Updated for 2008
While the Grammys have honored country music from the very first ceremony in 1959, they did not begin honoring by gender until 1965, when the country categories were expanded along with the other genre categories. We’ll take a look back at the early country category after recapping all of the modern categories in a later Grammy Flashback.
In the meantime, here is a rundown of the Best Country Vocal Performance, Female category. It was first awarded in 1965, an included single competing with albums until the Best Country Album category was added in 1995. When an album is nominated, it is in italics, and a single track is in quotation marks.
I’ve often made the case that female artists were making the best music in the 1990’s, and the Grammys did a great job nominating songs and albums that were ignored at the CMA and ACM awards, which is not surprising, given that those shows have so few categories that are actually for songs and albums.
As usual, we start with a look at this year’s nominees and work our way back.
- Alison Krauss, “Simple Love”
- Miranda Lambert, “Famous in a Small Town”
- LeAnn Rimes, “Nothin’ Better to Do”
- Carrie Underwood, “Before He Cheats”
- Trisha Yearwood, “Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love”
Looking at this lineup, you’d think that we were in a golden age of female country artists, something akin to the mid-nineties. In reality, only one of these songs was a big radio hit, though three others managed to go top twenty. In terms of quality, however, this is the most consistent and thoroughly wonderful set of nominees this category has seen this century. Seriously. You’d have to go back to exactly 1999 to find a better one.
As for likely winners, only a fool would bet against Carrie Underwood, even though twenty-time Grammy winner Alison Krauss will score many votes for “Simple Love”, one of her finest performances to date. But “Before He Cheats” is a crossover mega-hit, and those have a tendency to win – Shania Twain and Faith Hill each have a pair of wins in this category for their biggest pop-country hits. In a year when any winner would be deserving, Underwood having huge success with such a ballsy record will be rewarded.
- Miranda Lambert, “Kerosene”
- Martina McBride, “I Still Miss Someone”
- LeAnn Rimes, “Something’s Gotta Give”
- Carrie Underwood, “Jesus, Take the Wheel”
- Gretchen Wilson, “I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today”
Carrie Underwood’s award show golden streak capped off its inaugural year with two big wins at the Grammy awards: Best New Artist and Best Female Country Vocal Performance. It wasn’t the first time a country artist won both awards – LeAnn Rimes did so exactly ten years earlier – but Rimes didn’t do so on the heels of huge ACM and CMA wins. Underwood’s dominance was truly unprecedented.
- Emmylou Harris, “The Connection”
- Faith Hill, “Mississippi Girl”
- Gretchen Wilson, “All Jacked Up”
- Lee Ann Womack, “I May Hate Myself In The Morning”
- Trisha Yearwood, “Georgia Rain”
Emmy’s been nominated for many obscure tracks in this category; this time, she actually won with one, a new recording tacked on the end of a career-spanning compilation. I would’ve given it to Trisha or Lee Ann, but I could never begrudge Harris. She’s the gold standard.
- Alison Krauss, “You Will Be My Ain True Love”
- Loretta Lynn, “Miss Being Mrs.”
- Martina McBride, “In My Daughter’s Eyes”
- Shania Twain, “She’s Not Just a Pretty Face”
- Gretchen Wilson, “Redneck Woman”
This year surprised me. I expected Lynn to sweep the country categories, though she did pick up wins in two other categories. Wilson’s hit was huge, though, and we didn’t know she was a one-trick pony, since she was still on her first trick.
- June Carter Cash, “Keep On the Sunny Side”
- Patty Loveless, “On Your Way Home”
- Martina McBride, “This One’s For the Girls”
- Dolly Parton, “I’m Gone”
- Shania Twain, “Forever and For Always”
Cash would’ve had a great shot if she was still alive; dying the previous year clinched it. It’s worth noting that Twain and Loveless are cited for performances that rank among their best work.
