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The Anointed Ones: The Grammys Place Bets On Country Music's Future

Sturgill Simpson may have an uneasy relationship with the Nashville establishment, but the Grammys have nominated him for Album Of The Year.
Courtesy of the artist
Sturgill Simpson may have an uneasy relationship with the Nashville establishment, but the Grammys have nominated him for Album Of The Year.

Like many awards shows, the Grammys are about more than just honoring artistic achievement: They're also about anointing ambassadors for a music industry that's forced to evolve as quickly and constantly as trends and technology mandate. Of course, the awards also attempt to represent dozens of far-flung genres, from traditional pop to EDM to country to jazz to Latin music to classical to rap and beyond.

The farther the Grammys stray from artists who dominate the mainstream cultural conversation and/or Top 40 — your Adeles and Beyoncés and Chainsmokerses — the more narrowly they've historically cast their lot. Which is how an artist like modern bluegrass standard-bearer Alison Krauss can become the most awarded singer in Grammy history with 27 trophies to her name; when the Grammy voters think of bluegrass and bluegrass-adjacent music, they think of Krauss and a handful of others rather than beating the bushes or scanning the press for discoveries. Same goes for Bonnie Raitt and blues in the early '90s, or Metallica and metal for decades. When the Grammys decide that an artist qualifies as a genre ambassador — and, by extension, an industry ambassador — the trophies tend to pile up by the literal armload.

Nowhere is the phenomenon of ambassadorship more easily spotted than in country music, which typically — but not always — merits at least one annual spot in the high-profile Best New Artist category. There, it's possible to get a clear read on whom the industry at large views as the face and/or future of country. In the past five years, the category has produced nominations for The Band Perry (2012), Hunter Hayes (2013), Kacey Musgraves (2014), Brandy Clark (2015) and Sam Hunt (2016), and this year features two choices in Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris. (No country artist has actually won the award since the Zac Brown Band in 2010.) Less frequently, an anointed country standard-bearer — setting aside Taylor Swift, who used to more evenly straddle the worlds of country and pop — turns up as an Album Of The Year nominee, like Lady Antebellum in 2011 and Chris Stapleton last year.

But in 2017, Album Of The Year offers up the Grammys' grandest country surprise in recent years. Many could have predicted Best New Artist nods for Morris and Ballerini — both of whom share some pop crossover appeal — but few anticipated Sturgill Simpson's A Sailor's Guide To Earth competing against four of the year's true juggernauts: Adele's 25, Beyoncé's Lemonade, Justin Bieber's Purpose and Drake's Views, all of which dominated A Sailor's Guide To Earth (and most other records, for that matter) in sales, airplay or streams last year. Though Bieber got the lion's share of the blame — as Bieber so often does — for keeping David Bowie's Blackstar out of contention, Simpson's record is the real dark horse here.

Given how often the Grammys' chosen genre ambassadors meet at a safe midpoint between critical acclaim and sales success, Simpson's nomination — for a record that's barely nudged country radio's playlists, and for an artist who's taken hard public swipes at the Nashville establishment — is a remarkable and welcome surprise. Maybe the Kentuckian's philosophical and occasionally psychedelic musings drift far enough afield from country to qualify as rock and roll; his Metamodern Sounds In Country Music was, after all, nominated for Best Americana Album in 2015. (For what it's worth, A Sailor's Guide To Earth is up for Best Country Album this year, nominated against Brandy Clark, Loretta Lynn, Maren Morris and Keith Urban.) But if Sturgill Simpson has become this year's topmost anointed country ambassador, he's done so without the full embrace of the Nashville establishment — and that makes his Album Of The Year nomination truly, well, bold. Ballerini or Morris could just as easily have taken that spot, and it wouldn't have shocked very many people.

So, can Sturgill Simpson — already arguably the Grammys' biggest surprise this year — pull the biggest upset of all and actually close the night with an Album Of The Year trophy in his hand? It's unlikely, but it sure isn't impossible. Consider the last time Beyoncé was up for this award, back in 2014: She was up against three other massively popular chart-toppers in Sam Smith (like Adele this year, considered a frontrunner), Ed Sheeran (like Bieber, a massive pop star) and Pharrell Williams (like Drake, a ubiquitous cross-genre presence). The winner that year? Beck's Morning Phase, a languid dark horse with appeal for the Grammys' older and more rock-leaning voters. Given the likelihood that Adele, Beyonce, Bieber and Drake cannibalize each other's voting blocs, history could well repeat itself Sunday night.

If he pulls off that upset, Sturgill Simpson will be more than just country music's latest Grammy-approved ambassador. He'll become, at least for a while, the biggest story in music.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)