2011 Grammy Awards: A Hollow Victory For Country Music

The increasing presence of country in the general categories of the Grammy Awards is undeniable.

In three of the past five years, an artist with connections to country music has won Album of the Year.   The same ratio applies for the Record of the Year category.   In the same time frame, two country artists have won Song of the Year and two have won Best New Artist.

That’s all good and well, and would be seen as a positive for the genre if not for one pesky problem.  All of the artists and songs and albums that have been emerging victorious have been nearly indistinguishable from adult Top 40 music.

All that’s changing is the decreasing artistic credibility.  With all due respect to Lady Antebellum, they’re a step down from last year’s victors, Taylor Swift and Zac Brown Band, who in turn are nowhere near in the same league as Dixie Chicks and Alison Krauss.

What happened at this year’s Grammys in the marquee categories is a continuation of the organization’s strongest weakness.  When the best music of the year is in a style that is palatable to Adult Top 40 and Adult Contemporary radio, they are quick to honor it accordingly. But when it comes in a more challenging musical format – hip-hop, alternative rock, traditional country, dance, even bubblegum pop – it will nominate said work, but it won’t emerge victorious, unless one of the subgenres is nominated against another.

So forgive me for not throwing hosannas up in the air for Lady Antebellum winning with the terribly pedestrian “Need You Now.” Is it one of the best country records of the past year?  Probably. But country music is in such a creative nadir that it didn’t have much business in the Record or Song categories, and their entry was less artistically significant than every nominee that lost to it.

It borders on disgrace that an urban or hip-hop record hasn’t won Record of the Year at this point.  There were four excellent opportunities to right that wrong this year, to make up for overlooking “Waterfalls”, “Gangsta’s Paradise”, “No Scrubs”, “Say My Name”, “Ms. Jackson”, “Lose Yourself”, “Crazy in Love”, “Hey Ya!”, “Gold Digger”, “Irreplaceable”, “Umbrella”, and “Paper Planes.”

Much like the lack of female nominees for CMA Entertainer of the Year, you can make the case that most of those records may have lost to better contenders, but good luck making the case this year.  If country music is going to rain on the parade of a genre that’s long overdue for recognition at the Grammys, it would be nice if said country music was actually good. Or actually country. Or both.


  1. “Waterfalls”, “Gangsta’s Paradise”, “No Scrubs”, “Say My Name”, “Ms. Jackson”, “Lose Yourself”, “Crazy in Love”, “Hey Ya!”, “Gold Digger”, “Irreplaceable”, “Umbrella”, and “Paper Planes.”

    I’ve heard of 9 out of 12 of these songs and love 7 out of 9 of those songs. I am sure the majority of these songs have won their genre awards, correct? But I guess it’s because the majority of Grammy voters aren’t fans of this type of music?

    I’ve always thought that if I were a Grammy voter and were voting on the winners of such categories, I would take the time to give each nominee some thought and listen to them, otherwise it’s just a popularity contest. “Need You Now” is one of my favorite tracks to come out in recent years (BTW, the Glee version indefinitely proves the song is a POP song and has very little country resonance behind it), but I thought the majority of nominees (particularly “Love The Way You Lie” and “F**k You,” and of course, “The House That Built Me”) were much more artistically relevant (and probably will be in ten years time) compared to “Need You Now.”

    At the very least, I’m glad that genre categories are there, because they (most times) get it right compared to the all-genre categories. Though, I do not understand giving Country Album to Need You Now over Up On the Ridge or Revolution. But hey, it’s the Grammys, they don’t need to make sense.

    While it’s a prestigious honor to win a Grammy, I think it’s (like the Oscars, Emmys, & Tonys) a more prestigious honor to be nominated, as someone on the web put it: ‘winning doesn’t mean you’re the best, just selected to be first among equals.’

  2. I think it has a lot to do with what the people who run the country radio stations want the audience to hear, and then push it into crossover territory. You get that kind of blandness, and it’s the sort of critique that many of us, in different ways, have been saying here on this blog for a number of years.

