HITS Daily Double


In country music, where radio doesn’t really embrace women and many fans still actually buy records, it can get confusing telling who’s in play, who matters and who’s genuinely connecting artist to artist.

With COVID raging on, vaccines and mask mandates, touring wasn’t a solid place to launch records during the eligibility period, yet several artists still brought strong work to market. If Grammy doesn’t go all female like last year, this may nonetheless turn out to be a fascinating and diverse Country Album of the Year category.

To paraphrase the goddess Dolly Parton, let’s go eight for five on how the front-runners shake out.

Carly Pearce, 29: Written in Stone (Big Machine): Pearce rebounded from a tough year by digging into her country roots, writing about her messy divorce and capturing an arc of survival to thriving. Her emotion-soaked vocals struck a chord with fans, radio and fellow artists. Following Pearce’s wins for 2020 CMA Vocal Event and 2021 ACM Single and Vocal Event as well as her first CMA Album and Female Vocalist nominations, momentum is on the side of the woman who enlisted Patty Loveless and Ashley McBryde for Written in Stone’s bloodletting.

Chris Stapleton, Starting Over (Mercury Nashville): Easily country’s most soulful writer/singer/star, Stapleton eschews sizzle for substance. Starting Over is a meditation on just that from the man whose 2015 debut, Traveller, and 2017 follow-up, From a Room: Vol. 1, won Best Country Album in 2016 and 2018. Writing with Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, NRBQ’s Al Anderson and wife Morgane Stapleton while covering John Fogerty and Guy Clark, the Adele favorite has honed his raw-boned country to the extent that he’s now viewed as the lone heir to original Outlaw Waylon Jennings.

Miranda Lambert (with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall), The Marfa Tapes (RCA Nashville): Lambert has won this category twice—in 2015 for Platinum and 2021 for Wildcard. She’s had two additional nominations, while her girl group, Pistol Annies, was nominated for Interstate Gospel. Randall won in 1992 as part of Emmylou Harris & the Nash RamblersAt the Ryman and is a favorite in bluegrass and Americana circles. Ingram is a Texas institution whose presence swings weight with the Texas chapter. Stripped-down and acoustic, The Marfa Tapes is a writers’ retreat among friends and intimate in a way country records no longer are.

Mickey Guyton, Remember Her Name (Capitol Nashville): If any artist had a breakout year, it was Guyton; she was the first Black woman nominated for a Solo Country Grammy, performing (memorably) on the telecast, co-hosted the ACM Awards and gave birth to her first child. All that is impressive, but then there’s Remember Her Name, an album that distills the experience of being Black and female in country music. As a song cycle, it works; as individual songs, “Love My Hair,” “Dancing in the Living Room” and “Do You Really Wanna Know” expand on her previous Loretta Lynn-honest slices of life.

Dan + Shay, Good Things (Warner Nashville): It’s obvious that Grammy loves Dan + Shay, who’ve won Best Country Duo or Group Performance for three years running. Good Things includes their Grammy-winning “10,000 Hours” collab with Justin Bieber as well as songs co-written with Shawn Mendes, Julia Michaels, Tayla Parx, Poo Bear and Ryan Lewis. Doubling down on their luxurious pop country, Dan + Shay cross over, then cross back for a life-affirming oeuvre all their own.

Jimmie Allen, Bettie James Gold Edition (BBR/Stoney Creek): Allen is purveyor of old-school ’90s country, but he’s not afraid to mix things up. Reaching across genres, the Delaware-born singer is equally comfortable tapping rap, Latin and urban influences via Babyface, Nelly, Monica, Vikina and Pitbull as he is embracing the best of what Keith Urban, Tim McGraw, Little Big Town and Brad Paisley bring to country. He can do pure pop with Noah Cyrus, Christian with Tauren Wells, Rita Wilson and the Oak Ridge Boys and embrace fellow Black country groundbreakers Darius Rucker, the late Charley Pride, Guyton and Breland. The album is soul country at its finest.

Brothers Osborne, Skeletons (EMI Nashville): With seven Grammy nominations under their belts, including a 2018 Best Country Album nod for Port Saint Joe, Brothers Osborne brought a ton of confidence to Skeletons—a muscular, lived-in slab of musicianship-forward big-boy country. With TJ’s deep ’n’ sexy vocal presence and John delivering guitar parts that drive songs forward instead of gratuitously showing off, the three-time CMA Vocal Duo created an album that throws down swagger and sweaty exuberance. Writing with Grammy nominee Hayes Carll, Highwomen member/solo artist Natalie Hemby, Luke Dick and Kacey Musgraves collaborators Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian, the Brothers have delivered their most personal project to date.

Morgan Wallen, Dangerous: The Double Album (Big Loud/Republic): Whether you strip away the massive streaming numbers or not—and notwithstanding the outcry that resulted from his use of a racial slur—the fact remains that Wallen delivered a two-record core sample of what it means to grow up in the flyover zone. One album largely wrestles with falling in love, getting splattered by love and trying to recover from love; the other is predominantly a good-time batch of songs about drinking, girls and having fun. Along the way Wallen draws on material from and collaborations with Stapleton, Eric Church, Diplo and Jason Isbell. Unlike the ACMs, which ruled Dangerous ineligible, the Grammys have yet to take a stand on the controversy, so he may be on his way to what under other circumstances would be a guaranteed nomination.

Traditionalists: Last year was young and female. This year, who knows? It’s unlikely any of the following deserving titles from old-guard artists making hard-core country will land in the final five. But given the quality of these LPs—especially Alan Jackson’s 21-song master class in and requiem for everything the genre once contained—perhaps what Merle Haggard, George Jones, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams created will still resonate.

Alan Jackson, Where Have You Gone (ACR/EMI Nashville)
Loretta Lynn, Still Not Woman Enough (Sony Legacy)
Willie Nelson, That’s Life (Sony Legacy)