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When Jeffrey Tribble Jr. found out that the Washington Area Music Association was closing, his first thought was, “What about the Wammie Awards?”
Since 1985, the Washington Area Music Association—WAMA, to the music community—has recognized and honored D.C.-area musicians with its own Grammys-like awards ceremony, the Wammies. But in July of 2018, plagued by financial woes and a declining membership, WAMA officially shuttered—and along with it, a decades-old tradition whose reputation among the region’s music community can be described as either essential or embarrassingly out of touch, depending on who you ask.
But Tribble Jr., who co-founded and serves as the CEO of the music education nonprofit The MusicianShip, was determined to keep the Wammies alive. So, after a near-death experience when WAMA dissolved, the long-running regional music awards are back, with a fresh mission, lofty goals, and a plan to make a once-faded awards show relevant again. But why?
“There’s amazing talent here. There are people who work diligently with a lot of fervor and a lot of zeal to make sure that they produce great art that not only contributes to the D.C. music fabric, but nationally and internationally a lot of D.C.-area artists are getting signed to major labels,” Tribble Jr. tells City Paper. “And that’s something that we should celebrate.”
This weekend, the new and improved Wammies—now under The MusicianShip’s control—will honor D.C.’s music community with a series of events. Scheduled programming includes an all-day music conference focused on music education and networking at Dupont Circle’s Decades nightclub, and the titular awards show, taking place on Sunday at the Lincoln Theatre.
Founded in 1984 by John Simson, Michael Jaworek, Mike Schreibman, Tom Carrico, and Charles Stephenson, WAMA formed as a way to connect the region’s disparate but thriving music scenes. In the early ’80s, the D.C. area was known for its deep pocket of go-go and hardcore punk bands and artists, but its lesser-known folk, bluegrass, R&B, gospel, and jazz scenes thrived as well.
Simson and his co-founders first got involved in the music scene when they put together charity concerts and held music seminars, and that led to the idea of forming a regional music association. “Back in the early ’80s, there were several conversations around the D.C. music scene. And we sort of felt like there was a real need for [WAMA],” Simson says.
In 1984, WAMA officially formed as a membership-driven music nonprofit, with Simson running it for the first five years of its existence. The first Wammies were held in 1985 at GWU’s Lisner Auditorium. Both Joan Jett and country singer-cum-breakfast sausage mogul Jimmy Dean attended that first ceremony, and awards were presented to Chuck Brown, The Nighthawks, Trouble Funk, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Root Boy Slim, The Slickee Boys, and Emmylou Harris, among other local legends. The following year, the Wammies were held at the Kennedy Center. “I still don’t know how we managed that,” Simson recalls. “[We] had some pretty remarkable beginnings.”
Simson stepped down from running WAMA in 1990, and Schreibman assumed the leadership role, acting as president until the association dissolved in 2018. The “remarkable beginnings” Simson recalls didn’t last. Over the years, WAMA and the Wammies received its fair share of criticism and backlash from both the music community and music press—including in this publication—in the late ’90s and early aughts.
In 1998, City Paper contributor Steve Kiviat outlined WAMA’s “image” problems among the greater D.C.-area music community, noting that the organization’s critics “contend that WAMA seems less interested lately in helping lesser-known musicians make it than in stroking those who have already made it, such as Mary Chapin Carpenter.” (Simson, it should be noted, was Carpenter’s manager for the first 10 years of her career, he tells City Paper).
And in later years, critics knocked WAMA’s sometimes dubious nomination process for the Wammies, which often overlooked some of the area’s more innovative and critically acclaimed musicians and artists. As a dues-paying membership organization, WAMA let its members determine Wammie nominees. If you weren’t happy with who was, or wasn’t, nominated for a Wammie, you could pay $30, become a member, and then your voice could be heard.
Of course, this process didn’t always go over so well for the Wammies. In 1998, D.C.-area singer and repeat Wammie winner Tony Gil admitted to gaming the WAMA system by harassing friends and acquaintances to join WAMA so they could nominate and vote for him. Gil wasn’t the only artist to do this, and in 2005, WAMA eventually enacted an “emeritus” status for repeat winners who had similarly gamed its system.
In 2014, WAMA had to redo its voting process after many votes were disqualified because only one artist, group, or recording was entered into a single category. It turned out a lot of WAMA members were just nominating and voting for themselves. And in 2016, the 30th annual Wammie Awards were ultimately postponed due to a “computer crash.” They fixed the problem, and the last Wammie awards were held on April 10, 2016 at The State Theatre in Falls Church.
To say the least, the Wammies have a tumultuous history. And that history isn’t lost on Tribble Jr.
“We were very well aware,” he says of the Wammies’ history. “The first thing that you see when you Google the Wammies, you just see some of the reviews, most of which aren’t super, super positive. And so we used that as a baseline for making critical—and tough—changes.”
For starters, The MusicianShip isn’t a membership organization, and the nomination and voting process for the Wammies is far different than what WAMA did. “The membership was kind of homogenous,” Tribble Jr. says. “It was older and kind of all white. Not 100 percent white, but … it lacked diversity in terms of decision makers, the people who were winning awards … Not a lot of people who were younger, or minorities, knew what the Wammie Awards are.”
Instead of a membership-driven model, anyone can submit nominations for every category. The seven artists and bands with the most nominations become finalists, and a panel of more than 60 judges—comprised of local musicians, music journalists, radio hosts, DJs, and regional music industry insiders—decide the winners. The MusicianShip even created a rubric with a cohesive set of guidelines to help the judges decide on the winners .
“With this iteration, we tried to be more inclusive,” says Stacey Williams, a longtime WAMA board member who advised The MusicianShip in taking over the Wammies. “We’ve learned that we need to keep in step with the times. More things are digital, more things are online and keeping up with a faster pace.”
Simson, who served on the board of The MusicianShip and made the initial connection to transfer the Wammies over to them, is excited that the tradition he started all those years ago is going to live on with a new generation of D.C.-area music lovers.
“I’m just excited that it’s going to continue, we were all really disappointed when we thought it was going to die a quiet death,” he says.
For Tribble Jr., though, inheriting the Wammies isn’t just keeping a tradition alive—it’s celebrating and honoring the hard work that people in D.C.’s bustling music community put in. “They need to be acknowledged,” he says. “And I think the whole concept of being able to uplift and to provide a higher profile for these talented musicians and artists who are doing this good work is just critically important.”
More information about this weekend’s Wammie awards is available here.