Country at the Grammys: Why nods for singers in new artist, album categories are unusual

Ahead of the Grammy Awards on Feb. 12, some are intrigued by Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris making the cut for the best new artist prize. Meanwhile, Sturgill Simpson's album of the year nod is making others sit up and take notice.

Mark Humphrey/AP
Maren Morris poses in Nashville, Tenn. on May 31, 2016.

Country singers Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini are two of the musicians nominated in the best new artist category at the 2017 Grammy Awards, an unusual move, while singer Sturgill Simpson's nod for album of the year has surprised others.

Ms. Morris and Ms. Ballerini will be vying for the prize alongside Chance the Rapper, the duo the Chainsmokers, and Anderson .Paak. 

The album “Hero,” Morris's first to come out via a big label, arrived in 2016,while Ballerini released her debut album, “The First Time,” in 2015. Mr. Simpson, whose album "A Sailor's Guide to Earth" is up for one of the night's top awards, released his first solo album in 2013.

All together, that trio's success could signal an important moment for the country genre. Morris and Ballerini's nominations are the first time in history that two country singers have been nominated for the same award at the same time, according to Billboard writer Tom Roland. Country singer Brad Paisley was nominated for the prize in 2001, alongside singer Shelby Lynne, but Ms. Lynne was transitioning away from country and toward rock at the time, Mr. Roland notes.

Morris and Ballerini’s genre has experienced an increase in popularity over the last several years, and now Forbes contributor Brittany Hodak predicts continued success ahead for the artists themselves. “Look for Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini to continue to make waves in 2017,” Ms. Hodak writes, saying that she sees 2017 becoming an overall “year of the female artist in country music.” 

But there's another interesting story for country music at the Grammys, writes NPR's Stephen Thompson. Musician Sturgill Simpson, who embraces rock and country sounds, received a nod this year in the album of the year category for his work “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.”

Morris and Ballerini "share some pop crossover appeal," Mr. Thompson writes, making their nominations less surprising. "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."

"If Sturgill Simpson has become this year's topmost anointed country ambassador, he's done so without the full embrace of the Nashville establishment," Thompson writes, "and that makes his Album Of The Year nomination truly, well, bold."

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