Country music is having a major mainstream moment.
Morgan Wallen’s “Last Night” spent 16 nonconsecutive weeks from March to August at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, claiming the undisputed song of the summer crown — and is one of four country songs to top both the Hot 100 and Hot Country Songs charts in 2023, the most in a year since 1975.
And Wallen’s success story is far from the genre’s only recent standout. Thanks to artists like Luke Combs, whose cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” spent eight weeks at No. 2 on the Hot 100, and Zach Bryan, whose breakthrough single, “Something in the Orange,” reached the top 10 of the Hot 100 while his album American Heartbreak reached No. 5 on the Billboard 200, country music consumption surged in the United States for the first half of 2023. According to Luminate, it was up 20.3% compared with 2.5% growth during the same period in 2022 — and that was before Jason Aldean’s polarizing track, “Try That in a Small Town,” hit No. 1 on the Hot 100; before Appalachian breakout Oliver Anthony Music dominated headlines with his viral populist anthem, “Rich Men North of Richmond”; and before Bryan topped both the Hot 100 and Billboard 200.
Whether that commercial surge will translate to Grammy nominations on Nov. 10 — and in particular to a long overdue showing for country artists in the general-field categories — could prove one of the more compelling narratives this awards season, particularly with country outliers Anthony and Bryan potentially leading the way.
“Country music [is at] peak awareness right now, and the industry people that vote have an opportunity to recognize that or not,” says Joey Moi, Big Loud partner/president of A&R, as well as Wallen’s producer. “You’re looking at two or three artists [from the country format] that are hanging up there with the big kids.”
Country has often been neglected when it comes to Grammy nominations in the general-field categories — album, record and song of the year and best new artist, for which all 13,000 Recording Academy members can vote. (Starting with the 2024 Grammys, the so-called Big Four becomes the Big Six, with the addition of songwriter of the year, non-classical and producer of the year, non-classical moving into the general field.)
Five Grammy Award cycles have occurred since nominations in the Big Four categories were increased from five to eight and then to 10 contenders, and there have been 196 total Big Four nominations in that time — yet only six have gone to mainstream country artists or projects, with just one victory: Kacey Musgraves’ album of the year trophy for Golden Hour in 2019. (The nominees will revert to eight per category for the 2024 awards.)
But recognition of many of these songs beyond only country audiences could shift the dynamic this year. Anthony went from obscurity to instant household name with “Rich Men North of Richmond,” which debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 100 in August. “Rich Men” was submitted for record and song of the year, though not in any country categories, nor was Anthony entered into consideration for best new artist. (His manager did not respond to a request for comment on the submissions.)
Should “Rich Men” receive a song or record of the year nod — or even a win — it would not be the first time voters have marked their ballots for a song with a message. At the 2019 ceremony, Childish Gambino’s commentary on institutional racism, “This Is America,” won song and record of the year. Two years later, “I Can’t Breathe,” H.E.R.’s poignant take on George Floyd’s murder, won song of the year.
But though “Rich Men” has enjoyed a kind of flashpoint notoriety — the song was even referenced at the Republican presidential debate in August — that may not translate to Grammy votes.
“Artists who have huge moments still have to consider who’s voting,” one Grammy consultant says, noting that voters aren’t the fans who propelled “Rich Men” to No. 1 but creatives who make music. And while the timing of Anthony’s breakthrough means he is fresh in voters’ minds as they mark their ballots, that could also work against him. “I don’t know if the industry is going to wait and hold off to see if [he] has legs or it’s a flash in the pan,” one Grammy voter says. “If this happened in March or April and maintained through the year, we’d have a much clearer story. [He’s] kind of starting the race about five minutes later than everybody else.”
Bryan — who, unlike Anthony, is entered in several country categories as well as album, song and record of the year — may have a different experience. Unlike the self-released Anthony, he is signed to Warner Records, which has the infrastructure to run a campaign for him. His success has built steadily over the past 18 months and extends beyond one song and one format, or as the Grammy voter puts it: “He has had a career that has grown and gathered some roots.” Bryan and past Grammy favorite Musgraves debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 100 with their duet, “I Remember Everything,” from his self-titled album that entered the Billboard 200 and Top Country Albums at No. 1. And when it comes to the general-field categories, he could draw from a particularly broad base of voters: His self-titled set, which arrived Aug. 25, also launched atop the Top Rock Albums, Top Rock & Alternative Albums and Americana/Folk Albums charts.
By creating their own nontraditional paths, Anthony and Bryan could, ironically, achieve recognition that some of country’s most respected artists have not: None of Miranda Lambert’s 27 career Grammy nods have been in the general-field categories, while only one of Chris Stapleton’s 17 nominations has been. Whether they also end up distracting from the work of their more conventional country peers in the general categories remains to be seen. Adds the Grammy voter: “I don’t know if people are aware of a lot of the other great country records that may have been out there over the year — they’ve taken up so much air in the room.”
Additional reporting by Jessica Nicholson.
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