Ever since the Grammy solo vocal contests merged into co-ed categories in 2012, Chris Stapleton and Carrie Underwood have been king and queen of the country ball. Both have won Best Country Solo Performance twice — Underwood in 2013 and 2015, Stapleton in 2016 and 2018 — but only one of them is nominated in 2019.
Stapleton is primed to pull out in front and make it 3 for 3 with his third nod, for his Top 15 single “Millionaire.” A veteran songwriter, he’s already collected five Grammys, just three albums into his recording career. It’s easy to see why voters are so taken by him: In a sea of interchangeable country hunks, Stapleton has a distinctive vocal and physical presence.
“Millionaire” is three and a half minutes of gospel-infused middle-of-the-dirt-road country, but vocally, it’s not a particularly demanding ride. Compared to the undeniable acrobatics of “Either Way,” the Stapleton song that took this prize last year, the singing on “Millionaire” might be too straightforward and contained for Grammy to single him out yet again.
Would that leave an opening for Keith Urban, the only other male in competition? His “Parallel Lines” is certainly the most sonically interesting song to be filed under country in this year’s race, and he sings it in a blue-eyed-soulful style that’s atypical of country radio. Cowritten by Ed Sheeran and featuring a sample of the Coldplay track “Everglow,” “Parallel Lines” is the kind of pop song that might have sparked outrage from Nashville purists in the seventies for being anywhere near the country categories.
Urban, though, has never been a traditionalist, and he’s enough of a veteran to make him eligible for the “overdue” vote. Despite winning Best Male Country Vocal Performance four times, he’s scored a quartet of nominations in this category (second only to Underwood, who has earned five nods, and tied with Miranda Lambert) and no wins so far.
He’ll probably have to wait another year. Though it admirably pushes country’s boundaries, “Parallel Lines” was a modest hit and seems unlikely to be the song that finally gets Urban a Best Country Solo Performance win.
Maren Morris joins Urban outside of country’s comfort zone with her nominated cover of Elton John’s “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters.” Totally unknown a few years ago, Morris is already a Grammy favorite. She won this award in 2017 for her debut single, “My Church,” and she’s been nominated every year since.
Her taste in material is impeccable: “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” has show-stopping potential. Maren’s serviceable take, though, won’t make anyone who knows John’s original not want to hear that when it’s over.
On the other end of the longevity spectrum is Loretta Lynn, who is looking for her fourth competitive Grammy out of 18 nominations with “Wouldn’t That Be Great.” With the possible exception of Dolly Parton, Lynn is arguably the most celebrated female country singer of all time, and she’s never won a Grammy in a solo-performance category.
The 86-year-old deserves a prize for her singing that she doesn’t have to share with Conway Twitty or Jack White. (She was honored solo with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.) “Van Lear Rose,” her 2004 collaboration with Jack White notwithstanding, she has more defiantly country credentials than anyone in the business, and the genre wouldn’t be what it is today without her influence. But unlike some other Grammy categories, Best Country Vocal Performance typically doesn’t skew sentimental favorite. For Lynn, the nomination will probably be recognition enough.
That leaves Kacey Musgraves for the win. The “Nashville Star” alumnus is Grammy’s country crush this year, with four nominations, including Album of the Year for “Golden Hour” (which is a masterful pivot into more pop territory that didn’t alienate Music City). “Butterflies” gets by on charisma more than on technical vocal prowess, and it lacks the emotional gravitas of the other nominees, but that actually could work in its favor. It’s the only one that sticks in your head after just one listen, and that has a lot to do with Musgraves’ charming I’m-so-happy-I-could-cry performance.
“Golden Hour” is formidable competition to Stapleton’s “From a Room: Volume 2″ for Best Country Album (his previous two albums both took that prize), but “Butterflies” is an ever-better bet to end up being the two-time Grammy winner’s return ticket to the stage on Feb. 10.