There's a lot at stake for country music at this year's Grammy Awards — strong contenders like Chris Stapleton, Little Big Town and Sam Hunt all have a fair shot at some of the major categories, proving just how much the genre has permeated the mainstream (and how diverse it actually is, considering there's a whole lot of road between Hunt's "House Party" and Stapleton's "Outlaw State of Mind").
But within the country competitions themselves, there are some dynamic races that mix newcomers like Brothers Osborne and Cam with sure bets like Stapleton and Little Big Town. We dissect the nominees to explore who we think will win, who should win and who should have had a shot. The 58th Grammy Awards air Monday, February 15th, at 8:00 p.m./ET on CBS.
Best Country Solo Performance
"Burning House," Cam
"Traveller," Chris Stapleton
"Little Toy Guys," Carrie Underwood
"John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16," Keith Urban
"Chances Are," Lee Ann Womack
WHO WILL WIN: Stapleton's "Traveller." He has the perfect combination of critical success, insider appeal and CMA Awards cachet to snag the trophy and, as this is a category that awards the singer, there's simply no better male vocalist in country music today. (Which voters no doubt got a taste of during that howling CMA duet with Justin Timberlake). But Cam could walk away with the upset. Her "Burning House" has caught fire at both country radio and with critics. And never discount Underwood, who won last year for "Something in the Water," and whose "Little Toy Guns" is pure Carrie belt at its finest.
WHO SHOULD WIN: If we're talking vocals in general terms, it's hard to beat Stapleton. But "Traveller" itself actually isn't the best display of his mammoth pipes — songs like "Sometimes I Cry" are truer testaments to his unforgettable, unmatchable pitch. "Burning House," however, by newcomer Cam, is a stellar introduction to just how well this sun-drenched gal can sing. It's a classic in the making that is just as deserving of the prize.
WHO SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Eric Paslay's "She Don't Love You" should have been a contender here for his tender, emotional delivery — he far out-sung Urban on "John Cougar," a song more about raucous guitar and a fun chorus than showing off Urban's range.
Best Country Duo/Group Performance
"Stay a Little Longer," Brothers Osborne
"If I Needed You," Joey+Rory
"The Driver," Charles Kelley, Dierks Bentley and Eric Paslay
"Girl Crush," Little Big Town
"Lonely Tonight," Blake Shelton and Ashley Monroe
WHO WILL WIN: "Girl Crush," which is also nominated for Song of the Year, proof that it's crossed out of country into the pop-culture megasphere. It'll be near impossible to beat, and voting for it here might make the academy feel less guilty about choosing "Blank Space" instead in the all-genre Song category (the Grammys have traditionally had their own girl crush on Taylor Swift). Husband-and-wife duo Joey+Rory could also garner a sentimental vote, as Joey Feek battles cancer, while the triple-punch of "The Driver" may turn voters' heads. The song boasts killer harmonies and the star power of Paslay, Bentley and Kelley, beloved by the academy for his main act, Lady Antebellum. Still, it's pretty unlikely. Who the fuck is Charles Kelley, anyway?
WHO SHOULD WIN: "Girl Crush" deserves the title this year. And though there's little to no chance the brilliant vocal-guitar interplay of the Brothers Osborne will sneak up on LBT, it's good to know the dynamite duo is getting Grammy attention this early in their career. We'll see them again.
WHO SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Maddie & Tae. "Girl in a Country Song" should have made the cut last year, so nominating "Fly" would have been a nice consolation — their harmonies are tight, their instrumentation rich and their point-of-view instrumental in propelling the descent of bro country.
Best Country Song
"Chances Are," Hayes Carll (Lee Ann Womack)
"Diamond Rings and Old Barstools," Barry Dean, Luke Laird and Jonathan Singleton (Tim McGraw)
"Girl Crush," Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose (Little Big Town)
"Hold My Hand," Brandy Clark and Mark Stephen Jones (Brandy Clark)
"Traveller," Chris Stapleton (Chris Stapleton)
WHO WILL WIN: Once again, "Traveller" could have momentum in this category, but voters are probably more familiar with "Girl Crush" than Stapleton's album title track, which barely made a dent at country radio. Plus, the Grammys love songwriter Liz Rose, who has won an award before with Swift for "White Horse," when Tay-Tay was still a twanger. "Girl Crush" will edge out "Traveller" here, but it's a tighter race than it appears.
WHO SHOULD WIN: "Girl Crush" actually has more to say than "Traveller," and was an early adopter of the soulful sound currently dominating so much of modern country. Plus, it's a chance to award a dynamite team of songwriters (Rose, along with Hillary Lindsey and Lori McKenna), who all happen to be women — a rarity on Music Row. And though he has little chance, it's nice to see Carll on here, one of our better living country wordsmiths. Hopefully he'll be a contender again down the line.
WHO SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: The Cadillac Three's "White Lightning" could have edged out some of the sketchy lyricism on "Diamond Rings and Old Barstools," and Will Hoge's "Growing Up Around Here" is one of the smarter explorations of small-town life in recent memory — something country constantly claims to do, but often just trivializes.
Best Country Album
Montevallo, Sam Hunt
Pain Killer, Little Big Town
The Blade, Ashley Monroe
Pageant Material, Kacey Musgraves
Traveller, Chris Stapleton
WHO WILL WIN: This one is Stapleton's to lose, after Traveller swept the CMAs. And, as an overall album, it is absolutely deserving. It's a masterwork of the genre that will live on well past 2015. But watch out — Sam Hunt, nominated for Best New Artist, could easily be the dark horse here for his appeal that reaches well beyond just country. There would be some outrage, of course, but the Grammys have never shied away from controversy. Remember, last year Beck snagged Album of the Year from Beyoncé, so truly anything is possible. Still, expect to see Stapleton on stage for this one.
WHO SHOULD WIN: There are some fantastic albums in this category (hello, Monroe's The Blade), but Traveller is deserving.
WHO SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED: Kip Moore's Wild Ones hasn't sold particularly well, but it's an excellent LP that deserves to discussed amongst this group of elite artists. Ditto for High on Tulsa Heat by John Moreland and Hoge's Small Town Dreams. Grammy rock categories are more friendly to "indie" artists like Bon Iver and Alabama Shakes, so country should step up and do the same. Dwight Yoakam, Don Henley, Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard and George Strait were all also left out of contention — is there an age cutoff in the country Grammy department this year? Seems so. Guess they're still trying to make up for that Steely Dan debacle.