Grammy Winners: Sturr, Venegas

Grammy AwardAnother year, another “Best Polka Album” award for Jimmy Sturr, who won his 16th Grammy at tonight’s Grammy Awards. Mexican singer/accordionist Julieta Venegas took home “Best Latin Album” for Limon y Sal.

Other accordion-toting artists claiming Grammys tonight include the Klezmatics (“Best Contemporary World Music Album”), Los Tigres del Norte (“Best Norteño Album”), Chente Barrera y Taconazo (“Best Tejano Album”), and Bruce Springsteen (“Best Traditional Folk Album” for We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, which featured Charles Giordano on accordion). Check the full list of winners and let us know if we missed anyone.

Polka Grammy Preview: Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones

Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones: Batteries Not IncludedToday, we wrap up our look at the “Best Polka Album” nominees with another Chicago polka legend, Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones. We profiled the Blazonczyks last month, discussing the challenges that Eddie Jr. has faced since taking the reigns from his father.

Despite those challenges, the Versatones have remained one polka’s top bands. Formed in 1963 by Eddie Sr., the six-piece Versatones helped modernize polka by incorporating rock, country/western, Cajun, and Tex-Mex influences. Now with “Junior” handling the vocals and playing concertina, the band continues to promote polka through a rigorous schedule of touring and recording.

Batteries Not Included is the 18th Grammy-nominated album for Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones; they won once, back in 1987, but shared that award with (guess who?) Jimmy Sturr. If you enjoy uptempo, Chicago-style polka, this album won’t disappoint. Even traditional waltzes like “Chlopak” and “In the Oak Grove” are played at a pretty fast clip. And goofy numbers like “The Wife You Save” and “My Misery” show off Blazonczyk’s sense of humor.

Polka Grammy Preview: Jimmy Sturr

Jimmy Sturr and His Orchestra: Polka in ParadiseYou can’t talk about polka and the Grammys without mentioning Jimmy Sturr. Since the Grammy for “Best Polka Album” was first awarded in 1986, Sturr has won an astounding 15 out of the 20 awards given. While this has engendered jealousy among a few in the polka community, Sturr had no apologies during our exclusive interview back in October:

“I know there are people who are always knocking me; for instance, I read in the paper the other day where someone said ‘Jimmy Sturr should step down.’ (laughs) I will when the New York Yankees do.”

There’s no argument, though, when it comes to his work as a polka promoter; few have tried harder to bring polka to a wider audience than Jimmy Sturr. He has recorded over 100 albums, plays over 150 dates a year (including non-polka venues like Farm-Aid and the Grand Ole Opry), and has a regular show on RFD-TV. In addition to his own excellent band, he has recruited an impressive list of guest artists to record with him. Names like Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss, the Oak Ridge Boys, Arlo Guthrie, and many more.

After a pair of rock-oriented polka albums (Rock ‘n’ Polka and Shake, Rattle, and Polka), Jimmy Sturr and His Orchestra get back to basics with Polka in Paradise. And, as usual, Sturr brings some guests along for the ride: the “Polish Prince”, Bobby Vinton, guests on the title track and The Jordanaires contribute vocal harmonies throughout.

In a big band like Sturr’s, the accordion can sometimes get lost in the shuffle. That’s not the case, though, on this Polka in Paradise track featuring dueling accordion solos by Steve Swiader and Al Piatkowski:

What Good Is a Grammy?

As our “Polka Grammy Preview Week” winds down, it’s worth asking: how important are the Grammys? What doors can a Grammy nomination (or win) open for an artist? Today’s issue of the The Tennessean poses that very question to some Grammy nominees, including polka nominee LynnMarie:

“I don’t even know where to begin. Because we don’t have radio, a Grammy win takes us to that next level of recognition. It opens up PR opportunities we wouldn’t otherwise get. I saw the jump when we were first nominated (in 2001). The phone started ringing off the hook and we were on the Tonight Show. Winning would do the same thing.”

Polka Grammy Preview: Walter Ostanek and Fred Ziwich

Walter Ostanek and Fred Ziwich: Good Friends Good MusicWhile Frankie Yankovic reigned as “America’s Polka King,” another polka monarch was flourishing north of the border. Walter Ostanek, “Canada’s Polka King,” grew up idolizing Yankovic and eventually became a close friend and frequent collaborator (for instance, Ostanek played accordion on Yankovic’s first Tonight Show appearance). A three-time Grammy winner with numerous recording, radio, and TV credits to his name, Ostanek is best known for playing Cleveland-style polka with a country/western twang.

Fred Ziwich may not be royalty, but he’s been the recipient of multiple honors from the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame, including “Musician of the Year”, “Button Box Musician of the Year”, and “Recording of the Year.” A classically trained clarinetist, Ziwich honed his accordion style in the ethnic halls and polka clubs around Cleveland. On Sunday, he could become the first Cleveland-area polka musician to win a Grammy since Yankovic himself.

The songs on Good Friends Good Music are divided between Ostanek (playing with his band) and Ziwich (playing with his “International Sound Machine”). The late Gaylord Klancnik, Joey Miskulin, and Igor Podpecan & Zlati Zvoki from Slovenia also make appearances. No matter who’s playing, though, the emphasis is on Cleveland/Slovenian-style polka music and the accordion is always front and center. Which explains why not one, but two accordion tuners (Don Krance and Jerry Balash) are credited in the liner notes!

