In 2018, the Recording Academy increased the number of nominees in the Big Four Grammy categories — album, song and record of the year and best new artist — from five to eight. Then, three years later, it boosted the pool from eight to 10.
These expansions were made to recognize more music creators and to represent more genres, according to the academy — yet for country artists, the benefits have thus far been nonexistent.
For the five Grammy Award nomination cycles (for ceremonies taking place in 2019-2023) since the first increase, there have been 196 total Big Four nominations, yet only six have gone to mainstream country artists or projects, with only one victory: Kacey Musgraves’ album of the year trophy for Golden Hour in 2019. In the five cycles before the increase (2014-2018), country artists scored seven nominations of the far smaller 125 total nods.
For the 65th Grammys, which will take place Feb. 5 in Los Angeles, country music is completely absent from the Big Four.
Genre classification can be blurry, but for this story, Billboard counted nominations that went to an artist or music that appears on Billboard’s Country Airplay, Hot Country Songs and Top Country Albums charts or is traditionally considered country. For 2023, that means Brandi Carlile’s album and record of the year nods don’t count in the country tally (though her 2020 song of the year nomination for co-writing Tanya Tucker’s “Bring Me My Flowers Now” did); same with song of the year nominee Taylor Swift, who is now considered a pop artist despite her country start. Best new artist nominee Molly Tuttle plays bluegrass, and while the genre is a branch of country music, her music doesn’t appear on those Billboard charts.
Previous years also have not-quite-country outliers: Maren Morris’ record of the year nomination for appearing with Zedd and Grey on “The Middle” didn’t count in the 2019-2023 tally since it was a pop hit. Though Sturgill Simpson doesn’t receive mainstream country radio play, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth debuted at No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart and the set won the Grammy for best country album in 2017, so its album of the year nomination counts in the 2014-2018 tally. Similarly, Margo Price, whose albums chart on Top Country Albums, counts for her 2019 best new artist nomination.
Shelly Maree, the Recording Academy’s country awards manager, considers the low recent total cyclical, in part. “Right now, we’re in another lull period where you’re not hearing country played on top 40 [radio], so you’re not really hearing anybody break through like that, [while] rap and hip-hop and dance are having huge moments,” she says. “You can really kind of plop down into any decade or any five-year period in our top four nominations and you’re going to see reflected what is of the era at that moment.”
But for the country community, the absence of representation in the general field illuminates a bigger concern: that the genre doesn’t receive the broader attention it deserves, hurting its chances at nominations for those trophies. While the academy deems all Grammys equal, the four general-field categories carry more prestige and receive greater media attention.
“Generally speaking, country music remains outside of the large pop music tent, which includes many of the contemporary genres like pop and hip-hop and rock,” says Beverly Keel, Middle Tennessee State University dean of the College of Media and Entertainment and a former MCA Records Nashville executive. “I think a lot of Grammy voters may not even listen to country, and I think there is, in many voters’ minds, still a stigma about country that it’s not as sophisticated, hokey, the music of the conservatives.”
Additionally, despite the notable rise in streaming among younger country artists, the music lacks the global reach some pop-oriented genres enjoy. “Most country stars are not international stars like Beyoncé, Rihanna, Bruno Mars,” Keel says. “Country is largely limited to the United States and Canada, so it doesn’t have the reach, whereas a pop song may be No. 1 in 20 countries.”
As Mary Hilliard Harrington, manager for Dierks Bentley and Elle King, notes by email: “Even prior to 2019, country has been grossly underrepresented in the main categories. It has always been a problem.” The three mainstream country artists with the most career nominations are Willie Nelson (56), Dolly Parton (53) and Vince Gill (47) — but Nelson and Gill have each landed only one Big Four nomination (in 1983 and 2008, respectively), while Parton has earned two (most recently in 1988).
The current generation of country hit-makers hasn’t fared much better. Miranda Lambert, who is nominated in all four country categories this year, has never received a Big Four nomination despite 27 career nods (Though the writers of her hit, “The House That Built Me,” earned a song of the year nomination in 2011). Only one of Chris Stapleton’s 17 nominations has been in the general field, when Traveller received an album of the year nod for the 2016 Grammys. And one of country’s biggest new stars, Morgan Wallen, didn’t compete at all in 2022: He was shut out from Grammy nominations after his 2021 smash Dangerous: The Double Album was mired in controversy.
Country music has recently fared best in the new artist category, with Price, Luke Combs, Ingrid Andress and Jimmie Allen nabbing nominations since 2019. For the 2023 awards, Zach Bryan, the top new country artist on Billboard’s year-end charts, and rising star Lainey Wilson were both considered leading contenders for best new artist, and their respective labels (Warner Records and BBR Music Group) ran campaigns accordingly. But when nominations were announced in November, neither earned a best new artist nod, nor did anyone else from the genre. Though Wilson made significant press and TV appearances in an effort to reach as broad an audience as possible, Bryan made almost none, which sources say may have limited his exposure to Grammy voters.
Significantly, the overall voting pool lacks enough country advocates to consistently propel the genre into the Big Four without strong support from allies. Of the current 12,000-plus voting members, less than 10% identify with the country genre, according to the academy, compared with pop (23%), jazz (16%), rock (15%), R&B (15%), American roots (13%), alternative (10%) and classical (10%). (Voters can identify with as many genres as they want.) All voting members can cast ballots for the Big Four.
While qualifying creators can still apply to join the academy, following the recommendation of its Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion, in 2018 the academy began inviting creators to join as voting members. The move was meant to make the voting pool more reflective of the diverse creative community and initially focused on women, people of color and those under 40.
In recent years, however, potential new members who identify as country have received fewer invitations than peers in other popular genres. Of the 2,710 invitations extended in 2021, 9% of recipients identified with the country genre, with 13 other genres ranking higher. The highest percentage of invited voters identified as pop (29%), followed by R&B (23%), jazz (18%), alternative (18%), rock (16%) and rap (15%). In 2022, the academy welcomed nearly 2,000 new voting members; 9% cited country as their focus, compared with pop (33%), R&B (22%), alternative (19%) and rap (15%).
The country community’s easiest way to increase its odds would be by boosting its presence in the voting membership. “A really good place to start is talk to your friends and [ask], ‘Are you a Recording Academy member?’ And then step two is, ‘Are you voting?,’ ” Maree says. “This year, we were really encouraging our active members to fulfill that responsibility and use their voices, especially [since] the first round of voting directly dictates our nominations now that we no longer have nominating committees. ‘Are they voting?’ is the first thing we always ask people when they have any kind of questions about what they see when it comes to nominations day.”
Although Keel says a Grammy is “what people grow up dreaming about winning,” for country artists, the conversation doesn’t begin and end with one awards ceremony. More so than many other genres, country music has numerous awards shows to fete its own accomplishments, including the Country Music Association Awards, the Academy of Country Music Awards and the CMT Music Awards. Those ample additional opportunities to bring home trophies could help lessen the sting of a Grammy snub, Harrington says.
“At this point — because it’s nothing new — [the omissions are] more of an eye roll than outrage,” she says. “The country community is truly the best in terms of supporting its artists, celebrating great music and producing our own network television award shows. Being part of the Grammys is cool and a bucket list dream for a lot of artists, but we have it pretty good in Nashville. If we aren’t invited to that party, we’ll just throw our own.”
This story originally appeared in the Feb. 4, 2023, issue of Billboard.