- Faith Hill, “Cry”
- Martina McBride, “Blessed”
- Dolly Parton, “Dagger Through the Heart”
- Lucinda Williams, “Lately”
- Lee Ann Womack, “Something Worth Leaving Behind”
One of Hill’s best vocal performances to date, plus a big crossover hit, so I’m not surprised she won. Gotta say that Womack has a great song, but the version nominated is overproduced; the alternate version that closes the album of the same name is much better.
- Sheryl Crow, “Long Gone Lonesome Blues”
- Jamie O’Neal, “There Is No Arizona”
- Dolly Parton, “Shine”
- Lucinda Williams, “Cold, Cold Heart”
- Trisha Yearwood, “I Would’ve Loved You Anyway”
Parton’s most ambitious recording in years, a reworking of the Collective Soul rock smash into a spiritual mountain hym, was the rightful winner.
- Faith Hill, “Breathe”
- Jo Dee Messina, “That’s the Way”
- Dolly Parton, “Travelin’ Prayer”
- Lee Ann Womack, “I Hope You Dance”
- Trisha Yearwood, “Real Live Woman”
Yearwood’s song ranks among my favorites of her storied catalog, and Womack was in the running for her career record, but Hill’s biggest hit was unstoppable. She sang the hell out of it, too, one of the only redeemable moments from the album of the same name.
- Emmylou Harris, “Ordinary Heart”
- Faith Hill, “Let Me Let Go”
- Alison Krauss, “Forget About It”
- Martina McBride, “I Love You”
- Shania Twain, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!”
Her loss in the album category the previous year allowed for more tracks from Come On Over to be eligible in 2000, and Twain repeated with the opening cut of that mammothly successful project.
- Emmylou Harris, “Love Still Remains”
- Faith Hill, “This Kiss”
- Shania Twain, “You’re Still the One”
- Lee Ann Womack, “A Little Past Little Rock”
- Trisha Yearwood, “There Goes My Baby”
Twain’s ballad was nominated in the Record and Song general categories, and won for Best Country Song. Here, she won over a very strong lineup. I’m most impressed that NARAS cited “Love Still Remains”, Harris’ gorgeous contribution to a low-profile Kate Wolf tribute that also included a great track from Kathy Mattea.
- Deana Carter, “Did I Shave My Legs For This?
- Patty Loveless, “The Trouble With the Truth”
- LeAnn Rimes, “How Do I Live”
- Pam Tillis, “All the Good Ones are Gone”
- Trisha Yearwood, “How Do I Live”
Yearwood got the Grammy in the infamous “How Do I Live” showdown, leaving Rimes’ tepid version in the dust. Still, it was Tillis’ single woman saga that deserved the Grammy.
- Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Let Me Into Your Heart”
- Deana Carter, “Strawberry Wine”
- Alison Krauss, “Baby Mine”
- LeAnn Rimes, “Blue”
- Trisha Yearwood, “Believe Me Baby (I Lied)”
My favorite here is Krauss’ “Baby Mine”, which is heartbreakingly beautiful, but Rimes certainly nails it her first time out; her vocal performance on “Blue” set the bar so high that she’s rarely lived up to it since, though her latest album got her closer than she’s been in a long time.
- Alison Krauss, “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You”
- Patty Loveless, “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am”
- Martina McBride, “Safe in the Arms of Love”
- Pam Tillis, “Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life)”
- Shania Twain, “Any Man of Mine”
Leave it to Krauss to turn a schlocky sixties pop hit into a devastating plea of devotion, though all five of these records were great. I’m pretty sure they were all on the 400 Greatest Singles list I did in 2005.
- Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Shut Up and Kiss Me”
- Patty Loveless, “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye”
- Martina McBride, “Independence Day”
- Reba McEntire, “She Thinks His Name Was John”
- Wynonna, “Is It Over Yet”
It’s hard to believe that McEntire and Wynonna haven’t been nominated in this category since. Carpenter’s fourth win in a row is with a catchy song, but I don’t think it’s as impressive as the performances of the other four women here.
- Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Passionate Kisses”
- Emmylou Harris, “High Powered Love”
- Tanya Tucker, “Soon”
- Wynonna, “Only Love”
- Trisha Yearwood, “Walkaway Joe”
Again, five great songs that were all worthy of the win. Put a gun to my head, and I’d pick Harris. That’s one of my favorite things she’s ever done, though the Carpenter record that won is also a classic.
- Mary Chapin Carpenter, “I Feel Lucky”
- Reba McEntire, “The Greatest Man I Never Knew”
- Lorrie Morgan, “Something In Red”
- Pam Tillis, “Maybe It Was Memphis”
- Wynonna, Wynonna
I was in junior high when these nominations were announced, and I still recall today thinking, “Damn. Every single one of those nominees are awesome.” This is the last year where an album would end up being nominated against single tracks, though they were still eligible in 1994, and Wynonna’s solo debut was certainly worthy. McEntire, Morgan and Tillis are represented with signature performances, and Chapin’s wry sense of humor was firmly established with her winning hit, “I Feel Lucky.” Great year.
- Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Down at the Twist & Shout”
- Kathy Mattea, Time Passes By
- Reba McEntire, For My Broken Heart
- Tanya Tucker, “Down to My Last Teardrop”
- Trisha Yearwood, “She’s in Love With the Boy”
Chapin won the first of four straight in this category, a record no one has come close to matching. McEntire’s album is the best of her storied career, Mattea’s album is the starting point for the type of music she’s been doing ever since, Yearwood got a nomination for her very first single, and Tucker’s hit is one of my favorites that she’s ever done. A lot of history in this lineup.
- Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Quittin’ Time”
- Carlene Carter, I Fell in Love
- Kathy Mattea, “Where’ve You Been”
- Reba McEntire, “You Lie”
- K.T. Oslin, “Come Next Monday”
Readers of this blog know that “Where’ve You Been” is my favorite country song of all-time, but the rest of the nominees are also among my favorites. I’m glad that Grammys acknowledged Carlene Carter with a nod, since she’s always been woefully underappreciated.
- Rosanne Cash, “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party”
- Emmylou Harris, Bluebird
- k.d. lang, Absolute Torch & Twang
- Kathy Mattea, Willow in the Wind
- Dolly Parton, “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That”
k.d. lang’s first and only win in this category is also the last time the Grammy went to a full-length album. Mattea would win for a track from her nominated album the following year.
- Emmylou Harris, “Back in Baby’s Arms”
- k.d. lang, “I’m Down to My Last Cigarette”
- Reba McEntire, Reba
- K.T. Oslin, “Hold Me”
- Tanya Tucker, “Strong Enough to Bend”
Oslin repeated in the category with the best song she’s ever written. Until Mary Chapin Carpenter won four Grammys in a row, Oslin was the only woman to win two times for songs that she had written.
- Rosanne Cash, King’s Record Shop
- Emmylou Harris, Angel Band
- Reba McEntire, “The Last One to Know”
- K.T. Oslin, “80’s Ladies”
- Tanya Tucker, “Love Me Like You Used To”
Oslin captured the voice of her generation’s women in her classic hit, which won over the equally worthy Cash album.
- Holly Dunn, “Daddy’s Hands”
- Crystal Gayle, “Cry”
- Emmylou Harris, “Today I Started Loving You Again”
- Kathy Mattea, “Love at the Five & Dime”
- Reba McEntire, “Whoever’s in New England”
The Mattea cut is my favorite of the five, but McEntire certainly earned the Grammy with the killer vocal on her first huge hit.
- Rosanne Cash, “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me”
- Janie Fricke, “She’s Single Again”
- Emmylou Harris, The Ballad of Sally Rose
- Juice Newton, “You Make Me Want To Make You Mine”
- Dolly Parton, Real Love
In one of the best twists in Grammy history, Cash started writing the tongue-in-cheek “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me” as she drove home from the 1983 Grammys, inspired by her loss in the same category, and that song ended up winning the same award three years later.
