Will Grammys’ Country Categories Welcome a New Tide of Black Artists?

Lil Nas X, Kane Brown, Blanco Brown, Jimmie Allen and Rhiannon Giddens could all be contenders at the 2020 awards.

Country music has never been known as a bastion of diversity. Even in this era of female empowerment, the genre remains largely a man’s world  —  make that a white man’s world. But things might be improving slowly, in the industry as a whole and, by extension, maybe even with Grammy voters.

When the nominees are announced on November 20 for next year’s event (January 26), at least five black performers have a shot at scoring nods in the traditionally all-white country categories: rapper Lil Nas X, producer-turned-performer Blanco Brown, singer-songwriter Jimmie Allen, rising star Kane Brown and alt-country vet Rhiannon Giddens. Could a new age of inclusion be dawning in country? It wouldn’t be a decade too soon.

Although black pop and R&B stars like Candi Staton, Tina Turner and Lionel Richie have dabbled in country music over the years, the quintessentially American music form has created only one black superstar, Charley Pride. (Darius Rucker was a member of the multiplatinum-selling pop-rock band Hootie and the Blowfish before reinventing himself as a country hitmaker.) Despite the general lack of blacks in Nashville’s talent pool, Grammy voters occasionally have flirted with racial integration in the country column.

Sort of. Charley Pride was, historically one of country’s biggest names of any race, yet only one of his three competitive Grammys came in a country category: 1973’s best country vocal performance, male for his “Charley Pride Sings Heart Songs” album. (He’s been nominated eight other times in the category, and his signature hit, “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’,” won 1972’s best country song Grammy, an award that went to its songwriter, Ben Peters.) In 1975, the Pointer Sisters picked up their first Grammy, for best country vocal performance by a duo or group, for “Fairytale,” which also was nominated for best country song.

Nearly a decade later, in 1984, R&B legend Ray Charles’s “Born to Love Me” was nominated for best country vocal performance, male but lost to Lee Greenwood’s “I.O.U.” Aaron Neville and B.B. King both received a pair of country nods in the ’90s, and more recently, Darius Rucker won best country solo Performance for “Wagon Wheel” in 2014, making him only the fourth black act to triumph in a country vocal Grammy category.

This year, though, the trend of recognizing African American artists years or decades apart, if at all, could change, with an unprecedented number of breakthrough country recordings by black musicians.

Lil Nas X’s record-setting “Old Town Road” was a country charter early on, but Billboard removed it from its country countdown because it didn’t “embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” Grammy voters might choose to be rebellious and ignore that ruling entirely, especially since the song’s mega-popular remix features ’90s country superstar Billy Ray Cyrus.

If the remix version is nominated for best country duo/group performance, Nas X will become only the fourth black artist nominated for a vocal collaboration in a country category since the Pointer Sisters, after B.B. King, Aaron Neville and Solomon Burke. A complementary nod for best country song would make him the first black act to pull off country performing and songwriting nominations since “Fairtyale” authors Anita and Bonnie Pointer did it 45 years ago. Meanwhile, matching best new artist and best country song nominations would make him the first male artist to compete in both categories in the same year.

Jimmie Allen, a black Nashville upstart, might join Nas X in the best new artist and best country song categories on the strength of his top 5 country hit “Best Shot.” The 33-year-old is also a potential nominee for best country solo performance, which would make him only the second black contender (following Darius Rucker) since the category went co-ed in 2012.

Also in the running for best new artist and best country song is Blanco Brown, who topped Billboard’s country singles chart in July with “The Git Up.” A belated country answer to the ’90s pop smash “Macarena,” Blanco’s hit might be a bit too novelty to be taken seriously by Grammy’s country contingent (Lil Nas X at least has Cyrus in his corner), but in a year with so many black country breakouts, it’s a closer-than-remote possibility.

Kane Brown and Rhiannon Giddens, both of whom are biracial, have been releasing albums for too long (since 2016 and 2004, respectively) to contend for best new artist. Brown’s third effort, “Experiment,” topped both the pop and country charts and has produced three hit singles. The second one, “Good as You,” could net Brown his first Grammy nominations, for best country song and/or best country solo performance.

Giddens hasn’t enjoyed as much chart success as Brown, but what she lacks in sales and airplay, she makes up for in critical praise. After appearing in the final seasons of the TV series “Nashville,” the alt-country vet released “There Is No Other,” a collaboration with Italian jazz maestro Francesco Turrisi, in 2019. With its blending of genres including bluegrass, folk, and jazz, the album represents a special kind of breakthrough, one that could benefit from the newly expanded parameters of “country.” That is, if, in the committee process that settles categories for genre-crossing records, Giddens doesn’t get shuffled off into the Americana tent.

Its 86 Metacritic rating makes it one of the year’s most acclaimed albums, once again putting the five-time nominee and one-time winner on the Grammy radar. Voters occasionally veer far left of center with best country album — see the 2017 winner, Sturgill Simpson’s “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” (also a finalist in the all-genre album of the year category), which, to many people’s surprise, the Grammys decided was country and not some fringe-ier genre. If the committees decide to promote Giddens from the roots and folk categories, her cover of the country standard “Wayfaring Stranger” could grab her a nod for best country solo performance.

Could any of these five performers be country music’s great black hope at the 2020 Grammys? It’s already a win to have more than one possibility in one year.

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