Grammy Flashback: Best Country Album

A look back at the previous winners and nominees of the Best Country Album Grammy, updated to include the 2008 contenders.

The Grammys have been doing better in the country categories since they reintroduced the Best Country Album category in 1995, which had only been in existence for two years in the 1960′s. Prior to 1995, albums and singles were both eligible in the vocalist categories, so full albums would compete against single tracks in Best Country Vocal Performance, Male, for example.

Looking over the history of this fairly young category, you can see trends emerge, with certain acts clearly being favorites of NARAS. You see the same trend with the CMA’s, just with different people. What is clear with the Grammys is that radio and retail success will only carry you so far. For awards based on artistic merit, that’s how it should be.

As with the CMA Flashbacks, we’ll begin with a look at this year’s nominees, then discuss previous year’s in reverse chronological order. Winners are in bold.

 

2008

  • Dierks Bentley, Long Trip Alone
  • Vince Gill, These Days
  • Tim McGraw, Let it Go
  • Brad Paisley, 5th Gear
  • George Strait, It Just Comes Natural

Since this award was reintroduced in 1995, only two men have won: Lyle Lovett in 1997 and Johnny Cash in 1998. With five male artists nominated this year, a new name will be added to that list for the first time in ten years. His eighteen previous Grammy wins and presence in the general field Album of the Year category make Vince Gill the presumptive favorite, but Tim McGraw and Dierks Bentley have a stronger presence in the genre races, so they are serious contenders as well. Of course, the Grammys are rarely predictable, so George Strait or Brad Paisley winning their first award could also happen. Stay tuned.

 

2007

  • Dixie Chicks, Taking the Long Way
  • Alan Jackson, Like Red On a Rose
  • Little Big Town, The Road to Here
  • Willie Nelson, You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker
  • Josh Turner, Your Man

The Chicks became the first artists in Grammy history to win four genre Best Album awards, breaking their tie with Eminem, who has won three Best Rap Album trophies. This was one of five trophies they took home at the February 2007 ceremony, and the album returned to #1 on the country chart and back to the pop top ten on the strength of those victories.

2006

  • Faith Hill, Fireflies
  • Alison Krauss & Union Station, Lonely Runs Both Ways
  • Brad Paisley, Time Well Wasted
  • Gretchen Wilson, All Jacked Up
  • Trisha Yearwood, Jasper County

With the exception of Wilson’s lackluster second set, this is a great lineup. Yearwood is a perennial nominee in this category – every studio album she has released since the category was created has been nominated – but she’s never won. This year, it went to Alison Krauss & Union Station, which was Krauss’ 20th Grammy win.

2005

  • Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose
  • Tim McGraw, Live Like You Were Dying
  • Tift Merritt, Tambourine
  • Keith Urban, Be Here
  • Gretchen Wilson, Here For the Party

After its surprising exclusion at the CMA awards, Loretta Lynn’s tremendous comeback was acknowledged – during the live telecast, even! – at the Grammys in 2005. Van Lear Rose won over excellent albums by Hill and McGraw, but as the return to greatness of one of country’s most important singer-songwriters, who can argue with the call that NARAS made?

2004

  • Faith Hill, Cry
  • Lyle Lovett, My Baby Don’t Tolerate
  • Willie Nelson, Live & Kickin’
  • Willie Nelson & Ray Price, Run That By Me One More Time
  • Shania Twain, Up!
  • Various Artists, Livin’ Lovin’ Losin’: Songs of the Louvin Brothers

Classic Grammys. Pop-leaning artists with widespread cred across musical genres compete with low-selling critical favorites that most people have never heard of. Also Classic Grammys: a low-selling critical favorite wins, the stellar tribute album to The Louvin Brothers which featured appearances from legends and current artists. Go pick it up and check out Johnny Cash & Pam Tillis collaborating on “Keep Your Eyes On Jesus”.

2003

  • Dixie Chicks, Home
  • Alan Jackson, Drive
  • Willie Nelson, The Great Divide
  • Joe Nichols, Man With a Memory
  • Dolly Parton, Halos & Horns

As I’ve said before, Home is a masterpiece. Even in a generally strong category, there was no contest.  The Chicks have won this award for every studio album they’ve released, and they never deserved it more than when they won for this modern classic.

2002

  • Diamond Rio, One More Day
  • Tim McGraw, Set This Circus Down
  • Willie Nelson, Rainbow Connection
  • Various Artists, Timeless: Hank Williams Tribute
  • Trisha Yearwood, Inside Out

NARAS chose a solid tribute album over the studio albums of some great artists who had turned in some of their lesser works.

