Jack Ingram
Winner for: Country
He could have been a contender and still is, go figure; how didSony miss with Jack Ingram, anyway? Maybe at that label, you have to sue to be saved, especially on the country side of life. Consider: He's the literate songwriter with movie-star good looks, a city boy who crossed over to the country crowd long before it found its longneck saviors at the bottom of a cracker barrel, but he's so barely on Sony these days you're closer to being signed if you belong to the Columbia House Music Club. (The label released his new EP Extra Volts, and by released I mean they gave him copies to send out to press and sell at shows.) No mystery why the label treats Ingram like a rumor: He's a tough sell, because unlike his frat-house-dance-hall peers, Ingram believes you gotta work for the good time, that the party at the end of the week has to mean something other than the hangover forthcoming.

His body of work, which creases with a few extra wrinkles of wisdom with each release, suggests a man who believes in consequence and responsibility, guilt and accountability--and faded love mixed within, if there's room enough and time enough between the wonderin' and the worryin'. In Nashville they're writing star-spangled anthems, hackneyed hymns to spur radio play and album sales (If you don't buy Darryl Worley's new CD, you must hate America); in North Dallas, Ingram's writing about "Red, White and Blues" and feeling bad about feeling bad about not paying his dues. It's not quite his anti-pro-war song--such a thing's never before existed--but comes damned close; such are his talents he can make you think before you take that drink, which is pretty much the last thing the country audience wants (the thinkin' part, not the drinkin' thing). Then, Ingram's about this closeto country these days and further distancing himself quite valiantly; if last year's Electricwas a tenuous jump into the deep end, Extra Voltsis where he goes under and holds his breath till his lungs start to burn. Next year he wins singer, songwriter and musician of the year; if he doesn't, then you must not love America. --Robert Wilonsky

South FM
Winner for: Rock/Pop
In the beginning, I completely dismissed South FM, stiff-arming them with a few one-liners and high-stepping away. I heard the malady instead of the melody, thought they were just another lowest-common-denominator band playing to the lowest-common-denominator crowd at, say, Curtain Club. I missed the point, heard but didn't listen, shot first and never got around to asking questions. But I was the only one: On the strength of their debut (think: Deftones making a straight-up pop-rock record), South FM (singer Paco Estrada, guitarists G.I. Sanders and Chad Abbott, bassist Doug McGrath and new drummer John Humphrey) has gone from bottom-of-the-bill to king-of-the-hill, from battle-of-the-bands busts to a deal with MCA Records.

In the process, they proved themselves to be, arguably, Dallas' most radio-ready band. Which isn't the slur it once was, not if you've heard "Dear Claudia" (a narrow second for Best Song) and "My Sanity," songs with choruses that burn themselves onto your internal CD-R on first listen, intense and tender at the same time, like a rabid dog with a thorn in its paw. For the re-release of Drama Kids, which hits stores May 20, MCA enlisted high-profile producers Chris Lord-Alge (Green Day, Bad Religion) and Tim Palmer (U2, Pearl Jam) to remix those tracks (along with "Seven," another standout). By summer, they should be on the radio more than station IDs. And I'll pay attention this time. --Z.C.

Erykah Badu
Winner for: Funk/R&B
There are several ways to explain why you voted Erykah Badu best Funk/R&B act for the third year in a row. The first, of course, is the enduring quality of her two studio albums, 1997's Baduizm and 2000's Mama's Gun, both of which time has only given the opportunity to unfurl at a pace suited to Badu's brain-melting voice and her sassy/sweet songwriting. Even "On & On," the big MTV hit that first brought the 32-year-old Dallas native national attention, sounds fresher today than a lot of the C-grade filler the neo-soul scene's produced in earnest since.

Then there's her famously incendiary live show, captured on '97's Live, where she refers to herself in the third person, says she's an artist and is therefore "sensitive about my shit" and tells a no-good suitor to get his own damn cell phone. And her collaborative work demands its own visit to the virtual ballot box: "Love of My Life," the self-styled "ode to hip-hop" she and boyfriend Common had featured on last year's Brown Sugar soundtrack, flowed some heavy allegorical nostalgia over a tasty flute loop; before that, Badu donated crucial juice to "Humble Mumble," one of the weirder numbers on Stankonia, the breakthrough by her ex-boyfriend Andre Benjamin's group OutKast.

All that aside, though, anyone who saw Badu present a Grammy a couple of months ago--complete with killer hairdo, rabid eyes, dead prez T-shirt and TelePrompTer backtalk--knows the real reason you've deemed her worthy of this here prize: You were scared to death not to vote for her. Afraid she'd pillage the Observer's offices and find your name included in a file of dissenters'. Afraid she'd take that information to the public library, find your address, come to your house and hurt you. The woman remains a force to be reckoned with. --M.W.

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