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Polka Grammy Preview: Lenny Gomulka

Lenny Gomulka and Chicago Push: As Sweet As CandyLenny Gomulka is no stranger to the Grammys, having racked up 12 nominations (but no wins) since the award’s creation in 1986. A talented multi-instrumentalist (trumpet, clarinet, and sax), Gomulka grew up playing with the biggest names in Chicago polka: Marion Lush, Li’l Wally, and Eddie Blazonczyk.

In 1980, Gomulka left Blazonczyk’s Versatones and started his own band, Chicago Push. Their style is heavily influenced by the Polish-style polka music that Gomulka grew up with, but with modern arrangements and plenty of Gomulka-penned originals. After moving to New England in 1990, Gomulka wasted no time spreading the polka gospel there; he even wrote the official Massachusetts state polka (“Say Hello To Someone In Massachusetts”).

As Sweet as Candy is a textbook example of the “Push style”: tight horns, driving rhythms, and enough bellows shaking to make you think there’s an earthquake. The album alternates between traditional waltzes and obereks (some, like “Hop Ciuk Oberek”, are sung in Polish) and lively originals like “We’re Gonna Jam” and “She’s Got Nothin’ On You.” Nick Koryluk and Matthew Rosinski handle the concertina and accordion duties admirably.

But will it be enough to give Lenny Gomulka and Chicago Push their first Grammy? We’ll find out on Sunday.

Polka Grammy Preview: LynnMarie

Party Dress by LynnMarie and the BoxhoundsThe Grammy Awards are Sunday, so this week we’re looking at the five nominees for “Best Polka Album.”

The first (and only) woman ever to be nominated in the polka category, LynnMarie Rink grew up in a Slovenian community in Cleveland, listening to her father play accordion at the Slovenian National Home. Now based in Nashville, LynnMarie aims to bring polkas to a new generation, playing high-energy shows that fuse traditional polka with modern rock and country rhythms. And, as her album cover shows, she’s easily the sexiest nominee in this year’s field (sorry Mr. Sturr).

Party Dress is LynnMarie’s fourth Grammy-nominated album and, like her previous efforts, it mixes originals with covers ranging from “Blue Moon” to The Who’s “Squeeze Box.” The Carol Lee Singers (of Grand Ole Opry fame) lend their voices to a cover of jazz hit “Happy Feet” and Ray Benson (of Asleep at the Wheel) guests on LynnMarie’s original “Polka Till the Cows Come Home.” Inspired by her recent, highly-successful tour of Slovenia, the album also includes three tracks influenced by the current direction of polka music in Europe (think Atomik Harmonik, but without the babes in hard-hats).

Party Dress is an incredibly fun, bouncy album that’s both a little bit Nashville and a little bit Cleveland. LynnMarie’s spunky personality shines throughout, and she’s one heck of a button-box player, too. With her energy and drive, I can’t imagine a better spokeswoman for the next generation of polka.

The Shmenge Brothers’ Last Polka

John Candy and Eugene Levy as the Shmenge BrothersLet’s face it — certain aspects of polka culture are ripe for parody. And when it comes to polka parodies, nobody did it better than SCTV‘s Shmenge Brothers.

Hailing from the mythical country of Leutonia (“on the dark side of the Balkans”), Stan and Yosh Shmenge (portrayed by Eugene Levy and John Candy) came to America and conquered the polka charts before their abrupt retirement in 1984. Along with their band, the Happy Wanderers, they appeared frequently on SCTV playing everything from covers of new-wave hits to original tunes like “There’s Rhythm In My Lederhosen.”

Shmenge-mania reached its height with The Last Polka, a 1985 HBO “mockumentary” about the duo’s final concert. If you haven’t seen it, it’s basically the polka version of Spinal Tap. Unfortunately, it isn’t available on DVD, but you can now watch the whole thing on YouTube (albeit divided into seven parts). Watch the first eight minutes and sing along to the Shmenge Brothers classic, “Cabbage Rolls and Coffee”:

Smilin’ Scandinavians Polka Podcast

The tiny world of polka podcasting just got a little bit bigger. Seattle’s Smilin’ Scandinavians (profiled here previously) have launched a polka podcast, hosted by accordionist and leader Toby Hanson.

The first episode (iTunes link) features a wide variety of polka music (Slovenian, Polish, and “Dutchmen-style”), including tunes from Frankie Yankovic, Johnny Pecon & Lou Trebar, Whoopie John, and more. Toby does a great job keeping the show moving with anecdotes and insight on the music.

But… what’s a podcast? Basically, it’s a radio show that you can download and listen to whenever you want. You can subscribe to the Smilin’ Scandinavians podcast through iTunes and it will automatically download new episodes as they become available (every month, in this case). For more info, see Yahoo’s “What the heck is a podcast?”

More Chicago Bears Polkas

Vlasta’s not the only one writing polkas for the Super Bowl-bound Chicago Bears. Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones have a new single that could be the perfect soundtrack for your Super Bowl party. The featured songs are “Chicago Cares About The Bears” and “Bear Down Chicago Bears.” You can listen to sound clips at the Bel-Aire Records site.

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