2001

  • Vince Gill, Let’s Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye
  • Faith Hill, Breathe
  • Alan Jackson, Under the Influence
  • Lee Ann Womack, I Hope You Dance
  • Trisha Yearwood, Real Live Woman

One of the more mainstream lineups the Grammys ever chose, voters went with the biggest album, though not really the best, in my opinion. The Gill record is a dud, but the other three nominees turned in great projects.

2000

  • Asleep at the Wheel, Ride With Bob
  • Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt & Dolly Parton, Trio II
  • Dixie Chicks, Fly
  • George Jones, Cold Hard Truth
  • Alison Krauss, Forget About It

The Chicks broke through to the general Best Album category for the first time as they picked up their second consecutive Best Country Album trophy.

1999

  • Garth Brooks, Sevens
  • Dixie Chicks, Wide Open Spaces
  • Faith Hill, Faith
  • Shania Twain, Come On Over
  • Trisha Yearwood, Where Your Road Leads

When the Chicks defeated Shania Twain in this category, there were audible gasps in the audience, but in retrospect, it’s easy to see why they won. There are four pop-leaning, light albums here, and the Chicks were the obvious alternative for voters who wanted to honor something with a bit more substance. By losing, Twain was eligible the next year and won two more Grammys to go with the two she got in other categories that night, so she ended up with four for that project, proving that sometimes losing is winning.

1998

  • Johnny Cash, Unchained
  • Alan Jackson, Everything I Love
  • Patty Loveless, Long Stretch of Lonesome
  • George Strait, Carrying Your Love With Me
  • Dwight Yoakam, Under the Covers

Four mainstream country albums competed against the only Cash album of the American era to be submitted in the Best Country Album category; the others vied for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Cash’s win led to his notorious ad in Billboard magazine, where a picture of him giving the middle finger was accompanied by a “thank you” to country radio for all of their support:

1997

  • Brooks & Dunn, Borderline
  • Vince Gill, High Lonesome Sound
  • Patty Loveless, The Trouble With the Truth
  • Lyle Lovett, The Road to Ensenada
  • Trisha Yearwood, Everybody Knows
  • Dwight Yoakam, Gone

You can trace a lot of the discontent with NARAS among the Nashville music industry back to this win, which infuriated Music Row. Over five mainstream hit country albums, the Grammy went to an alternative country artist who had cut all ties to Nashville almost a decade ago. After giving the Grammy to an artist that the Row didn’t take seriously the previous year, there was a feeling that NARAS was anti-Nashville, despite wins going to CMA favorites Brooks & Dunn and Vince Gill that same evening.

1996

  • Junior Brown, Junior High
  • The Mavericks, Music For All Occasions
  • John Michael Montgomery, John Michael Montgomery
  • Shania Twain, The Woman in Me
  • Trisha Yearwood, Thinkin’ About You
  • Dwight Yoakam, Dwight Live

Despite resounding commercial success, Twain was shut out of the CMA’s the previous fall, losing to Alison Krauss, who swept the ceremony. While she lost to Krauss at the Grammys also, in the Best Country Female category, Krauss was ineligible for Best Country Album. Twain took it home, making her first industry award the most prestigious one and validating her talent long before the CMA’s did, though the ACM’s selected The Woman In Me as their Top Album later that year.

1995

  • Asleep at the Wheel, Tribute to the Music of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys
  • Mary Chapin Carpenter, Stones in the Road
  • Vince Gill, When Love Finds You
  • Reba McEntire, Read My Mind
  • Trisha Yearwood, The Song Remembers When

My two favorite albums of all-time, Stones in the Road and Home (Dixie Chicks), have both triumphed in this category. Carpenter was the first artist to win after it being reintroduced, and with Twain winning the following year, the Grammys had suddenly matched the CMA’s total number of winning female artists, despite the CMA giving out the award many, many more times.

Best Country Album began as a category in 1995, but for two years in the sixties, a Grammy was awarded in the Best Country & Western Album category:

1966

  • Eddy Arnold, My World
  • Chet Atkins, More of That Guitar Country
  • Roger Miller, The Return of Roger Miller
  • Jim Reeves, The Jim Reeves Way
  • Hank Williams & Hank Williams Jr., Father and Son

Miller won for the second year in a row, with an album that featured his biggest hit, “King of the Road”, and two of my personal favorites: “Do-Wacka-Do” and “You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd.”

