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A Case for Best Country Album at the 2016 Grammys

David Elliott
David Elliott

Five writers make a case for why each of the five great country albums nominated for Best Country Album deserve to take home the 2016 Grammy Award in February’s cover story.

David Elliott
David Elliott

Sam Hunt is one of the most polarizing acts to sweep country music in the last 10 years, and he’s also one of the best. Montevallo, his newly double-platinum debut album, pushed the boundaries of what constitutes “country music” so hard that the levees broke and spilled other genres in, but fans — and country radio — can’t seem to get enough. Montevallo debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and made itself cozy, sitting in the Top 10 for 58 consecutive weeks. It has churned out three platinum hits (“Leave the Night On,” “House Party,” “Break Up in a Small Town“) and one double-platinum single (“Take Your Time“), including three consecutive No. 1s.

Traditionalists love to hate Sam Hunt because he refuses to conform to the cowboy country formula, but storytelling is the interweave of what makes country music shine, and Hunt delivers a worthwhile tale with Montevallo. He’s got tricks in his flatbill and an army of support behind him. The album touts the most notable wordsmiths in the genre: Shane McAnally, Zach Crowell, Old Dominion‘s Matt Ramsey, Josh Osborne and Hunt himself all have writing credits.

An ex-girlfriend from Montevallo, Ala., inspired the album title and the songs behind its cover. It’s a roller coaster love story told in forty minutes, a breakdown of the kindling and fallout of a relationship. “Take Your Time” depicts a chance meeting and a cautious approach to getting to know someone. “Leave the Night On” — the first single and formal introduction to the record — maps out the early, lusty phase of the relationship. “House Party” is the lightest song on the album, setting the mood for nothing more than a party. It’s Hunt’s live show fist-pumper and the moment he really finds his energy onstage. It’s at this point in Montevallo that he’s at his most comfortable, but it’s not long before he’s conflicted.

Enter the inevitable breakup in “Break Up in a Small Town,” a speak-sing masterpiece painting small-town living and what it’s like to watch your ex find someone new just down the road. Hunt is trapped in a place that feels so small he can’t breathe. “Single for the Summer” brings a fresh crop of girls to chase and the adrenaline of freedom. It also brings the shame of pursuing something that just feels a little off and unfamiliar. “I’ve gone off the deep end, the company I’m keeping is messing me up
 / The good girls at home sleeping, while I’m out creeping til the sun comes up
,” he sings in “Single,” adding poetically that he’s “saying all the wrong things right.”

Hunt has the itch, but it’s painful to scratch. It’s an inner battle — he knows that come fall, he’ll be aching with lovesickness, but he’s brushing off the feeling in a battle with himself. “Single for the Summer” is simple, but one of the more relatable songs on Montevallo, and it showcases his clever songwriting.

Hunt’s co-writers will say he’s the hardest worker in Nashville — a songwriter who hammers away until a song reaches its most vulnerable, workable form. But he’s also got the numbers to back up the praises. Montevallo is the first debut country album to reach double-platinum status since Florida Georgia Line did it with Here’s to the Good Times in 2012, but more impressively, Hunt’s album is the fastest to hit the mark since Taylor Swift‘s debut in 2006. A year and a half after its release in October 2014, the songs that make up Montevallo have amassed a staggering 600 million streams. Not only has it turned enough ears in country music to offer Hunt a chance at Best Country Album, but also the all-genre Best New Artist at the 2016 Grammy Awards.

Sure, it’s a pop album at its core with country influence and R&B tinge, but this singer won’t be put in the box. Montevallo is like graffiti on City Hall, breaking the rules of what’s allowed, in a way that brings gawkers to admire its strange, innovative beauty. It’s Hunt’s mark, and it’s one deserving of a Grammy for Best Country Album.

— Amanda Hensel

David Elliott
David Elliott

After a long and varied career, Little Big Town reached a new commercial and artistic zenith with Pain Killer, their sixth studio album.

