It’s awards season, and that means the 58th Grammy Awards are almost upon us.
Unquestionably the most recognizable award for music, the Grammy’s are peer-voted, meaning when somebody like Esperanza Spalding beats Justin Bieber for Best New Artist, you’ve got musicians to thank.
I’ve been honored to vote in the Grammy’s for years now, and it’s something I take very seriously. Sure, some fans and artists love to dig on the Grammy’s (or awards in general), and that’s completely understandable. The idea that anyone can qualitatively decide that a great country album (Chris Stapleton‘s Traveller) is better than a great pop album (Taylor Swift’s 1989) or a great rap album (Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly) is a little insane — not to mention the other 82 categories.
Consider this: every single album released in the qualifying time period (usually a calendar year from September to September) is eligible to be nominated, and five albums will be up for album of the year. Given that an average 80,000 albums are released every year, that’s .006% of albums that get nominated.
The Oscars, on the other hand, had 305 eligible feature films in 2015 and can nominate up to 10 for best feature. That’s a 3.5% chance. So truly, it’s an honor to be nominated for a Grammy, and actually picking winners is tough.
But still, we try.
Voters get to vote in the big 4 categories (Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Best New Artist) and 20 others of their choice. They have complete access to all of the nominated works to stream online, so when it came time to vote I listened to every work all the way through and did the research to be as informed as I could.
Thankfully, the Grammy’s tend to do a much better job of picking country artists who are more encompassing of country’s diverse sound, so it’s enjoyable to listen to everything. Grammy voters tend to embrace all facets of country, not simply what’s doing best on the radio.
For instance: between them, Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line have 19 CMA Award nominations and 6 wins — and 0 Grammy nominations. (Full disclosure, I’m also a member of the Country Music Association, the folks who vote on the CMA Awards).
I voted primarily in the categories that have to do with country, Americana, rock and film (and every now and then, rap), because those are my specialties. For this list, I’m only including categories where a country-related artist could win. So keeping that in mind, here are my best guesses for which country artists will win big on “music’s biggest night.”
Country Solo Performance
Awarded specifically for the performance of the song.
Nominees: “Burning House” (Cam), “Traveller” (Chris Stapleton), “Little Toy Guns” (Carrie Underwood), “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” (Keith Urban), “Chances Are” (Lee Ann Womack)
Who I Voted For: “Burning House.” Cam is one of the better new vocalists to emerge, with a song steeped in metaphor and melody.
Who I Think Will Win: “Traveller.” It’s refreshing to hear a gravelly, southern rock vocal on a song that isn’t Bro Country. And chances are, more folks have paid more attention to Stapleton than Cam.
Country Duo/Group Performance
Nominees: “Stay A Little Longer” (Brothers Osborne), “If I Needed You” (Joey+Rory), “The Driver” (Charles Kelley, Dierks Bentley & Eric Paslay), “Girl Crush” (Little Big Town), “Lonely Tonight” (Blake Shelton feat. Ashley Monroe)
Who I Voted For: “Stay A Little Longer.” A great tune with a new take on a familiar theme (and a ripping solo). I’m a fan of the underdog, and I prefer to vote for actual duos/groups in this category instead of solo acts featuring other singers. Plus it’s their only nomination and I had to show the love.
Who I Think Will Win: As much as Joey+Rory would be an awesome story, this should probably go to “Girl Crush.”
Awarded to the songwriters. In parentheses is the artist that made the song famous, not who wrote it. Really tough category.
Nominees: “Chances Are” (Lee Ann Womack), “Diamond Rings And Old Bar Stools” (Tim McGraw), “Girl Crush” (Little Big Town), “Hold My Hand” (Brandy Clark), “Traveller” (Chris Stapleton)
Who I Voted For: “Girl Crush.” Killed me not to vote for Brandy Clark here, but “Girl Crush” is just such a phenomenally written tune. The simplicity hides the genius, which makes it even more amazing.
Who I Think Will Win: “Girl Crush.” This song will CRUSH it at the Grammy’s (get it?).
American Roots Song
An interesting but tough category — one that usually hosts some great country tunes as well.
Nominees: “All Night Long” (The Mavericks), “The Cost Of Living” (Don Henley & Merle Haggard), “Julep” (Punch Brothers), “The Traveling Kind” (Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell), “24 Frames” (Jason Isbell)
Who I Voted For: “24 Frames.” This song slays me. That chorus is perfection. But “The Traveling Kind” almost won me over. Still, Jason Isbell has a lot going for him on this tune.
Who I Think Will Win: “The Cost Of Living.” It’s hard to deny two legends, and I would be 100% ok with that win, because Don is one of my songwriting heroes and Merle adds a beautiful touch.
