The 51st Annual Grammy Awards: Keeping It Country (Staff Favorites)

The second article in our Grammy Awards series, our personal favorites in the country categories at this year’s ceremony.

trisha1Best Country Album

  • Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song
  • Patty Loveless, Sleepless Nights  (Blake, Leeann)
  • George Strait, Troubadour
  • Randy Travis, Around the Bend
  • Trisha Yearwood, Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love  (Dan, Kevin, Lynn)

Blake: Strait’s collection is a mixed bag of middlebrow art with the occasional glimpse at his right-as-rain Texas style. Excepting Troubadour, these discs are highwater marks for the genre. Johnson and Loveless finished one-two on my 2008 list, but I’ll root for Loveless to win a long-awaited solo Grammy.

Dan: I actually think Johnson made the best album, but Yearwood’s is my second-favorite, and she’s long overdue.

Kevin: It’s a strong field overall, but Yearwood’s album is the most cohesive. She’s the greatest female album artist since Emmylou Harris, yet she’s never won an album award. It’s time.

Leeann: My choice is Patty Loveless’ album, though Trisha Yearwood’s is a very close second. While Loveless’ is an album of covers, it’s the one I find myself putting in without skipping a track more than Yearwood’s. I really would be happy for either choice, however.

Lynn: Loveless put together my favorite album as a whole, but Yearwood is long overdue and her wonderful album was shamefully ignored. I hope she wins.

trisha1Best Female Country Vocal Performance

  • Martina McBride, “For These Times”
  • LeAnn Rimes, “What I Cannot Change”  (Leeann)
  • Carrie Underwood, “Last Name”
  • Lee Ann Womack, “Last Call”  (Lynn)
  • Trisha Yearwood, “This Is Me You’re Talking To”  (Blake, Dan, Kevin)

Dan: Rimes and Womack are represented here by arguably two of the best performances of their respective careers, and both are very deserving. But to these ears, Yearwood’s vocal on “This Is Me You’re Talking To” is a a technical and interpretive tour-de-force, easily the finest in recent memory.

Kevin: Three of these songs were among my top ten singles of 2008, and I wouldn’t be disappointed if any of these five won. They’re all strong singers, and even though Carrie’s song is slight compared to the other four, she did deliver it well. I think Yearwood is the champion among champions here. With the possible exception of “There Goes My Baby”, this is the strongest vocal performance she’s been nominated for. I hope she wins.

Leeann: Personally, I choose “What I Cannot Change.” It’s easily Rimes’ finest vocal performance. I, however, wouldn’t complain if Yearwood won the award, because while I’m not crazy about the song itself, her vocals are undeniably superb nonetheless.

Lynn: Yearwood and Rimes both give gorgeous vocal performances, but I hope Womack is rewarded for her wistful country vocals on “Last Call.” She surprised me this year – in a wonderful way.

Blake: Rimes’ rendition of her Serenity Prayer-inspired ballad is lovely. Womack’s bitter response to a boozed-up ex is special stuff, too. But Yearwood’s “This Is Me You’re Talking To” is a master class in singing; few performances rival this one in Trisha’s excellent catalog.

Best Male Country Vocal Performance

  • Trace Adkins, “You’re Gonna Miss This”
  • Jamey Johnson, “In Color”  (Blake, Dan)
  • James Otto, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You”
  • Brad Paisley, “Letter to Me”  (Kevin, Leeann, Lynn)
  • George Strait, “Troubadour”

Kevin: “Letter to Me” is Brad Paisley’s finest vocal performance to date, and Strait’s single is a perfect encapsulation of his entire career. It’s a close call between the two of them for me, but I think Paisley is the most deserving this year.

Leeann: While I personally like the Otto tune the best, I think Paisley’s song is most deserving of the award. It’s a fine vocal performance for one of Paisley’s most mature songs.

Lynn: All of these artists experienced success with these singles and none of them are throwaway artists. While somewhat cheesy, my personal favorite is Paisley’s “Letter to Me.” It was charming, just like the artist himself.

Blake: The “vocal” tag on the performance categories is merely ornamental. Really, it all comes down to the song. “In Color” is a classic of epic proportions, and Johnson delivers in spades on his breakthrough hit.
Dan: I like Paisley’s record and wouldn’t gripe if NARAS used this category to finally honor Strait, but Johnson’s performance is the most compelling to me, and it’s not like Strait and Paisley don’t have a good share of awards on their mantles already.

Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocals

  • Brooks & Dunn, “God Must Be Busy”
  • Lady Antebellum, “Love Don’t Live Here”
  • Rascal Flatts, “Every Day”
  • Steel Drivers, “Blue Side of the Mountain”  (Leeann, Lynn)
  • Sugarland, “Stay”  (Blake, Dan, Kevin)

Blake: The Jennifer Nettles Band earns recognition for a nakedly honest reading by one of the genre’s finest voices.
Dan: Some bloggers (I’m lookin’ at you, Thanki!) have drawn this race as a “SteelDrivers versus everyone else who is less authentic” thing, but I think Jennifer Nettles’ performance on “Stay” is every bit as inspired and original as the bluegrass group’s on “Blue Side of the Mountain.” Either single would be a worthy pick, and I actually really like Lady A’s submission, too.
Kevin: Its wide exposure and previous success at award shows have not dulled the impact of “Stay” for me. It deserves to win.
Leeann: While I think “Stay” is certainly a worthy opponent, I’m drawn to the refreshing sound of “Blue Side of the Mountain.”
Lynn: I don’t discount the massive and righteous impact “Stay” had on radio, but I’m rooting for the SteelDrivers. Exciting bluegrass with a mainstream edge.

Best Country Vocal Collaboration

  • Kenny Chesney & George Strait, “Shiftwork”
  • Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, “Killing the Blues”  (Kevin, Leeann)
  • George Strait & Patty Loveless, “House of Cash”  (Blake)
  • Sugarland, Jake Owen & Little Big Town, “Life in a Northern Town”  (Dan)
  • Trisha Yearwood & Keith Urban, “Let the Wind Chase You”  (Lynn)

Leeann: The Plant & Krauss nomination is the only song that I truly like in this category.

Lynn: Personally, I’m not crazy about any of these collaborations, but my favorite of the bunch is Yearwood and Urban’s “duet.”

Blake: “Let the Wind Chase You” is an understated gem worthy of plentiful praise. It’s not a proper duet, though, so I’ll side with the Strait/Loveless homage to the burned-down Cash dwelling.

Dan: All of these have some major merits (“Shiftwork” excepted), but I think “Life in a Northern Town” is a downright inspiring cover. So many things threaten to make it fail – that it’s recorded live, that it’s a bunch of country singers singing a trippy pop song, that they trade off lines in the verses. But it all works beautifully.

Kevin: Plant & Krauss.

Best Country Song

  • Ashley Gorley & Bob Regan, “Dig Two Graves”  (Kevin, Leeann)
  • Rodney Clawson, Monty Criswell & Wade Kirby, “I Saw God Today”
  • Jamey Johnson, Lee Thomas Miller & James Otto, “In Color”  (Blake, Lynn)
  • Jennifer Nettles, “Stay”  (Dan)
  • Ashley Gorley & Lee Thomas Miller, “You’re Gonna Miss This”

Lynn: “Dig Two Graves” strikes a chord with me, but it may not be as strong of a song if you take Travis’ vocals out of the mix as “In Color.”

Blake: “In Color” mirrors our times in the most touching manner, a work of significance and sentiment.

Dan: Ooo, tough call. I really love “Dig Two Graves” and “In Color,” but I think “Stay” is a contemporary classic, the kind of thing that seems so natural and obvious that you can’t believe it was never written before.

Kevin: “Dig Two Graves” is my favorite of the five, though I wouldn’t mind seeing “Stay” win, either.

Leeann: “Dig Two Graves” has really grown on me in the past few months. It has become my favorite of these choices.

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6 Comments

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6 Responses to The 51st Annual Grammy Awards: Keeping It Country (Staff Favorites)

  1. DeniseNo Gravatar

    I think Trisha should win album and female, but I have given up on her winning anymore awards….so it will probably be Patty for album, a great alternative and Carrie for female cuz she wins everything lately.

  2. Steve from BostonNo Gravatar

    I hear a lot of folks say that Trisha is overdue, but the same can also be said for Patty. As Blake indicated, this would be her first solo Grammy…

    But the intrinsic merit of Sleepless Nights makes it worthy to win, aside from all other considerations…The same could be said for several of the other nominees, but Patty’s record is my strong preference.

    As for Mr. Strait, I hope his shut-out ends with a win for “House of Cash” ;)

  3. As I said in our predictions blog, I think NARAS really outdid themselves with the Country field nominations this year– usually, I have just one obvious favorite per category. This year, it’s actually tough to choose who I’d vote for.

    Album: I mentioned elsewhere that I’d take any of these five albums over some others that have won recently. I like That Lonesome Song plenty, but this would come down to a choice between Yearwood and Loveless. I’d vote for Heaven, Heartache, & The Power of Love primarily because I think there’s a strong case that it’s Yearwood’s career-best album– it’s in the same league as Real Live Woman and Hearts in Armor. Whereas however much I love Sleepless Nights, I couldn’t say that it’s more than Loveless’ second-best album behind Mountain Soul (and, depending on the day, maybe her third-best album, behind When Fallen Angels Fly).

    Male Vocal Performance: I think the rough edges of Johnson’s voice enhance “In Color” (though that isn’t true of all of the songs on his album), so he would get my vote over one of Paisley’s most expressive turns.

