There’s at least one city where the applause for this year’s slate of Grammy nominees may be a bit subdued this year: Nashville. Among the four all-genre categories that get the lion’s share of Grammy attention, there is not one country or Americana-based artist or record. That’s the first time since 2004 that Nashville has been shut out of the record, song, album and new artist of the year nominations. Before that, you have to go back to 1994 to find a year where no country act got a top nod.
What happened that, after a 13-year run of supplying nominees for the big categories, Music City couldn’t come up with any major contenders for “music’s biggest night”?
One factor is the sheer dominance of hip-hop and R&B. There’s nary a nod for rock in the top four categories, and pure pop isn’t extensively represented, either. The diversity pendulum’s swing in a different direction is exemplified by the single nominations for Lorde and Julia Michaels, the only white artists to appear in the top four (although Justin Bieber appears as a featured artist on another nominated track). If Ed Sheeran couldn’t manage a nod in these ranks, then maybe Sam Hunt doesn’t have grounds to complain.
But also, country didn’t really have a banner year, some Nashville insiders say.
“There’ve been better years,” says one veteran country songwriter and producer who’s frequently involved in Recording Academy affairs (and spoke on condition of anonymity). “When I voted this year, there weren’t a lot of things I was excited about on the country side of things. You’ve got to do something brave to get nominated [in the big categories], and I’m trying to think of any country act that’s being brave right now. We have artists who do that” — this industry heavyweight cites Chris Stapleton and Little Big Town — “but did anything they put out surpass what they did two years ago?”
Nashville’s absence in this year’s all-genre categories stands in contrast to last year’s ceremony, when Sturgill Simpson was up for best album and Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both competed for new artist honors. The year before that, at the 2015 Grammys, Stapleton’s “Traveller” was up for best album, Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” contended for song, and Sam Hunt was nominated for new artist.
This year, Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road” was the most obvious contender for record or song of the year. Thanks to its Top 40 crossover success, it was the seventh biggest song of the year across genres, according to BuzzAngle data. And it broke records for the longest stay in history atop the Billboard country songs chart.
But a warning sign may have come when the CMA Awards failed to award it single or song of the year. As great of an earworm and massive of a hit as “Back Road” was, if it was too lightweight for the CMAs, it was unlikely that the Grammys would take up its case for top honors.
As albums go, Stapleton’s “From A Room Volume 1” and Lambert’s “Weight of These Wings” were seen as contenders — and will certainly be the ones to beat in the country album category — but neither artist was having a plateau media moment. Some were predicting that Jason Isbell’s “Nashville Sound” album would get a slot, in the way that the Grammy blue-ribbon panel snuck Simpson’s disc into the mix last year. But voters may have been concerned that championing an alt-country outlier amid more commercial, urban fare for the second year in a row would be predictable in its unpredictability.
The new artist field has been particularly open to country. At least one freshman Nashville act was nominated in that category every year but one from 2005 through 2017. This year, there was no shortage of possibilities, including Jon Pardi (the CMAs’ new artist winner), Old Dominion, Brett Young, Luke Combs, and Kane Brown. But unlike media darlings Morris and Ballerini the year before, none of these men distinguished themselves enough to get the attention of the coasts.
“All they have to do is let the girls on the radio and it’ll happen again,” says the Nashville insider. “Jon Pardi has broken through in country, but do L.A. and New York and those voting masses know who he is, or Brett Young? Obviously they did know Maren and Kelsea. It takes all the other [Recording Academy regional] chapters, too.” In general, says the insider, country is in a state now where “everything is consistent. I think it may take another new artist like Chris or Maren to thrill us and make us rethink what [country] is and reenergize those top categories again.”