:
"There's no reason for me to stay a member." However, younger polka players such
as Mike Schneider, 29, are staying strong even as their hopes of winning a polka
Grammy are dashed. "It gave polka a spotlight, and now it's one we don't have anymore,"
Schneider said. Schneider said he isn't devastated by the news - but then, he's already
working on a way to snag new listeners and a Grammy. Schneider, who recorded "Pint
Size Polkas," a CD for kids, is eyeballing the children's category.