For country fans — and fans of most genres, let’s be real — the annual release of the Grammy nominations is just confirmation of what you already knew. By the time these nods roll out in December, the hype over the year’s best songs, artists and videos is stale. These are the songs you were listening to 10 months ago, and they don’t even feel relevant anymore.
But there are some times when awards and the nominees for those awards have particular meaning; namely, when your genre is sitting at an important crossroads. At this point, we could have another 10 years of mediocre country until industry execs start losing money on a genre gone cold, or we could see sweeping change as up-and-coming artists who are finally getting their due start to take home trophies. For country fans, this year’s country Grammy nominees are perhaps confirmation that this genre is soon due for some serious change.
Perhaps most surprising was the nomination of Chris Stapleton’s Traveller for Album of the Year. In 2013 and 2014 combined, Taylor Swift’s Red, really a pop album, was the only nominee in that category to approach country. In fact, most of the progressive wins, like Kacey Musgraves’ for Country Song and Album in 2013, have been in country-exclusive categories. No matter how overhyped you think Chris Stapleton might be, this inclusion is indicative that the music world no longer considers country music a joke.
The nod for Stapleton is also a nod for Dave Cobb, who has produced the best country albums of the past few years. Cobb’s star is decidedly on the rise both in and out of Nashville circles, which means that artists will be lining up and down Music Row to record with him. Assuming that he decides to stay selective and continue working with great artists, perhaps there will be some acts that will, with any luck, be raised up by Cobb in the right way. Instead of adding hip-hop or EDM samples or whatever the hell Sam Hunt is doing to their tracks, they’ll be producing these strong, sonically lush records.
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The country categories are, for the most part, divided between pop-country and a more authentic, classic sound. Cam and Joey+Rory are battling head-to-head with Lee Ann Womack and Chris Stapleton, and it will be interesting to see who will prevail. If Lee Ann Womack (and songwriter Hayes Carll) don’t walk away with at least one Grammy for “Chances Are,” arguably one of the best country songs of the year, then we should all assume the whole damn deal is rigged.
Unless, of course, Little Big Town’s controversial “Girl Crush” manages to take home a trophy or two. The veteran group has not historically been one of country’s more traditional acts, but this track was incredibly impressive, capable of dragging often unwilling fans into the genre without ditching the aesthetic that differentiates “pop country” from straight-up pop music. More than that, a song that was mistaken by bigots as a pro-LGBT track winning Song of the Year would be both deserved and a beautifully ironic jab at country’s more ass-backwards fans. That’s probably not going to happen — Kendrick Lamar is nominated in the same category and will probably take home every trophy he’s nominated for this year — but Lord, would it be sweet. I guess we’ll have to settle for Country Song of the Year.
There are also some duds among this year’s list of nominees. Keith Urban’s “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” should have been taken behind the barn and shot before it was ever laid down onto wax. Sam Hunt is ... ugh, whatever. Tim McGraw’s “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools” is about as exciting as a root canal. But that these tracks are the exception rather than the rule this year — and the fact that there is not one single nomination for Luke Bryan or Jason Aldean! — is enough to make even the bitterest of country fans feel a little optimistic, even if we’re not particularly persuaded by the Grammys.