Grammy Watch: Aside From Sam Hunt, Who Are Country's Top Contenders?

Eric Ryan Anderson
Sam Hunt photographed on June 9, 2017 at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn. 

In the months leading up to the 59th Grammy Awards this January, Billboard will be featuring Grammy Watch, a weekly column looking at the artists, music and trends likely to be featured heavily at this year's ceremonies. This week: Andrew Unterberger looks at which country artists might feature in the general categories this year, and whether one particularly popular song will tower over the rest of the genre on music's biggest night.

When you talk about country music in just about any capacity in 2017, the conversation invariably leads back to one song: "Body Like a Back Road." The Sam Hunt smash has owned the genre in a historic fashion this year, topping the Hot Country Songs chart for 30 out of 37 possible weeks so far, with no end to its reign in sight. It's peaked at No. 6 on the Hot 100 in a year when only a handful of country singles have crossed over to the top 40, and with its hip-hop-inflected production and album-independent rollout, its success could have a seismic impact on the way country singles are devised and marketed.

That juggernaut could also roll right on into Grammy night. "Body Like a Back Road" stands as one of the year's most omnipresent and impactful singles, and represents a watershed moment for an artist who's already proven himself a Grammy contender. Hunt was nominated for Best New Artist and Best Country Album (for Montevallo) in 2016, and even performed alongside award-season fixture Carrie Underwood. The song could very well have a major presence at the '18 Grammys, both inside and outside of the country categories.

"It definitely is that type of [Grammy crossover] song," says Fletcher Foster, co-founder of Nashville's Iconic Entertainment company and a longtime Grammy voter. "The song’s been out for, what, six months? For it having been in the consciousness of the voters and the industry for that amount of time, and being very prominent on the charts -- even in the country world, as it evolves into the more mainstream space ... [a country song] needs something like that to really get the traction it needs in those [general] categories."

So "Body Like a Back Road" probably makes Sam Hunt the front-runner to be country's primary representative in the so-called Big Four categories -- Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best New Artist -- even if he'll only be eligible for two of those. But he's far from the only chance the genre has of a Grammy crossover. Here are five other artists who might break out of the country categories and contend for one of the night's top honors.

Little Big Town. The last country song to make it to the Song of the Year category was Little Big Town's "Girl Crush" in 2016 -- not a "Body"-sized crossover hit, but one big enough to make the top 20 on the Hot 100, and one whose doo-wop-throwback melodies made it familiar-sounding even to country-wary voters. LBT have an eligible single that could contend on similar terms in 2018, with the Taylor Swift-penned "Better Man"; it's also a top 40 hit and country No. 1 with at least a toe or two in the pop world. "It was written by Taylor, so that’s a familiar name in the Grammy space," Foster points out. "It could be a contender, absolutely."

Chris Stapleton. Another artist with some Big Four pedigree to his name, Chris Stapleton already has one Album of the Year nomination under his belt (for debut LP Traveller in 2016), and could make it 2 for 2 this year with his follow-up effort, From A Room, Vol. 1. This album doesn't quite have the heat that Traveller did at the time of its nomination, and hasn't spawned a breakout hit like that album's "Tennessee Whiskey," but it sold well and attracted strong reviews -- and Foster thinks that the fact that Vol. 2 may be due at the height of Grammy voting could end up working to his advantage: "When the second one comes out, that could breathe some life into the first one."

Miranda Lambert. It may feel like it came out many moons ago at this point, but as a November 2016 release, Miranda Lambert's rapturously received The Weight of These Wings double-LP is indeed eligible for the 2018 Grammys. Lambert has never featured in the Big Four categories, but has seen her Grammy acclaim snowball in recent years, winning Country Album of the Year for Platinum in 2015 picking up a pair of nominations for lead single "Vice" last year.

Foster also points to the album's recognition at the CMA Awards (five nominations) and the ACM Awards (Album of the Year for Weight) as potentially indicative of Grammy success. "I think when you look at the Grammy voter going into this period, and the CMA nominations have just come out... the record that may have been a little in the shadows all of a sudden gets prominent, because they’ve finally gotten the awareness through the CMA awards."

Luke Combs. Country has been a regular presence in the Best New Artist category the last half-decade, with at least one artist from the category's five nominees coming from the genre in every year since 2012 -- and two coming in 2017, in Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris. The most likely Best New Artist nominee this year might be Luke Combs, a back-to-basics country star in the vein of award-season favorites Stapleton and Eric Church, but with a modern sheen that allowed him to score one of the year's biggest country smashes in the Hot 100 No. 31 hit "Hurricane." The question is if the breakout hit gives Combs enough juice on its own: "He’s one single in, and I don’t know if that’s enough awareness in a genre category to rise [out of it]," Foster offers. 

Jason Isbell: Though a radio non-entity, the former Drive-By Trucker and longtime critical darling garnered not only some of the best reviews of his career for 2017's The Nashville Sound, he also enjoyed career-best sales, debuting in the top 5 of the Billboard 200 for the first time. Despite the album's title, it's arguable whether or not Isbell still counts as a country artist at this point -- for Billboard's purposes, the set charted atop both the Country and Rock Albums Charts. Yet such genre-blurring can be advantageous for genre artists at the Grammys, as demonstrated by the similarly hybridized Sturgill Simpson's unlikely cameo in the 2017 Album of the Year race. "There can always be those really cred[-assisted artists] that come from the genre categories into the top four," Foster says of the secondary way for country artists to worm their way into the major categories. "It doesn’t always have to be a mass, mass record."

2018 Grammy Awards