- Janie Fricke, “Your Heart’s Not in It”
- Crystal Gayle, “The Sound of Goodbye”
- Emmylou Harris, “In My Dreams”
- Anne Murray, Heart Over Mind
- Dolly Parton, “Tennessee Homesick Blues”
We’re officially back in the Urban Cowboy era now, with Grammy redeeming itself by choosing the stellar Harris track over the lackluster competition, though the Parton track is not without its charms.
- Deborah Allen, “Baby I Lied”
- Crystal Gayle, “Baby What About You”
- Emmylou Harris, Last Date
- Anne Murray, “A Little Good News”
- Dolly Parton, Burlap and Satin
Murray’s topical hit, adopted by Vice President Bush on the campaign trail later that year, was a justified winner.
- Rosanne Cash, “Ain’t No Money”
- Emmylou Harris, Cimarron
- Juice Newton, “Break it to Me Gently”
- Dolly Parton, “I Will Always Love You”
- Sylvia, “Nobody”
Newton’s pop hit won in a very weak field. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a campier record than Sylvia’s “Nobody.”
- Rosanne Cash, Seven Year Ache
- Terri Gibbs, Somebody’s Knockin’
- Barbara Mandrell, “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool”
- Juice Newton, “Queen of Hearts”
- Dolly Parton, “9 to 5″
Don’t let the pop hook fool you. Parton’s winning entry here is the female “Working Man Blues.”
- Crystal Gayle, “If You Ever Change Your Mind”
- Emmylou Harris, Roses in the Snow
- Barbara Mandrell, “The Best of Strangers”
- Anne Murray, “Could I Have This Dance”
- Sissy Spacek, “Coal Miner’s Daughter”
Mock if you must, but Murray’s waltz is playing at a wedding reception somewhere in the world as you read this.
- Crystal Gayle, We Should Be Together
- Emmylou Harris, Blue Kentucky Girl
- Brenda Lee, “Tell Me What It’s Like”
- Barbara Mandrell, Just For the Record
- Billie Jo Spears, “I Will Survive”
Yes, Spears covered “I Will Survive” and got a Grammy nod. You can’t make this stuff up.
- Crystal Gayle, Talking in Your Sleep
- Emmylou Harris, Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town
- Barbara Mandrell, “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed”
- Anne Murray, “Walk Right Back”
- Dolly Parton, Here You Come Again
After ten Grammy losses, Parton picked up her first win with her crossover smash album, but Harris would’ve been my pick. She’s represented her by my favorite of her Warner Bros. albums.
- Janie Fricke, “What’re You Doing Tonight”
- Crystal Gayle, “Don’t it Make My Brown Eyes Blue”
- Emmylou Harris, “Making Believe”
- Barbara Mandrell, “After the Lovin’”
- Dolly Parton, “(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher & Higher”
Paul: None of these albums were very consistent, but Milsap’s was the most consistent of the bunch and hence, deserved to win.
- Crystal Gayle, “I’ll Get Over You”
- Emmylou Harris, Elite Hotel
- Dolly Parton, All I Can Do
- Mary Kay Place, Tonite! At the Capri Lounge, Loretta Naggers
- Tammy Wynette, “‘Til I Can Make It on My Own”
Harris wins for the first time, despite competition from Wynette with one of her biggest and best hits.
- Jessi Colter, “I’m Not Lisa”
- Emmylou Harris, “If I Could Only Win Your Love”
- Loretta Lynn, “The Pill”
- Dolly Parton, “Jolene (Live in Concert)”
- Linda Ronstadt, “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You”
A lot of classic songs here. Harris may have lost on her first try, but she supplied the gut-wrenching harmony vocal on Ronstadt’s winning entry.
- Anne Murray, “Love Song”
- Dolly Parton, “Jolene”
- Tanya Tucker, “Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone)”
- Dottie West, “Last Time I Saw Him”
- Tammy Wynette, “Woman to Woman”
Murray won with arguably the weakest entry. It’s the only song of the five that I don’t consider essential listening.
