Kenny Chesney‘s Here and Now enters both the Billboard 200 and Top Country Albums at No. 1 this week. As my colleague Keith Caulfield reported on Sunday (May 10), it’s Chesney’s ninth No. 1 album on the all-genre Billboard 200, which enables him to tie Garth Brooks for the most No. 1 albums ever by a country artist.
This potent debut makes Here and Now a serious candidate for a Grammy nomination for best country album. That’s shaping up as a highly competitive category this year, with such strong albums as Luke Combs‘ What You See Is What You Get, Miranda Lambert‘s Wildcard and Jon Pardi‘s Heartache Medication also vying for nominations. All three of these albums are competing for album of the year at the 55th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards, which was originally set for April 5, but was pushed back to Sept. 16 because of coronavirus concerns.
And then there’s Dixie Chicks‘ first album in 14 years, Gaslighter, which was originally set for release on May 1, but was pushed back to summer for the same reason. Each of the trio’s last four albums won the Grammy for best country album. (Dixie Chicks are nearly as potent at the Grammys as Lambert is at the ACM Awards. Each of Lambert’s last five albums won the ACM for album of the year.)
The eligibility period for the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards runs from Sept. 1, 2019 to, presumably, Aug. 31, 2020. (The Recording Academy has yet to announce the closing date for the current eligibility year.)
Here are the five most likely candidates for best country album nominations, followed by some key alternates.
Combs’ What You See Is What You Get: The album has headed Billboard’s Top Country Albums for 18 weeks—longer than any of this year’s other contenders. Combs’ previous album, This One’s for You topped that chart for 50 weeks, which tied Shania Twain‘s Come on Over for the longest run at No. 1 in the chart’s 56-year history. This One’s for You wasn’t nominated for best country album, but Combs was nominated two years ago for best new artist. Scott Moffatt produced What You See…. Combs’ Grammy track record: 0 wins, two nods.
Lambert’s Wildcard: Lambert won in this category six years ago with Platinum. She has been nominated four times in the category, counting one nod with Pistol Annies. Jay Joyce produced. Peak position: No. 1 (one week). Grammy track record: 2 wins, 18 nods.
Dixie Chicks’ Gaslighter: In addition to winning for best country album, the group’s last studio set, Taking the Long Way, won the all-genre album of the year prize. The group co-produced the new album with Jack Antonoff, who was nominated for producer of the year, non-classical this past year. Grammy track record: 12 wins, 19 nods (plus additional songwriting nominations; the Grammys assign songwriting nods to individual members of groups or duos, not to the groups or duos themselves.)
The Highwomen‘s The Highwomen: This is the first album by this all-star female group, consisting of Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires. All four members have won Grammys in the past as individuals. This would be the second year in a row that an all-star female collab has been nominated in this category. Interstate Gospel by Pistol Annies (Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley) was nominated this past year. The Highwomen was released in the first week of the eligibility year. That has given voters a long time to sit with the album. On the other hand, it might seem like old news when voters cast their ballots this fall. Carlile co-produced Tanya Tucker‘s While I’m Livin’, which won in this category this past year. Dave Cobb produced The Highwomen. Cobb has won in this category twice in the past five years for co-producing Chris Stapleton‘s Traveller and From A Room, Volume 1. Peak position: No. 1 (one week).
Chesney’s Here and Now: Chesney has been nominated in this category just once, with Cosmic Hallelujah three years ago. As you may have read here last week, Chesney is one of 21 artists who rank on Billboard’s exclusive list of the Greatest of All Time Billboard 200 artists but have yet to win a Grammy. Chesney has found more favor at the CMA Awards, where he is a four-time entertainer of the year winner. Chesney co-produced the album with Buddy Cannon. Peak position: No. 1 (one week so far). Grammy track record: 0 wins, 6 nods.
There are many other strong contenders if any of these presumed front-runners falls short. Among them:
Sam Hunt‘s SOUTHSIDE: Hunt’s debut album, Montevallo, was nominated in this category five years ago. Luke Laird, who won in this category seven years ago for co-producing Kacey Musgraves‘ Same Trailer Different Park, co-produced this album with Zach Crowell, Bryce Cain and Charlie Handsome. Peak position: No. 1 (two weeks). Grammy track record: 0 wins, 4 nods.
Pardi’s Heartache Medication: Pardi has yet to receive a Grammy nod. Pardi co-produced the album with Bart Butler and Ryan Gore. Peak position: No. 2. Grammy track record: 0 wins, 0 nods.
Old Dominion‘s Old Dominion: The acclaimed group has yet to receive a Grammy nod. Shane McAnally, who won in this category seven years ago for co-producing Same Trailer Different Park, produced the album. Peak position: No. 1 (one week). Grammy track record: 0 wins, 0 nods.
Jason Aldean‘s 9: Aldean was nominated in this category with two previous studio albums, My Kinda Party (2011) and Night Train (2013). Michael Knox produced 9. Peak position: No. 1 (one week). Grammy track record: 0 wins, four nods.
Kelsea Ballerini‘s Kelsea: Ballerini was nominated for best new artist five years ago. She co-produced with Jimmy Robbins, Ross Copperman and McAnally. Peak position: No. 2. Grammy track record: 0 wins, two nods.
Little Big Town‘s Nightfall: The group has been nominated in this category three times, but has yet to win here. The group co-produced the album with Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, who won in this category (as well as album of the year) two years ago for co-producing Musgraves’ Golden Hour. Peak position: No. 1 (one week). Grammy track record: three wins, 13 nods.
Lady Antebellum‘s Ocean: The trio won back-to-back awards in this category with Need You Now (2010) and Own the Night (2011) and was nominated with Heart Break (2017). Dann Huff produced. Peak position: No. 2. Grammy track record: five wins, 10 nods (plus additional songwriting nominations).
Luke Bryan‘s Born Here, Live Here, Die Here: This album was delayed from April 13 to Aug. 7. Bryan, a two-time CMA winner for entertainer of the year, has yet to receive a Grammy nod in any category. Jeff Stevens and his son Jody Stevens produced. Grammy track record: 0 wins, 0 nods.
Carly Pearce‘s Carly Pearce: busbee produced the album. This was one of his final projects before his death in September 2019. busbee received his only Grammy nomination (to date) four years ago, when he was nominated for best country song for co-writing Morris’ hit “My Church.” Peak position: No. 6. Pearce’s Grammy track record: 0 wins, 0 nods.
Dustin Lynch‘s Tullahoma: The title is a nod to Lynch’s hometown, Tullahoma, Tenn. Crowell, who also co-produced Hunt’s album, produced. Peak position: No. 4. Grammy track record: 0 wins, 0 nods.
Willie Nelson’s First Rose of Spring: This album was originally set for release on April 24, but was delayed until July 3. Nelson is a five-time nominee for best country album. Cannon (who also did the honors on Chesney’s album) produced. The closing track is a cover version of Roy Clark‘s tender 1969 hit “Yesterday, When I Was Young.” Grammy track record: 10 wins, 52 nods.
Zac Brown Band‘s The Owl: The group won in this category with The Foundation (2010) and was nominated two additional times. Brown co-produced with 12 collaborators, including Max Martin, Skrillex and Ryan Tedder. Peak position: No. 1 (one week). Grammy track record: three wins, eight nods.