    Female Vocal Performance: That McBride is nominated instead of Miranda Lambert makes my teeth hurt, but there are still three performances I really like here. Womack’s performance is significantly better than the song she’s singing and would make for a worthy winner. But this is a choice between Yearwood and Rimes. While “What I Cannot Change” is a subtle, lovely performance that’s handily the best of Rimes’ career, Yearwood has simply set her own bar significantly higher over the course of her career than Rimes. Yearwood is simply too good to have only won this category once, and for arguably the worst song in her catalogue. She’d get my vote.

    Duo / Group Vocal Performance: I flat-out love the SteelDrivers cut and would vote for them without hesitation. Were “Stay” actually a group performance instead of a solo showcase for Jennifer Nettles, I’d give it more serious consideration here.

    Vocal Collaboration: It’s not country at all, but I’m a sucker for the exquisite vocal harmonies on “Life in a Northern Town.” Even though I wish it had been submitted in the Pop field, I’d still vote for it in this category.

    Song: Other than the maudlin “I Saw God Today,” I like all of these choices. I’d give the slightest edge to “In Color” for its ability to capture an emotional context that’s “sentimental” without ever becoming cloying, mawkish, or manipulative; offhand, I can’t think of many other recent radio hits to manage that feat. The narrative arc and melody of “Stay” are tough competition, though.

  4. Blake BoldtNo Gravatar

    I would argue that Loveless should have replaced Underwood as well in the Female category. Underwood’s the two-time reigning champ, and both past wins were for better songs than “Last Name.” For all of Lambert’s mainstream pub, her Grammy track record is sparse (two noms: “Kerosene” and “Famous in a Small Town”; no Album or Song nods).

    As I touched on in my comments about Pink in Kevin’s wish list post, I think the vocal performance categories are more about how well the artist communicates the song than technical, note-for-note precision. Johnson’s vocal lends itself so well to “In Color,” and in the same way, Yearwood imbues “This is Me You’re Talking To” with a been-there, done-that pain and power.

    I’d put When Fallen Angels Fly third behind Mountain and Fallen Angels. Trouble with the Truth and On Your Way Home are four-star efforts, too.

    I noted at Roughstock that I’m just hoping that Loveless, Strait, Johnson and Yearwood can all come away with at least one, in whatever combination that may be.

  5. Blake,

    I believe that “vocal performance” is actually just a hold-over from years past, when the Grammys had far fewer categories and instrumental music figured far more prominently in what was recognized. Technically, “vocal performance” is only in the category names because it’s to distinguish recordings that include vocals on at least 51% of their running time from instrumentals.

    Because how better to enhance the Grammys’ credibility than with a semantics debate, right?

    Where things get tricky for individual voters, then, is in figuring out if they want to reward the “best recording with vocals on at least 51% of its running time” or the “recording with the best vocal performance that runs at least 51% of its length.” Were I a Grammy voter, I would tend to consider the quality of the vocal performance moreso than the overall impact of the recording as a whole (as you mentioned with both Johnson and Yearwood in your comment), and I think that many recent winners suggest that’s how the voting patterns have been trending. But that isn’t explicitly stated as the intention of those categories.

    I completely agree that I would’ve swapped Loveless for Underwood in the Female Vocal Performance category. Lambert is definitely not a proven Grammy commodity (unlike perpetual bridesmaid McBride), but I think her previous two nominations were pleasant surprises, whereas many people felt like “Gunpowder & Lead” was a likely nominee this year, and it certainly would’ve been on my ballot.

    And Loveless’ run of albums from When Fallen Angels Fly onward is just top-shelf stuff. In addition to the two you mentioned, I’m partial to Long Stretch of Lonesome. I mean, it has one of the finest country singles of the 90s in “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me” plus a terrific Kim Richey cover: That’s not a hard sell.

  6. Vocal performances are so difficult to quantify that I’m not sure how a Grammy voter would go about selecting. “Before He Cheats,” for example was a fine vocal from Carrie Underwood last year, but the other nominees compared favorably, especially Krauss and Yearwood. The edge, eventually, goes to the voter’s favorite (or the most popular) song.

    It’s interesting to note Lambert in this discussion; her vocal is never going to be technically beautiful in a Yearwood/Vince Gill way, but the way she owns tracks like “Kerosene” and “Gunpowder” are just as compelling (you used a good word: expressive). That’s why I’m rooting for Pink in Pop Female Vocal; it’s not the prettiest singing, but it’s the most potent. It really just depends on the emotional heft of the track. Yearwood’s about the best singer we’ve got, and she used it to great effect on her nominated track. That’s a winner in my book.

    The only Epic-and-beyond recording of Loveless’ that I’m not completely sold on is Strong Heart, although it had quite a few bright spots. Long Stretch is underrated, but I felt it just didn’t have the cohesiveness of her other albums in that time period.

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