When the country screening committee for the 64th annual Grammy Awards ruled last week that Kasey Musgraves’ Star-Crossed was not eligible to compete in the best country album category at the 2022 awards show, the decision raised questions about the process.
Cindy Mabe, president of Universal Music Group Nashville (UMGN), whose MCA Nashville imprint released Star-Crossed in a new joint venture with pop label Interscope Records, wrote a letter to Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. condemning the ruling: “This decision from the country committee to not accept star-crossed into the country albums category is very inconsistent and calls into question the other agendas that were part of this decision.”
Surprising as the decision may have seemed, given that Musgraves had taken home the Grammy for best country album two times previously and five of her six Grammy wins are in country categories, insiders revealed to Billboard the specifics of how the Musgraves decision came about.
The Recording Academy started the screening committees in 1989, and now says it has more than 350 “experts” across various genres, including rock, rap, jazz, classical, Latin and country, who meet to make sure the entries have been placed in the appropriate category. “The purpose of screenings is not to make artistic or technical judgments about the recordings, but rather to make sure that each entry is eligible and placed in its proper category,” according to the award show’s website.
The country committee this year included about 15 country executives and creatives, many of whom return each year and whose identities are not made public, according to a source. Via Zoom, over two days they reviewed all country submissions to determine if they had been correctly entered in the four country categories: best country solo performance, best country duo/group performance, best country song and best country album.
According to published rules and guidelines for Jan. 31’s Grammy Awards — and the definition used by the committee — the Grammys’ country field “recognizes excellence in country music recordings that utilize a stylistic intention, song structure, lyrical content and/or musical presentation to create a sensibility that reflects the broad spectrum of country music style and culture. The intent is to recognize country music that remains reminiscent of its culture’s legacy while also engaging contemporary forms that ‘push the boundaries’ but still are relevant in the collective country music culture. The Field includes recordings and songs that are country in content as opposed to those that may have a ‘country flavor,’ but are aimed at the contemporary or pop audience.”
For those submissions where there was disagreement over whether it was appropriately categorized as country — like Musgraves’ Star-Crossed — they took a vote to determine if it should stay in the country field. “This is not a quality issue. We just have to say is it country or is it not country,” says a source, who says the number of debated entries reached the low dozens. With Star-Crossed, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, the committee members listened to each track, evaluating instrumentation, lyrical content and Musgraves’ vocals, among other criteria, and decided to call a vote.
Most of the main country labels have representatives in the committee meeting and they are allowed to advocate for their entry, should it be called into question.
Unlike with the now disbanded nominating review committees, Grammy rules don’t require that stakeholders in a project recuse themselves for the vote in the screening committees, but often committee members in the room will bring up their involvement in the project for the sake of transparency.
With Star-Crossed, two members of the committee — someone from UMGN and a publisher who represented one of the writers — acknowledged they had worked on the album, sources say. One source says they can’t remember whether the two recused themselves or voted, but says their votes would not have changed the outcome. Another says the two were asked not to vote, but does not know if they voted or not. (Billboard has reached out to the two committee members, but they have not responded and Billboard is keeping their names anonymous.) The song “Camera Roll” from Musgraves’ album was, however, submitted and accepted in the best country song category.
In her letter, Mabe accused the members of the screening committee of playing politics and calls the whole process into question: “The idea that a handful of people including competitors, who would benefit from Kacey not being in the country category, are deciding what is country only exacerbates the problem. The system is broken and sadly not just for Kacey Musgraves but for our entire genre because of how these decisions are made for music’s biggest stage. Building roadblocks for artists who dare to fight the system is so dangerous and against everything I think the Grammy’s [sic] stand for. But that’s where we are today.”
“Someone has make to make these qualitative decisions,” says a source, “but the committee members tend to call each other out if they see someone has an agenda. Wouldn’t you rather have industry experts living this every day makes these decisions than the [Recording Academy] staff?”
Though an album’s marketing is not supposed to affect the committees’ decisions, this is Musgraves’ first album released in conjunction with Interscope and it has not had any singles serviced to country radio. “Justified” from Star-Crossed has become Musgraves’ highest charting single on two of Billboard’s pop-oriented radio charts: It climbs to No. 28 on Adult Pop Airplay and No. 13 on Adult Alternative Airplay for the charts dated Oct. 16 and is bubbling under the threshold for the Pop Airplay chart. After peaking at No. 22 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, “Justified” stands at No. 32 this week, while another album track, “Breadwinner,” is No. 48 on the same chart.
Following its vote, the country committee turned the submission over to the pop screening committee, who accepted it as a best pop vocal album contender. “Pop takes screening very seriously and doesn’t want to be a catch-all,” says a source. “They are mindful of that. They welcomed the album.”
Any disputes between the genre committees are adjudicated by The Grammys’ core committee — typically a group of 40 or more music creators and industry representatives including generalists and specialists from a range of genres. With Star-Crossed, a representative from Interscope requested that the core committee review the decision to move the album to pop — but after a full discussion, including a report recounting the country committee’s process and a listening session, the core committee voted that it belonged in the pop vocal album category. “It was a very democratic and fair process,” says a source. It is unclear how many, if any, country specialists were on this year’s core committee and the academy declined to comment.
It is not unprecedented for artists to get nominated and win in different genres in different years based on where the entry lands — whether originally submitted in that genre or moved by the committees. Beck won best alternative music album in 1997, 2000 and 2019, but won best rock album in 2015. Taylor Swift won country song in 2012 and pop vocal album in 2016 (though she had by then declared her intention to move from country to pop). Emmylou Harris has won in country, folk and Americana, while banjoist Bela Fleck has won in everything from folk to contemporary world music to country and classical crossover.
After the three reviews and votes by the country, pop and core committees, the decision on Star-Crossed’s move from country to pop is final. Write-ins are also not allowed on the ballot.
“The album was comprehensively and thoughtfully listened to, evaluated and discussed and voted on by three separate committees, who were all in firm agreement,” says a source. In addition to best pop vocal album, Star-Crossed will also be eligible for album of the year.
While the Grammy committee members have spoken, Musgraves and her fellow artists have spoken out too: Musgraves posted an Instagram story on Thursday featuring herself as a young girl in a pink cowboy hat and captioned it, “You can take the girl out of the country (genre), but you can’t take the country out of the girl.” She followed it with a series of photos of her with such country legends as Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, George Strait and Reba McEntire, tagging each artist in the photo and adding a comment, such as “Ain’t that right, Loretta Lynn,” or “What about you, Dolly?” She ended the post with a photo of her performing, extending her two middle fingers in the air. A number of the tagged artists reposted and responded including Strait who wrote, “Kacey, you’ve got my vote.”
Mabe was not available for further comment. Musgraves’ manager Jason Owen told Billboard, “I do not believe that I could articulate anything better than Cindy’s letter. She says it all and says it perfectly.” The Recording Academy and Interscope did not respond to request for comment.
Although Musgraves may feel Star-Crossed has been treated unfairly, she may be the ultimate winner, says a source, given the added exposure the controversy has brought to the project shortly before first round ballots arrive in voters’ inboxes and nominations are announced Nov. 23. “Everybody’s talking about the record now.”
(Editor’s note: Melinda Newman participated in the core committee a handful of times as a freelance journalist prior to returning to Billboard in 2017.)