Nominees: The Firewatcher’s Daughter (Brandi Carlile), The Traveling Kind (Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell), Something More Than Free (Jason Isbell), Mono (The Mavericks), The Phosphorescent Blues (Punch Brothers)
Who I Voted For: Something More Than Free. A huge success, a critical darling and a killer album. “Flagship” is the best love song I’ve heard in a very long time. But The Firewatcher’s Daughter is also a career-making album and one I was very happy to see on the list.
Who I Think Will Win: Something More Than Free
The hardest category for me, personally. It was pretty much a toss-up between four of these.
Nominees: Montevallo (Sam Hunt), Pain Killer (Little Big Town), The Blade (Ashley Monroe), Pageant Material (Kacey Musgraves), Traveller (Chris Stapleton)
Who I Voted For: Pain Killer. In the end, I like albums that take risks. The Blade and Traveller were both fantastic records (I wish Stapleton’s song “Fire Away” was nominated), but after a while it feels like you’re listening to one long, albeit good, song. Pageant Material does a great job of lyrical and musical nuance, but ultimately it feels like Little Big Town just utilized what they had best (4 great voices and a huge catalog of diverse songs to pick from). The whole album keeps you on your toes in a very good way and showcases the band’s ability to be both commercial and introspective, relatable and a little risky.
Who I Think Will Win: Pain Killer. Just Kidding. Traveller. The Grammy’s have liked Little Big Town in the past, but I foresee a big win for Stapleton here piggybacking off the CMAs. And it will be deserved. But if I’m wrong, there’s really only one record I’d be underwhelmed with winning (take a guess which one).
Best New Artist
Defined as when an artist comes into prominence, not when they started making music.
Nominees: Courtney Barnett, James Bay, Sam Hunt, Tori Kelly, Meghan Trainor
Who I Voted For: Courtney Barnett. A surprise nominee and one of the most intriguing rock n’ rollers in a long time. Her biggest talent lies in making her clever (if not sardonic) lyrics and the delivery of them appear effortless.
Who I Think Will Win: Courtney Barnett. This category loves the dark horse and tends to value uniqueness over particular chart/radio success. But it’s also the first time in a while that all of the nominees except Barnett are well known in the pop world, so that may play into her favor too. I would be shocked if Sam Hunt won. Despite having a country nominee quite often, the last one to win was Zac Brown Band in 2010.
Song of the Year
Again, awarded to the songwriters, but I put the artists in parentheses. “Record of the Year” awards the artist/producer/engineers etc., while “Song of the Year” is for the songwriters (though usually everybody involved gets a statue).
Nominees: “Alright” (Kendrick Lamar), “Blank Space” (Taylor Swift), “Girl Crush” (Little Big Town), “See You Again” (Wiz Khalifa feat. Charlie Puth), “Thinking Out Loud” (Ed Sheeran)
Who I Voted For: “Girl Crush.” It’s a phenomenal song that shattered the conventions of a country radio hit (a 6/8 female-drive waltz ballad!) and united artists against a few close-minded listeners.
Who I Think Will Win: “Thinking Out Loud.” A well-written hit that topped charts across the globe (which gives it an advantaged among The Recording Academy’s international voting body) and smashed streaming records on Spotify.
Album of the Year
Nominees: Sound & Color (Alabama Shakes), To Pimp A Butterfly (Kendrick Lamar), Traveller (Chris Stapleton), 1989 (Taylor Swift), Beauty Behind The Madness (The Weeknd)
Who I Voted For: To Pimp A Butterfly. I went back and forth between three of these nominees, but this is one of the most incredible rap albums in a very long time. It’s honestly not something I’d want to routinely listen to, because it’s emotionally draining. It’s cinematic, thematic, introspective, intelligent, challenging and supremely well-written. Kendrick Lamar is the actual rap genius Kanye West acts like he is. Traveller is a very good record within its genre. To Pimp A Butterfly is a flawless record within its genre.
Who I Think Will Win: 1989. It’s a great pop record, and while pop may on the surface seem simplistic, it’s incredibly difficult to make a great pop record. Sadly, a true country or true rap record hasn’t won in a while, and probably won’t. This category generally requires some level of pop crossover sensibility or a huge story, like the Dixie Chicks in 2007 and OutKast in 2004. Ryan Adams giving his nod to Taylor Swift and doing all of 1989 in his own style may give it the push that Red didn’t have in 2013.
Also of note: I voted for Dave Cobb for Producer of the Year, non-classical. He produced Traveller and Something More Than Free, along with artists like Anderson East and A Thousand Horses.