1965

  • Chet Atkins, Guitar Country
  • Johnny Cash, Bitter Tears
  • Roger Miller, Dang Me/Chug-a-Lug
  • Buck Owens, The Best of Buck Owens
  • Jim Reeves, The Best of Jim Reeves
  • Hank Willams Jr., Sings Songs of Hank Williams

It was inherently unfair to allow compilations to compete with all-new material, but Roger Miller won anyway, with a collection of witty songs that showcased his wry sense of humor, like the title cuts, “The Moon is High (And So Am I)” and “Lou’s Got the Flu.”

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18 Comments

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18 Responses to Grammy Flashback: Best Country Album

  1. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar

    1965 DANG ME was originally titled ROGER AND OUT, issued with a much more interesting cover. It was retitled when “Dang Me’”turned out to be a surprise hit

    1995 was a very strong year – the right album won but the Asleep at The Wheel album would have been a worthy winner as well.

    1997 justifiably touched off a firestorm. I have all of Lovett’s albums; THE ROAD TO ENSENADA is easily his weakest album

    2001 was a grotesque error, a total piece of tripe awarded a Grammy. This should have been Jackson’s year

    2002 saw a particularly weak set of nominees – they picked the right winner (of the albums nominated) but there have been many better Hank Williams tributes recorded over the years and there were many better albums issued that year – since I picked a 2002 album (TIME, Ray Price) as the best album of the period 1989-2006 clearly I feel that NARAS screwed up big time with their list of nominees . I also had the 2002- issued HOME in my top 100 list, but NARAS awarded it in 2003, a result of different calendaring

    No real dissent for the other years although I might have picked different winners depending upon the day of the week and my mood at the time. For 2007 The Grammy voters should pick Willie but …

  2. JonathanNo Gravatar

    Though I think the year’s best “country” albums typically end up nominated in the Best Contemporary Folk Album category in favor of some execrable Music Row pop albums, I generally like this category at the Grammys moreso than at the ACM or CMA awards– and they’re usually good for a surprise nomination or two.

    I agree with Paul about _The Road to Ensenada_ win in 1997– I’m a fan of Lovett’s, but he’d done far better work before and has done far better work since. I’d have nixed the Brooks & Dunn album, but that’s still a strong line-up, with Yoakam’s _Gone_ being my pick by a pretty sizeable margin. He’s never made a bad album, and that’s one of his absolute best.

    2001′s choice is the only one that I think is indefensible. _Real Live Woman_ is Yearwood’s best work since _Hearts in Armor_, and is a better-produced, better-performed, better-written album than Hill’s. It’s still more pop than country, but it was the best overall album nominated. But Yearwood was too full-figured to make it onto the stage of VH-1′s “Divas Live”, so there was no stopping _Breathe_.

    The Louvin Brothers tribute is terrific, and the Hank Williams tribute somewhat less so, though I would’ve voted for each of them in their respective years given the competition. And the glorious, inspired _Van Lear Rose_’s upset of Wilson’s overpraised debut was a wonderful surprise. I also think NARAS made the right choices with _Stones in the Road_ (the album that Carpenter has been re-recording to diminshed returns ever since), _Unchained_ (though the bottom fell out of the _American Recordings_ series thereafter), and The Dixie Chicks’ _Wide Open Spaces_ and _Fly_. I think _Home_ includes the group’s absolute finest moments, but I find the album wildly uneven, so I’m only lukewarm on its win.

    This year… Krauss is *such* a Grammy favorite that I’m wondering if her production job on _Like Red on a Rose_ could spring an upset on The Dixie Chicks. Had Jackson scored a nomination for Best Male Country Vocal Performance, I’d say it was a stronger possibility. Instead, The Dixie Chicks will win for the fourth time.

  3. Jonathan,
    I think you’re right about Jackson being a threat, since Krauss would receive a Grammy if the Album won; she’s won as a producer before, when Nickel Creek took Best Contemporary Folk Album for “This Side.”

    Still, I’m with you in thinking the Chicks are going to take it. They have the best-selling and most critically acclaimed album in the category, and they’re a Grammy fave, with 8 of them to call their own, including 3 Best Country Album and 4 Best Country Vocal Group Performance trophies. They’re not unbeatable, but I wouldn’t bet against them, either.

  4. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar

    More so than any other awards organization, especially in recent years, NARAS tends to find favorites and latch onto them, often seemingly refusing to look past that artist

    Henry Mancini won 20 Grammys and there is a classical orchestra conductor who has won more than Mancini did. Alison Krauss has won twenty which is about 12 too many, but she has become the darling of the Grammy set

  5. MattNo Gravatar

    This year’s crop of nominees is fairly strong with the exception of the Josh Turner album, which just seems to me to be composed primarily of meaningless filler. I don’t think the album is more than two hits deep. I expected nominations for two more deserving albums, Gary Allan’s “Tough All Over” and Roseanne Cash’s “Black Cadillac,” both of which received strong reviews outside of the Nashville circle.

