Best Country Album
Label MCA Nashville
Hunt may have confirmed the end of country’s “hat act” era, eschewing not just Stetsons but also the ball caps of bro-country for his own suave style. That goes for his sound, too, with a romantic hip-hop influence that helped his late-2014 debut album, Montevallo, hit No. 1 on Top Country Albums. The album has spawned three Hot Country Songs No. 1s, including the 11-week leader “Take Your Time.”
Little Big Town
Label Capitol Records Nashville
Country’s favorite coed vocal quartet previewed its sixth album with “Day Drinking,” a party single that narrowly missed becoming a No. 1 Country Airplay hit like the raucous “Pontoon” had before it. Then came “Girl Crush,” an almost ’50s-styled ballad with 21st-century sensuality that rose to No. 1 on Hot Country Songs — either in spite of, or because of, an initial controversy about its supposed same-sex implications. “Girl Crush” not only helped propel Pain Killer to No. 3 on Top Country Albums (and No. 7 on the Billboard 200), it is nominated in the all-genre song of the year category.
Label Warner Bros. Records
Monroe’s third album is the little contender that could, with a lone single, “On to Something Good,” that reached only No. 53 on Country Airplay. But Monroe has had other calling cards, from her membership in Pistol Annies to her guest slot on Blake Shelton‘s chart-topping “Lonely Tonight.” The Blade reached No. 2 on Top Country Albums, but its greatest impact may be on Monroe’s critical standing; Time magazine just put the album on its year-end top 10.
Label Mercury Nashville
Despite controversy over a lack of female artists on country radio, the Grammys nominated three albums by female or female-led acts for this award. Musgraves won the best country album Grammy two years ago for her debut, Same Trailer Different Park. Pageant Material is just as strong, even if it lacks a single as successful as “Merry Go ‘Round” or “Follow Your Arrow.” Still, the set debuted at No. 1 on Hot Country Albums, just like its predecessor.
Label Mercury Records
As an all-genre album of the year contender, Traveller is a recording that fell off nearly everyone’s radar two months ago. Then came Stapleton’s career-changing Justin Timberlake duet at the Country Music Association Awards (CMAs) in November, which led the set to become the first album ever to re-enter the Billboard 200 at No 1. His is the kind of Cinderella story the Grammys love: toiling humbly in the trenches as a songwriter for years before making the most honest record possible.
Best Country Song
Lee Ann Womack
Songwriter Hayes Carll
Womack’s character in “Chances Are,” after a lifetime of bad choices, sees a shot at redemption in a Wrangler-wearing stranger she spots across a crowded bar. Singer-songwriter Hayes Carll penned the traditional country ballad that found its way onto The Way I’m Livin‘, Womack’s first album in seven years and first on indie Sugar Hill.
“Diamond Rings And Old Barstools”
Songwriters Barry Dean, Luke Laird, Jonathan Singleton
The fourth single from McGraw’s 2014 album Sundown Heaven Town is a throwback to classic McGraw material like “The Cowboy in Me.” Diamond rings and old barstools are just a pair of things that are incompatible in this twangy tale of a clashing couple, which reached No. 3 on the Country Airplay chart. Billboard called the track “high on emotional drama, high on steel and high on some outstanding harmony from McGraw’s cousin Catherine Dunn, who proves there’s more talent in the family genetic pool.” Meanwhile, “Back at Mama’s,” also from Sundown, was nominated for this award in 2014.
Little Big Town
Songwriters Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna, Liz Rose
When it came to finding the seductive jealousy tale “Girl Crush,” Little Big Town looked to a trio of songwriters who had already provided powerful results for the coed quartet. Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose co-wrote “Sober,” the fourth single from the group’s 2012 album, Tornado, while McKenna co-wrote wrenching ballad “Your Side of the Bed” with the band. Ironically, “Girl Crush,” which spent a record-setting 13 weeks atop Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart, almost never made it out of the starting gate to hear: After McKenna presented the title, co-writer Rose hated the idea, but Lindsey saw merit in the title. “Girl Crush” already claimed song and single of the year at the 2015 CMAs.
“Hold My Hand”
Songwriters Brandy Clark, Mark Stephen Jones
Clark, a nominee for best new artist at the 2015 Grammys, performed “Hold My Hand” with Dwight Yoakam on that telecast, leading to this 2016 Grammy nod for the song. Known best for writing hits for Miranda Lambert, The Band Perry, Kacey Musgraves and Toby Keith, Clark has yet to win over radio for her own singles — “Hold My Hand” didn’t chart — but her album 12 Stories, which was nominated for best country album last year, reached No. 2 on Heatseekers Albums
Songwriter Chris Stapleton
The title track of Stapleton’s Traveller — and the whole album, in fact — was inspired by the soul-searching the singer did following his father’s death. “My wife was kind enough to buy me an old Jeep. We flew out to Phoenix and drove it all the way back to Nashville through the desert,” he told Billboard. “I thought a lot about music and my dad and the things that he would have liked that I should be doing. Out of that, I actually wrote the song ‘Traveller’ driving down Interstate 40 through New Mexico. That became the cornerstone for the record and wound up being the title track.” Following his three CMA wins in November, Stapleton’s Traveller soared to No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 2 issue of Billboard.