The follow-up to their 2012 commercial breakthrough, Tornado, Pain Killer keeps much of the same creative team intact, with producer Jay Joyce back behind the board and the magic songwriting trio of Liz Rose, Hillary Lindsey and Lori McKenna once again contributing to the tracks. The result is an album that’s just as satisfying as Tornado, but even stronger and more diverse.

The group’s diversity has always been both its strength and in some ways its weakness in that there are four capable lead vocalists. That means they can cover an unusual amount of musical terrain, but in the past it has been difficult for LBT to break out of the pack with a strong group identity, despite being widely recognized and much-awarded as one of the most respected vocal groups in country music. 

Pain Killer follows in Tornado‘s footsteps by emphasizing Karen Fairchild more as the principal lead vocalist in Little Big Town; she sings five of the 13 tracks, and doubles with Kimberly Schlapman on another. Having her anchor those songs gives a certain continuity to the sound despite tracks that essay an enormous range of moods, influences and styles. The result is a very cohesive record — not an easy feat when you’re working with a palette that includes country, rock, soul and pop influences all swirled together.

Fairchild contributes standout vocals to the album’s title track as well as the funky empowerment anthem “Turn the Lights On” and both of the album’s hits, “Day Drinking” and “Girl Crush.” Her aching vocal turn on “Girl Crush” is worth the price of admission alone; she takes what could have been a difficult piece of subject matter and makes the listener understand and even sympathize with the narrator, whose jealousy over the object of her desire’s current flame has turned into full-fledged obsession.

That song is one of the most unusual to play at country radio in … well, forever, with its subject matter and 6/8 time. It was a huge risk to release it — the song had to overcome initial reluctance before it found traction — but it went on to shatter decades-old records for the longest run at No. 1 in the history of country music, spending 13 weeks atop Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart. Oh, and it’s nominated for Best Country Song, Best Country Duo/Group Performance and the all-genre Song of the Year category at the 2016 Grammys.

“Girl Crush” its centerpiece, Pain Killer is the undeniable contender for Best Country Album because every track is a winner in its own way, from the sardonic, electric guitar–driven “Quit Breaking Up With Me” to the reggae feel of the title track, to the ’70s funk-inflected “Turn the Lights On,” which marries a get-down acoustic riff and a big guitar solo to a groove that’s reminiscent of the Temptations. Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet lay down a soulful vocal on “Stay All Night,” one of the album’s two good-time party songs, while the perpetually sweet and sunny Schlapman unleashes a previously hidden ferocity on the rock-heavy “Save Your Sin.” The uptempo pop of “Good People” and lilting acoustics of “Live Forever” and “Silver and Gold” balance out the heavier elements of the record, and the group’s signature four-part harmonies tie all of the songs together.

The group members contributed extensively to the songwriting as well, co-writing eight of Pain Killer‘s 13 tracks while drawing on some of the top writers in Nashville for some of the others, including Busbee, Natalie Hemby, Shane McAnally, Barry Dean, Ross Copperman and more.

Joyce’s deft production is the final element that makes the album come together so well. He doesn’t hesitate to depart from the country music script whenever and wherever he feels like it’s the right thing to do, layering more traditional instruments with ganjo, tiple, bells, pump organ, vibes and even synth horn parts for thoroughly entertaining arrangements that reveal some new detail with virtually every new listen, resulting in an album that is engaging from the very start, but also holds up remarkably well over time. Pain Killer is that rare combination of commercial appeal and artistic merit, and is more than deserving of winning Best Country Album at the 2016 Grammy Awards.

— Sterling Whitaker

David Elliott
David Elliott

The Blade, Ashley Monroe‘s Grammy nominated album is — for better and worse — intoxicating. The 13 songs bring about euphoric buzz, a few hard-earned tears and, eventually, a long and emotional hangover. Like a red wine Friday night, Monroe’s latest project is timeless.