  6. I’m not sure how one can decide how many Grammys a particular artist deserves. Why does Alison Krauss deserve 8, by your math, rather than 20? Which 12 races should she have lost and which 8 should she have won?

    Krauss and Vince Gill have so many Grammys because they’re both very versatile. Gill has won his 17 Grammys as an artist, musician, songwriter and producer. Krauss has also been cited as all of those but a songwriter, and both Gill and Krauss have scored Grammys in the collaboration categories. The nature of the ballot favors them because they have so many musical things they can do well.

  7. Greg

    Seems like Country Rock hasn’t fared to well with this voting bloc in recent years (and, is it fair to say that this is not the favorite strain of country to the writers on this site?) No Toby Keith noms, and some excellent Montgomery Gentry albums lose out. “Horse of a Different Color”, which is possibly my favorite country album of the decade, is not even nominated as well.

  8. That’s true in the album category, but Toby Keith has gotten a few nods over the years and so have Big & Rich. I happen to like “Horse of a Different Color” a lot myself. I thought it was a better record than the Gretchen Wilson debut that got so much attention the same year.

    Jonathan,

    I mean to note before that “Black Cadillac” did get a Grammy nomination this year, for Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album. I suspect that she’ll lose to Bob Dylan’s “Modern Times”, though. Cash was nominated in the same category for “Rules of Travel” a couple of years back. They just added the “Americana” part to the category this year.

  9. JonathanNo Gravatar

    I’ve read over the full list of the year’s Grammy nominees several times now, and I completely missed that “Americana” had been added to the Best Contemporary Folk Album category. Not that 108 categories isn’t enough, but there’s a “Best Urban Alternative Performance” category to recognize some of the more progressive work in the R&B field– I’d argue that the Country field is long overdue for a similar category.

    I think _Black Cadillac_ can give _Modern Times_ a run for its money– had Dylan landed the Album of the Year nomination that many people, myself included, predicted, I’d say it would be no contest. I like _Modern Times_ quite a lot, actually, but Cash’s record is such superior work that it would be a shame for it to go unrecognized.

  10. Jonathan,

    I’ll definitely be pulling for Cash. I think Black Cadillac is just amazing. It’s tricky to know how things will play out. Grammy voters are limited in how many fields they are allowed to vote in, which does a good job of weeding out uninformed voters in the genre categories. If enough people have heard Black Cadillac, she’s got a damn good shot. Superstars have lost in the category to lesser-known artists before. Hell, John Prine beat Bruce Springsteen last year!

  11. ChadNo Gravatar

    I agree re: the comments on the Americana/Contemporary Folk albums. I found when reading the nominations for them that I liked that grouping a whole lot more than the country albums (and I pretty much like all of those OK).

    I agree that Black Cadillac as a whole is the best CD, but I really appreciated Carpenter’s CD as well, especially the tracks On With the Song & Houston. Two masterpieces.

  12. ChadNo Gravatar

    Oops. Got confused as I was reading and didn’t realize that most of these posts were from last year (I was wondering why people were picking the country album from last year).

    I still mean what I said about the Americana category, but nix what I said about Rosanne Cash’s CD.

    For this year, my two favorite are MCC (see above) and Patty Griffin. I’m a big fan of both, but I just might have to go with MCC.

    As for the main country album category, I really liked Dierks Bentley’s CD, but I don’t see how there’s anyway that Gill will lose this one.

  13. Cowboy Blue

    Just throwing this out there, I don’t think Loretta deserved the grammy for Van Lear Rose. In my opinion it was just out of respect, not deservance of the award..but thats just my personal opinion.

  14. Aeroyacine

    Tim McGraw will gonna take a lot of Grammy’s this year!
    Long Life to You Tim!!

  15. PatrickNo Gravatar

    Cowboy Blue, Loretta Lynn’s album has been considered a classic among country music. On Metacritic, it’s tied with Led Zeppelin and Nirvana. Tell me that isn’t impressive.

  16. PatrickNo Gravatar

    And, for the record, Breathe may be poppish, but it is a fantastic album and it probably the highlight of Faith’s career

  17. And, for the record, Breathe may be poppish, but it is a fantastic album and it probably the highlight of Faith’s career

    I hope you mean commercial highlight/peak of her career, because Fireflies and Cry were her best works of the decade, and much stronger compared to Breathe.

  18. PatrickNo Gravatar

    Well, it’s my favorite Faith album and easily recieved the most critical reception. It’s one of CMT’s Top Country Albums.

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