Imagine trying to reconstruct the history of the last twenty years of country music by looking at the genre’s main two Grammy awards, Best Country Album and Best Country Song. The result would be a universe where artists like Brandy Clark and Sturgill Simpson are superstars and nobody has heard of Florida Georgia Line and Kelsea Ballerini.
Obviously, this bears little resemblance to reality. In fact, the country wing of the Recording Academy has constructed a defiant alternative history of the genre. In the mind of these voters — primarily music industry professionals who pay their dues of $100/year — country still vigorously polices its sonic borders even though in reality, once-firm lines between forms have weakened and eroded. And at the same time, female voices remain a treasured part of country’s story for Grammy voters, even though they’ve become an endangered species at country radio and few have picked up traction on streaming services.
So if you look at the Best Country Album category, you’d probably be completely unaware of recent developments in country music: The drastic decrease in the distance between mainstream country and Top 40, the rise of programmed beats, new cadences of singing and vocal deliveries influenced by rap. Instead, the last four Best Country Album winners — by Kacey Musgraves, Miranda Lambert, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson respectively — skew traditional, rebuking contemporary radio country by emphasizing pedal steel guitar, live-to-tape recording techniques, weed jokes, honky tonk and country blues. Like Lambert sang on “Automatic,” from her Grammy-winning Platinum album: “In all just seems so good the way we had it / Back before everything became automatic.”
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But at least some of these acts represent new blood of sorts — during the 2000s, the Recording Academy handed the Best Country Album award to stalwarts like George Strait, Vince Gill, Alison Krauss and Loretta Lynn, pinnacles of traditionalism all multiple decades into long careers. Bafflingly, in both 2002 and 2004, the Recording Academy gave the Best Country Album award to tribute LPs — one honoring the Louvin Brothers and another for Hank Williams. This suggests a nearly fanatical devotion to the past; in those particular years, no record containing songs written after 1965 was better than historical retread.
The Grammy awards’ particular and narrow tastes ensure that country modernizers fare poorly at the ceremony. Shania Twain’s Come On Over, one of country’s most radical documents to this day, was passed over for the Dixie Chicks’ more traditional Wide Open Spaces. Garth Brooks, Gretchen Wilson, Keith Urban, Sam Hunt and Kelsea Ballerini have all looked to expand the definition of country music, none have been rewarded for it. The only true outlaw in the Grammy winners’ pool is Taylor Swift, who took home the Best Country Album award for Fearless, a record that’s perhaps as recklessly open-eared as Come On Over.
The Best Country Song category exhibits a similar bias. The winners are consistently great — Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush,” Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take The Wheel,” Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying” — which isn’t surprising, because country remains highly attuned to great songs. But in all likelihood, none of those Grammy-winners had as big an impact on country’s future as Jason Aldean’s rework of “Dirt Road Anthem,” Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” or Maddie & Tae’s “Girl In A Country Song,” which emphatically shattered old notions about what country should sound like and the acceptable roles for country singers. All were big hits; none were nominated for Best Country Song. (Twain did manage to pull out some wins in this category in the late ’90s.)
This year the Grammys were praised for finally demonstrating a working knowledge of contemporary trends in pop music. This supposed awareness didn’t extend to country music, though — most of the album nominees are old standbys (Little Big Town, Lady Antebellum, Kenny Chesney) or previous winners who fetishize historical accuracy (Chris Stapleton). The Best Country Song nominees suggest a similar bias. Midland’s “Drinkin’ Problem” could have come out in 1982; Stapleton’s “Broken Halos” sounds like a lost Bob Seger cut from the 1970s. Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Back Road” was nominated, and tellingly, it’s one of his most conventional songs in terms of instrumentation and vocal delivery.
So the country-oriented segment of Grammy voters live to some degree in a fantasy world. That’s no surprise, of course: No one has ever accused the Grammys of being a forward-thinking or progressive organization. Like most long-running institutions, the Recording Academy is highly risk averse and thoroughly stuck in its ways.
But what is notable about the Grammy fantasy in country music is that it’s an inclusive one. Though much has been written about how female country singers have been systematically shut out at radio and record labels for years, the Grammy voters ignore this development just like they ignore the rise of programmed beats and country rappers. Since 1995, when the Best Country Album award category was reinstated, 14 winners have been either solo female acts or groups like Lady Antebellum that have a strong female vocal presence. Throwing out the years when “Various Artists” tribute albums won, that means women account for two-thirds of the Best Country Album winners. This makes country one of the most progressive categories in terms of gender parity at the Grammys, more in line with the R&B and pop fields, which are consistently willing to recognize and reward female artistic accomplishments, than rock and hip-hop, which remain dominated by men year after year after year.
The Best Country Song category, which goes to the writers of the winning single, is similarly open-minded. Even though Nashville writing rooms are male-dominant, this award has been entirely won by women five times since 2000 (twice by Swift), and four other years the group of winning songsmiths was mixed gender. It’s also notable that writers of any genre are more likely to win if they are working on a song for a female. Since 2000, nine Best Country Songs were performed by women, and three were performed by groups that rely heavily on female voices. There are fewer female country singers around to write material for then there were 15 years ago, but if you’re a male writer gunning for a Grammy, you’re better off pitching your best material to female acts.
So the Grammy awards’ country fantasy is in fact both aesthetic and moral advocacy. The problem, however, is that the second part of the academy’s stance is undermined by the first. That’s because the traditional wing of country music is not any kinder to women than the mainstream, at least when it comes to building sustainable careers.
Look at the numbers: Midland can put out a vintage-sounding song like “Drinking Problem” and get a top five at radio; Kacey Musgraves couldn’t get past No. 10 with her most successful throwback number. Sturgill Simpson has sold more than 200,000 copies apiece of his last two albums, one of which was released by an indie label; women who get the same sort of media coverage as Simpson — acts like Brandy Clark, Angaleena Presley, Sunny Sweeney, Nikki Lane or Ashley Monroe — don’t come close to his sales numbers. Even Margo Price, the most ballyhooed of the anti-mainstream-Nashville female artists, managed to sell just 52,000 copies of Midwest Farmer’s Daughter and far less to date of her follow-up, All-American Made. If Chris Stapleton were a woman, his sales explosion — over two million copies sold of his debut album — simply would not have happened.
The young female artists who fare best in the contemporary country climate are those who are most familiar with the sound of modern country. These acts have managed to score shrewd hits even in the brutal radio climate and then sold albums — Maddie & Tae sold over 100,000 copies of Start Here (with airwave support, the duo managed to roughly match Jason Isbell numbers), Maren Morris shipped over 250,000 units of Hero (the same sales ballpark as Simpson) and Kelsea Ballerini sold more than 300,000 copies of The First Time (close to some of her mainstream male counterparts like Brett Eldredge and Cole Swindell). It’s no coincidence that these artists often have strong ideas about where country should go next, and they know that another neo-traditional resurgence probably won’t do them much good.
So for Grammy voters who wish to influence the country landscape, don’t try to return the genre to 1993 or 1983 or 1973. Instead, imagine a different future — one that’s more inclusive of different kinds of sounds and different types of artists.