- Barbara Fairchild, “Teddy Bear Song”
- Olivia Newton-John, “Let Me Be There”
- Marie Osmond, “Paper Roses”
- Dottie West, “Country Sunshine”
- Tammy Wynette, “Kids Say the Darndest Things”
Newton-John won with a song that was a huge hit on both the pop and country charts. It sounds more country than most of what’s on the radio today, but she was bashed for it being too pop at the time.
- Skeeter Davis, “One Tin Soldier”
- Donna Fargo, “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.”
- Loretta Lynn, “One’s on the Way”
- Dolly Parton, “Touch Your Woman”
- Tanya Tucker, “Delta Dawn”
- Tammy Wynette, “My Man”
The Fargo record has been known to cause toothaches. I’d give her a Grammy for “You Can’t Be a Beacon (If Your Light Don’t Shine)”, though.
- Lynn Anderson, “How Can I Unlove You”
- Jody Miller, “He’s So Fine”
- Dolly Parton, “Joshua”
- Sammi Smith, “Help Me Make it Through the Night”
- Tammy Wynette, “Good Lovin’ (Makes it Right)”
The sexual revolution comes to country music, and wins a Grammy for Sammi Smith along the way.
- Lynn Anderson, “Rose Garden”
- Wanda Jackson, “A Woman Lives For Love”
- Dolly Parton, “Mule Skinner Blues”
- Jean Shepard, “Then He Touched Me”
- Tammy Wynette, “Run, Woman, Run”
Even back in the early days of the Grammys, the organization was already acknowledging veteran artists, with pioneers Wanda Jackson and Jean Shepard scoring nods alongside those hot new hitmakers Dolly Parton and Lynn Anderson.
- Lynn Anderson, “That’s a No No”
- Jeannie C. Riley, “Back Side of Dallas”
- Connie Smith, “Ribbon of Darkness”
- Diana Trask, “I Fall to Pieces”
- Tammy Wynette, “Stand By Your Man”
Impossible to argue with the winner here, though it’s cool to see Riley’s prostitution saga nominated.
- Lynn Anderson, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”
- Jan Howard, “My Son”
- Jeannie C. Riley, “Harper Valley P.T.A.”
- Dottie West, “Country Girl”
- Tammy Wynette, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”
Riley was also nominated for Record of the Year and Best New Artist on the strength of her breakthrough hit.
- Liz Anderson, “Mama Spank”
- Skeeter Davis, “What Does it Take”
- Connie Smith, “Cincinnati, Ohio”
- Dottie West, “Paper Mansions”
- Tammy Wynette, “I Don’t Wanna Play House”
Wynette’s first huge hit scored her a Grammy to boot, establishing the sound and theme that would become her signatures with time.
- Jan Howard, “Evil On Your Mind”
- Loretta Lynn, “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’”
- Jeannie Seely, “Don’t Touch Me”
- Connie Smith, “Ain’t Had No Loving”
- Dottie West, “Would You Hold it Against Me”
Seely’s torch hit won over a mixed bag of hits, with both the Lynn and Howard tracks joining it in the canon of classic country songs.
- Molly Bee, “Single Girl Again”
- Wilma Burgess, “Baby”
- Skeeter Davis, “Sunglasses”
- Jody Miller, “Queen of the House”
- Dottie West, “Before the Ring on Your Finger Turns Green”
Miller won with a parody of her husband Roger’s hit, “King of the Road”, which claimed the Male Country Vocal prize the very same year.
- Skeeter Davis, “He Says the Same Thing to Me”
- Wanda Jackson, Two Sides of Wanda Jackson
- Jean Shepard, “Second Fiddle”
- Connie Smith, “Once a Day”
- Dottie West, “Here Comes My Baby”
West won the very first Grammy given in this category with a great record, though I’m surprised she edged out the bonafide classic hits that Smith and Shepard were nominated for.