When the country winners are unveiled Jan. 28 at the 60th annual Grammy Awards, industry voters have an opportunity to make a statement about where they want the format to go.
There’s a distinct stylistic range in all four of the country categories, from Sam Hunt‘s hip-hop-tinged “Body Like a Back Road” to Chris Stapleton‘s outlaw guitar/vocal “Either Way” in best country solo performance. Best country duo/group runs the gamut from Lady Antebellum‘s horn-tipped “You Look Good” to Midland‘s classic country play on words “Drinkin’ Problem.” Elsewhere on the ballot are such divergent efforts as Brothers Osborne‘s sarcastic Southern rocker “It Ain’t My Fault,” Zac Brown Band‘s string-tinged acoustic piece “My Old Man,” Little Big Town‘s chill project The Breaker and Thomas Rhett‘s all-over-the-map Life Changes.
This year’s Grammy slate reaffirms what Music Row has said about its best-known genre for some time: The creative possibilities in country music have widened exponentially.
“If you look at the different sounds, it’s because no one wants to repeat what people did in the past,” Lady A’s Charles Kelley said on the red carpet prior to the Recording Academy’s Nashville chapter Grammy nominee party on Jan. 11. “You build on the past, and you’re always trying to push it, because if you don’t, [the fans] are like, ‘OK, well, we already heard somebody do that five years ago.'”
Building on the past means learning from it, and nothing on the ballot underscores that tug between country tradition and experimentation more than Glen Campbell‘s nomination for best American roots performance. He earned a six-figure income as a Los Angeles session musician before he became a star, playing on Phil Spector Wall of Sound productions, Beach Boys surf tunes and Dean Martin traditional-pop recordings. Campbell’s productions in his peak years as an artist layered large string sections and orchestral horns on top of pop-flavored chords as he pushed against the limits for country. Yet here he is in 2018 in a roots category for a performance of “Arkansas Farmboy,” a song that producer Carl Jackson wrote about Campbell as a member of his road band in the 1970s.
“He was a country boy for sure, even though he did break boundaries and cross over,” said Campbell’s widow, Kimberly Campbell. “He could play any kind of music, he could sing any music — Frank Sinatra. He wanted to be a jazz guitarist, so he modeled his guitar playing after Django Reinhardt, but that song is about his life.”
The Southern-bred Hunt is, in some ways, charting a similar path. “Back Road” used synthetic sound effects and gang-vocal chants as it became a crossover hit. Traditionalists slagged it, but the audience ate it up: “Back Road” set a new record by topping the multimetric Hot Country Songs chart a record 34 weeks.
“Sam clearly grew up deep in the South, but he has so many other influences,” Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild observed. “He’s a product of that fusion of music that’s coming together, but it’s all good.”
The debate in country is not new, nor is it limited. Jazz purists took issue as that genre grew more experimental, and some bluegrass originalists get queasy as that idiom moves beyond the sound of Bill Monroe. Noam Pikelny, as an example, is a finalist for best bluegrass album with Universal Favorite, a solo banjo effort that mixes traditional ‘grass and folk with cascades of classically influenced sound. And Pikelny, a member of the self-described “radical string band” the Punch Brothers, feels no need to apologize for busting into new territory.
“The people who really left a mark on acoustic music, we look back at their music and see them as the pillars of traditional music, but they were radical in what they were doing,” said Pikelny. “Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs, who essentially crystallized this genre that we call bluegrass — it’s such a magical sound, but what they were doing was really a distillation of all their musical influences.”
The Grammy experience heightens that beyond-the-borders sense for its nominees. Country, bluegrass and Americana contenders will rub shoulders on the red carpet and at adjunct ceremonies in New York this week with prominent acts from pop, rock and R&B, as well as classical musicians and practitioners from such smaller genres as reggae and world music.
“We met Tommy Ramone, and what a huge old-time fan he was,” recounted David Rawlings, who shares a best American roots song nomination with Gillian Welch for “Cumberland Gap.” “He couldn’t believe he was meeting us; we couldn’t believe we were meeting him. Or David Byrne, you know. Really what makes a difference to people is the quality of music. Everybody respects when somebody is at the top of their game. It doesn’t matter what genre it is.”
Country’s increasing willingness to incorporate other genres into its sound in recent years reflects both the audience and the makeup of Nashville itself. The city has long had a non-country undercurrent, but with such acts as Jack White, Kings of Leon and Meghan Trainor propelling the storyline, Music City has had a burst of new energy from other idioms.
“You get the baddest musicians here,” said steel guitarist Robert Randolph, who considers Nashville a second musical home. “If you wanted to come to Nashville and say, ‘I need a bluegrass player, a church player, a country dude, a rock’n’roll cat,’ you got a choice of at least 100 of each of those guys.”
Thus the Grammys’ country ballot mirrors a mix of style that is now de rigeur for so many musicians: Kenny Chesney‘s stadium-sized tracks on Cosmic Hallelujah, Miranda Lambert‘s combination of acoustic guitar and ethereal electronics on “Tin Man” or Maren Morris‘ blend of country harmonies and poppy keyboard.
“Everybody I talk to experiments a ton on their albums,” said Rhett, whose Life Changes explores EDM, classic soul, doo-wop and ’80s country, among other flavors. “It’s all about keeping it fresh, trying new things and hoping to God it works.”