When it comes to country music, no other genre celebrates itself as grandiosely and as often. Few genres have one nationally televised award ceremony exclusively for itself, much less two.
So between the CMA Awards and the ACM Awards, country music does its fair share of patting itself on the back. But how does country music fare when it goes up against every other genre at the Grammy Awards?
When it comes to honoring more critically acclaimed country music, the Grammys do a much better job than the CMAs or ACMs. That’s why you see artists like Ashley Monroe, Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves get plenty of Grammy love in the country categories.
Plus, having separate categories for American roots music means Kris Kristofferson and Sarah Jarosz don’t compete with Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood. Despite criticisms from the past, the Grammys by and large do a better job of being inclusive in country music than the CMAs or ACMs.
But when it comes to cross-genre competition, it’s a different story.
There are only four main categories in which artists compete across genres. Those are Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best New Artist. Song of the Year goes to the writer. Record of the Year goes to the artist, producer, engineer etc.
Now, genres compete against each other in categories like music video, music documentary and producer of the year as well. But most of those aren’t televised (it changes yearly) and don’t necessarily directly relate to genres.
So let’s look at how the Grammys award country music in the main four genres since their inception in 1959. Keep in mind, the music landscape changed a lot over the years. Most of the early award ceremonies involved Frank Sinatra beating a group of classical compositions.
That’s kind of why the whole “it’s an honor just to be nominated” thing really does apply. Many years, it’s a crap shoot as to who wins. Few albums are such obvious slam dunks that there’s no question (Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Toto’s Toto IV come to mind).
You can pretty much separate the Grammy Awards into two periods: classic (1959-1998) and modern (1999-present). Not surprisingly, the modern iteration of the Grammys has been much kinder to country music.
Album of the Year
The first country artist to win Album of the Year was Glen Campbell in 1969. The next “true” country artist to win didn’t come until 2007, when the Dixie Chicks won. But quite a few country-esque records won in between. Bonnie Raitt in 1990, Bob Dylan in 1998, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack in 2002.
And of course, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss won in a shocker in 2009, followed by still-country Taylor Swift in 2010. Folk pop heroes Mumford & Sons also won in 2013. But if we’re considering strictly country artists, the numbers seem fairly low: three.
In recent history, country has been represented pretty well when considering the nominees. Since 1999, the Album of the Year nominees included a country artist eleven separate times.
Song of the Year
Country fares about the same in the Song of the Year category. Willie Nelson’s performance of “Always On My Mind” won in 1983, though the songwriters aren’t really country writers.
Other than that, it’s been slim pickins. The Dixie Chicks won for “Not Ready To Make Nice” in 2007, then Lady Antebellum won for “Need You Now” in 2011. Both of those are notable because the members of those bands all had co-writing credits on both hits. And 2007 and 2011 present two of the few years in recent memory with two country songs — “The House That Built Me” also snagged a nomination in 2011, while “Jesus Take The Wheel” was nominated in 2007.
“Girl Crush” was a strong contender last year but ultimately lost out to Ed Sheeran’s monster hit “Thinking Out Loud.” Since 1999, at least one country song appeared in the Song of the Year category 10 times (comprising 13 songs).
Record of the Year
Record of the Year has not been kind to country artists. In fact, only two country artists really ever won the award (three if you count Robert Plant and Alison Krauss). The Dixie Chicks won in their monster 2007 year and Lady Antebellum won in 2011.
Only five times (if we include Krauss) has the Record of the Year category included a country artist since 1999. That may be, perhaps, because this category generally tends to involve the most ubiquitous tunes.
In other words, songs you hear in movies, commercials and several different radio formats, where country tracks are less likely to be found.
Best New Artist
Country music saw its first Best New Artist success in 1968 when Bobbie Gentry won. But the genre didn’t see another “true” country victory until LeAnn Rimes received the award in 1997 at the age of 14.
The only other country artists to win Best New Artist since are Carrie Underwood (2007) and Zac Brown Band (2010). But the genre represents very well in the nominees. In fact, the category has included a country artist 14 times since 1999. This year marks the first time two country acts are nominated in the category — Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini.
Much of the country representation in the category has been diverse, too. From pop country hitmakers to critical darlings like Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves, the Best New Artist category has captured the mood of country music pretty well.
A country artist has been nominated every year since 2012, as well as every Grammy ceremony from 2005 to 2010.
So What Have We Learned?
As country music’s popularity increases in America, so too does its presence at the Grammy Awards. There’s a notable uptick in country from 1999 onward, and when you wrap in other folk and roots artists, the whole team does pretty well.
And though pop is ubiquitous, you’d have to give it the same treatment. Because fun. and Adele, though both “pop,” do not necessarily capture the same audience, the same way Rihanna and Sheryl Crow don’t. The truth is no one genre really runs away with any category.
You could argue the CMAs came about in 1967 because country felt slighted by the Grammys. But they actually came a year after the ACM Awards. Even though, ironically, the Academy of Country Music (based in California) came about in 1964 because West Coast country felt left out of the Country Music Association (based in Tennessee and formed in 1958).
Either way, there’s something particularly special about winning a Grammy. Maybe it’s because the talent pool is bigger, or because the voters come from more than just country backgrounds.
Either way, we’ll be rooting hard for country this year, including Sturgill Simpson in the Album of the Year category and Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini in the Best New Artist category.