The album produced just one single, and radio rejected it like the football quarterback rejects the No. 1 chair flutist — but that’s almost a stamp of approval. Just look at fellow Best Country Album nominees Chris Stapleton and Kacey Musgraves, two more acts that’d been cast aside by indifference in recent years. The Grammys’ 2016 class of nominees foreshadows a return to the mid 2000s, when albums by Vince Gill, Alison Krauss and Loretta Lynn took home hardware over more mainstream names.

Monroe’s “On to Something Good” only peaked at No. 53 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart. It’s the first song on The Blade and in no way is it symbolic of the entire album. It’s beautiful, but unusually happy. “Wheels are gonna rust / If they don’t turn enough …” Monroe sings over a Gill / Justin Niebank arrangement that can be fairly labeled as retro pop-country. Her story is pinned down with optimism and buoyancy. Sunshine looks good on Monroe.

“… Or so the story goes / Hell I’ve been one of those, worn and faded by the rain.”

Heartbreak follows. “I Buried Your Love Alive,” “Bombshell,” “The Blade” and “If Love Was Fair” are four that cut close to the bone. Miranda Lambert joins Monroe to sing “The Blade,” and the East Tennessee native says it’s among the most heartbreaking songs she’s ever recorded, but “I Buried Your Love Alive” is more effective. The drama recalls an Edgar Allen Poe poem. Monroe co-wrote this moody, rhythmic country swinger with Matraca Berg, and she sings it like she’s being chased by ghosts.

“Woke up this morning in a cold, cold sweat / Heartbroken, beating out of my chest / Cried out your name, against my will / A memory I can’t fill / I buried your love alive.”

This is the kind of creativity country music needs. The “Tear in My Beer” template has expired. Monroe is raw, real and relies on agony and anxiety like she enjoys the torture. It’s an emotional masochism that’s difficult to turn away from. In front of her is a chamber full of fresh ways to describe her pain, and all play like movies.

“If I did a little drinking, it’d numb me into thinking I could tell you face to face / If I hardened my heart, I’d tear us apart so I wouldn’t have to carry this weight / Here on my shoulder / I’d tell you it’s over instead of keeping it to myself / Morning or midnight / It’ll never be a good time, to drop a bombshell,” she sings on “Bombshell.”

The Blade is an album without comparable contemporaries. Few would call the 13 songs anything but country, but it’s that tricky modifier that always trips people up. Traditional country? Sometimes. Bluegrass country? Sure. Notes of jazz, blues and swing grease a track that the singer glides over effortlessly. Some simply won’t care for her refined approach, but even those people will admit she’s extremely talented. Her timeless voice soothes the twists and knots left behind after a grinding workweek. Her melodies quiet the room, pushing tension toward the exits with cruel and beautiful efficiency. It was an album country needed in 2015, and arguably one that cracked a door for singers such as Stapleton to storm through.

The album became a surprisingly high-profile release, as it dropped the same week Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton divorced, and both A-listers promoted the album via Twitter in the days that followed their news. An East Nashville showcase brought a broken Lambert to the stage with Monroe, as well as other dignitaries like Gill. Monroe sang for nearly an hour, her voice replicating the notes and inflections left on tape.

Despite the cameos, The Blade was the star of its own show. A ballad called “Has Anybody Ever Told You” is classic, simple and elegant. Conversely, a 4/4-time romper called “Winning Streak” relies on biting self-deprecation as another method of seduction. Simply put, Monroe is a Siren.

“If losing’s a game / I’m a winning streak,” she sings as her big band supports her with piano and standup bass.

Give credit to Gill and Niebank for finding the right players to support Monroe on this project. The album shows growth (although Like a Rose was hardly an adolescent effort), but stays true to who Ashley Monroe is: an uncompromising, brutally honest country chanteuse with the courage to write and choose the songs that reveal all of her vulnerabilities.

