Ace of Cups: Could a 50-Year-Old Band Get a Best New Artist Grammy Nom?

Rachael Wright 
Ace of Cups

Check out the animated "Life In Your Hands" video ft. Taj Mahal.

This Grammy season, Recording Academy voters have a strange opportunity -- they can nominate a band that's been around more than 50 years as the best new artist at the 2020 ceremony.

No, this isn't a situation akin to Bon Iver, who nabbed the honor in 2012 despite wide-releasing its debut in 2008 -- or Shelby Lynne, who won in 2001 after releasing her sixth album (rules have since tightened in that regard). The Ace of Cups' celebrated self-titled debut came out in Nov. 2018, making them reasonable candidates for the honor… even though they formed in the late '60s. Back then, the all-female, genre-melding rockers shared the stage with Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, but never got the label deal offers their (mostly male) peers did. They called it quits in '72 but stayed in touch and played together over the years; thanks to an opportunity from High Moon Records, they finally released a proper debut five decades after forming in the fertile Bay Area scene.

"It would be such an honor," says the band's Denise Kaufman with a laugh from her Kauai farm of the prospect of a best new artist Grammy nod. "It would speak to age not being a limit."

It's not often a group manages to serve as pioneers in two separate realms, but then again, the Ace of Cups are hardly typical. In the late '60s, they were one of the few all-female rock bands in a scene that prided itself on being progressive, even if gender representation told a different story. And now, in the 21st century, they're pushing things forward for another demographic subjected to society's limited expectations.

"We're dealing with ageism now, and back then we dealt with sexism as a group of all women," Kaufman says, sharing an illustrative recent example of the former: While waiting in line at the airport with her guitar case, a man inquired about her travel plans. "I say, 'oh, I'm playing a gig with my band,' and he looks at me like, 'Is she crazy? Is this grey-haired lady crazy?'"

Even if some are taken aback, audiences are inspired. "People come up to us and say, 'I'm in my forties, and I always thought it was too late to learn drums. But after seeing you, now I think have another good 30-40 years left in me.'"

And while it's certainly not unheard of for a group of AARP-eligible men to hit the stage, it's a lot less likely to see a group of women do the same. Just by existing, the Ace of Cups are moving things forward for gender and age equality – and a Grammy nomination celebrating their long-overdue debut would be a nice signal to the world that there's not an age limit on following your dreams.

While Kaufman points out "we always had gigs" back in the day, the record deals didn't follow suit. Part of that, she opines, was due to their unusual band blueprint. "We were all lead singers, and we did different styles of music because we were all writers, and everyone had different musical influences. We weren't the kind of band that had one or two people in front and everybody else backing," she says. "We were all women, what we were singing about was different, and also we didn't fit into the image of what the record labels were looking for."

When asked if she's grateful the band's proper debut came out in the late '10s vs. the late '60s, Kaufman admits, "I kind of am."

"We didn't have to deal with… a lot of those bands were pushed in certain directions," she says, delicately tipping to the fact that many early female rockers were presented through a lens that catered to the male gaze. "Maybe they enjoyed it, maybe they didn't," she says. "But I'm glad we didn't have to deal with it."

Now, the Cups are able to make their music on their own terms – and with the imagery of their choosing – thanks to freedom afforded them by label High Moon Records. The video for "Life In Your Hands" – a song from their debut featuring longtime friend of the band Taj Mahal – comes from filmmaker/animator Jeff Scher, who rendered images of the band, their kids and even their grandkids for the touching video. Check out the premiere above.

Funnily enough, if the Ace of Cups do score a nomination for next year's Grammys, best new artist or otherwise, they'll actually have caught up to their old pal Hendrix – he only received one nomination (for best contemporary instrumental performance for "The Star-Spangled Banner") at the 1970 Grammys. And even that was posthumous – as was his 1992 lifetime achievement award. But for the 2020 Grammys, voters have a chance to give love to some long-running pioneers while they're still rocking amongst us.

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