— Billy Dukes

David Elliott
David Elliott

Kacey Musgraves is a pro at making old school–style country for the modern era. Her major-label debut, 2013’s Same Trailer Different Park, took home Best Country Album at the 2014 Grammy Awards, and two years later, her sophomore effort, Pageant Material, gives the singer-songwriter a solid shot at going two-for-two in the category.

Released in June of 2015, Pageant Material — which debuted crowning the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and at No. 3 on the all-genre Billboard 200 — finds Musgraves doing what she does best: melding traditional country sounds with whip-smart lyrics that are equal parts pun-tastic, vulnerable, self-deprecating, sassy and, above all, honest. Working once again with Luke Laird and Shane McAnally as her co-producers and Brandy Clark, Laird, McAnally and Josh Osborne as her co-writers (with assists by Ashley Arrison and Natalie Hemby), Musgraves doesn’t fix what ain’t broken — but she does add to it, showing even more emotional depth than on her freshman disc.

From the get-go, Musgraves lets listeners know what they’re in for: “High Time,” Pageant Material‘s opening number, may as well have been commissioned as the theme song for some hipster’s Western film. The artist weaves together classic country instrumentation (and whistling!), her pitch-perfect vocals and double-entendre lyrics that, depending on your inclination, are all about “getting rid of the flash” or … well, getting high. “Die Fun” — another of Pageant Material‘s strongest songs, which comes three-quarters of the way into the track listing — features lyrics that speak to the quarter-life crisis that many 20-somethings experience and works as a stellar motto for life (“love hard, live fast, die fun”). But “High Time” includes lines that act as Musgraves’ musical mantra: “Been missin’ my roots / I’m gettin’ rid of the flash.”

It helps that Musgraves doesn’t need to rely on flash. Instead, and better yet, she’s got substance. Four songs into Pageant Material, she pulls out her best one-two punch: the record’s title track, followed by “This Town.” The former is hilariously honest, featuring a laugh-out-loud chorus (“It ain’t that I don’t care about world peace / But I don’t see how I can fix it in a swimsuit on a stage” is just one of the standout turns of phrase, though it’s exceptionally hard to rank favorite lines in this song). The latter is a catchy reminder that six degrees of separation and karma are both very real (“As big as we’re gettin’ / This town’s too small to be mean”). You needn’t be a small-town Southern girl to feel Musgraves’ sentiments in either tune.

The singer also has a friend and advocate in none other than the legendary Willie Nelson, a fellow Texan and her duet partner on Pageant Material‘s hidden track, “Are You Sure.” The re-recording of a song from Nelson’s 1965 album, Country Willie — His Own Songs, melds seamlessly into Musgraves’ original material. If Musgraves and Nelson’s collaboration is a litmus test for just how well the 27-year-old does classic country, she passes with flying colors.

Of course, Pageant Material features plenty of what has earned Musgraves fans, (albeit moderate) chart success, awards and critical acclaim throughout her career thus far. “Biscuits,” the project’s lead single, is the toe-tapping, singalong-ready younger sister of Same Trailer Different Park‘s “Follow Your Arrow” (which is no surprise, given that the two tracks came out of the same writing sessions), while “Cup of Tea” is another reminder that the best thing you can be is yourself. And then there’s “Family Is Family,” a musical ode to the fact that you can’t pick your relatives that’s equal parts straight-up hilarious (many a songwriter likely wishes they’d written the lines “They own too much wicker / And drink too much liquor”) and sweet-yet-saucy (“Family is family / In church or in prison”). Is there another Best Country Album nominee that makes her listeners giggle while listening the way that Musgraves does?

No. But where Pageant Material shines in a way that truly sets it apart from Musgraves’ previous work is in its love songs. Same Trailer Different Park‘s track listing includes a couple of romantic tunes (“I Miss You,” “Keep It to Yourself”), but Musgraves gives her listeners something new on her sophomore record with a handful of sweet-but-not-sappy tracks. Steel guitar accents the singer’s high notes on the mellow, lush “Late to the Party,” while “Somebody to Love,” which comes halfway through the disc, changes up Musgraves’ script with beautiful strings. Closing the album is “Fine,” a song that’s sneakily full of, as the kids say, “all of the feels” and really hits home how the artist has matured, both musically and personally, since the beginning of her career.

Doing things her own way, Musgraves has managed to uphold country music’s traditions while developing a broad fanbase that stretches beyond country music’s traditional audience. In “Good Ol’ Boys Club,” she sings, “I don’t need a membership to validate / The hard work I put in and the dues I paid” — but 2016’s Best Country Album Grammy would be nice.

— Angela Stefano

David Elliott
David Elliott

Nashville can be a very competitive town. After all, there are only so many slots on the playlists of radio stations throughout the country, and fewer slots for nominations on an awards show. So, it stands to reason that artists are very mindful of their respective place in line — and definitely want to keep that spot.

But in the case of Chris Stapleton, the format has made an exception. The Lexington, Ky., native has managed to be a uniting force for Music Row with the release of his debut solo disc Traveller. Released on May 5 of last year, the album immediately picked up incredible reviews but little airplay from major market radio.

Things started to change a little for Stapleton in September, when the nominations were announced for the 49th annual CMA Awards. He found himself nominated in four categories. That began a groundswell of conversation. Then it was announced that Stapleton would be performing on the ABC telecast alongside pop icon Justin Timberlake.

On awards show night, the bearded singer surprised many by picking up the first award for which he was nominated: Album of the Year. He quickly added wins in the New Artist of the Year category and Male Vocalist, unseating Blake Shelton after a five-year run. Throw in the performance with the unmatched Timberlake — a vocal tour de force and the performance of the night — and Stapleton was one of the most trended public figures the next day. Radio finally found the baton, and Traveller‘s sales increased by an amazing 6,000%. That recognition has continued through the recent announcement of the Academy of Country Music Award nominations, as well as the 2016 Grammy Awards, where Stapleton finds himself in the running for four trophies, including Best Country Album and the overall Album of the Year prize, which spans all genres.

Talk to any of Stapleton’s contemporaries and they’ll applaud his rise. Having written many of the biggest hits for those artists (and others), the industry is quite aware of the deep musical talent that Stapleton possesses. Throw in his much heralded work with the Steeldrivers and you get a sense that the singer has one of the biggest fan clubs among his fellow artists of anyone else.

As America gears up for the 2016 Grammys telecast, many are contemplating Stapleton’s chances for recognition. It’s a safe bet to put him in the winner’s circle at least once. Even in pulling away from the publicity hype, Traveller is the best album released by a Nashville artist in over a decade, and the story of the disc began from a longtime ingredient in country music: real life.

Stapleton’s father passed away in the fall of 2013, and it forced him to take stock of his life and do a little bit of soul-searching. His wife bought him a Jeep, and as the two were driving it back from Arizona, the singer began to ponder about music — specifically the type that his father loved. Out of that thought process, he wrote the Traveller title track, which was completed before the couple got back to Tennessee. His vocals on the track echo with pain, but there’s a lot of redemption as Stapleton sets out in search of truth. “Nobody to Blame” follows the outlaw style made famous by Jennings and Nelson in the 1970s, while “The Devil Named Music” might very well rank as the underrated masterpiece of the album. People always refer to the sparkle a star makes, but never before has an artist reached so deep to tell of the price one pays for that light. And who covers a classic like “Tennessee Whiskey” by George Jones these days? In Stapleton’s case, someone who pulled it off, giving the chestnut a much different feel.

The often-heard saying that country is about real life is an overused cliché. But with Traveller, Chris Stapleton has cut an album that unites his fellow artists with fans who have been yearning for the “real thing.” It’s in this package.

— Chuck Dauphin

Our Predictions for the 2016 Grammy Awards

Next: See All Country Grammy Nominees

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