    But we’ve seen instances in the past where the Grammys, insofar as country music is concerned, go for the kind of artistic success that mainstream Nashville and country radio seem to avoid like the plague–the Chicks and Allison Krauss, of course, but also, and most notably the 2003 Country Album Of The Year winner Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’, which was an all-star tribute to the Louvin Brothers, and extremely traditional in its sound.

  3. You know the one thing I hate about award shows that seems more prevalent than ever these days. It’s that people look at the nominations of only being the best the year had to offer. For example, when talking about the Oscars, people tend to say a year wasn’t good for movies based on the films nominated, yet there were hundreds and hundreds of films that came out in a given year.

    To bring this to music, it’s the same kind of thing. As much as I liked Need You Now, I don’t think it was the best Country Music had to offer, and it was Radio who threw this song down our throats saying it was one of the career songs. That may be true for Lady A, but for Country Music as a whole, it was ordinary, average, and fit more with Adult Contemporary.

    I won’t say what the best Country Album of last year was, or what the best song was because I didn’t hear that much compared to other readers and writers here, but I will say my favorite Album, Jamey Johnson’s “Guitar Song”, was leaps and bounds better than anything Lady A did. Hell, I bought Lady A’s album but then deleted it because I was bored. I haven’t deleted JJ’s album yet. Yeah it’s a subjective opinion, but I think it’s a good example of the point I’m trying to make that there was so much better stuff out there that ended up being snubbed.

  4. I’m not sure that winning a Grammy means what winning an Oscar does. There’s discussion about the Grammy’s from the time nominees are announced to this brief time after they’re actually handed out, and then it seems like everyone moves on with their lives. Critics rarely seem to cite Grammy wins or nominations in their articles (be it a review, editorial, etc.) the rest of the year. They just talk about the actual topic at hand.

    Conversely, any time of the year that a particularly strong movie is released–or features a noteworthy performance–there’s immediate talk about whether it might be Oscar-worthy. I have no idea how many CDs in my library are Grammy winners, but I can point you to the majority of the DVDs and Blu-rays I have of Oscar winners and nominees.

    I say all this to make one point: at worst, Lady A’s wins are a sign that the Grammy voters were in the mood for standard Top 40 type music at the time they cast their ballots. Other, more deserving songs and albums may have been wronged here, but in a month few outside of those who were actually on the ballot will remember or care. Rolling Stone won’t feature an article about how Cee Lo Green’s next album is meant for Grammy success–they’ll simply review the album for what it is. By this time next year, the casual music fan will remember the performance of his song with Muppets more than they’ll remember that he lost to Lady Antebellum.

    Short memories can be a good thing. The awards broadcast should translate into a much needed boost in sales this week for most of the nominees and winners, and given the state of the industry these days I think that’s really the most important thing the Grammy’s can do.

  5. Although I think Lady A is talented, their wins last night tend to prove there are issues with music nowadays.

    “Need You Now” is a great country-pop song, but compared to its contenders from other genres it’s actually pretty weak.
    I understand it was all over the radio, but the fact that it won over great songs like “Love The Way You Lie” and “The House That Built Me” reduces the award to nothing more than a popularity contest.

    Plus, it irritates me that so many people seem to think a country artist winning an all-genre Grammy award really solidifies the impact of country music in popular culture.

    The Grammy’s are a big deal, but who really remembers them a few years later? They may be significant to the artist, but I think they do little for the fans, especially in country music.

    There’s still a negative stigma attached to country music with some music listeners, and could care less if someone from the genre wins anything significant. If it’s a huge mainstream pop act like Emeinem, the response would probably be positive, but if a country artist isn’t huge in the pop world, the award would more likely be reduced to something of a joke, simply because so many people who dislike country music would still say things like, “Who the heck is Lady Antebellum? Emeniem was robbed!”

    Even with the emergence of bigger country stars who appeal to a wider audience (Carrie Underwood, Shania, Taylor), it still doesn’t seem to make more people take notice of the entire genre.

    Instances like this are what causes more responses like “I love Lady Antebellum, but I hate country music.”

    Do we really want more of that? If we accept that country artists winning huge awards indeed widens the gap between these lines, then what’s the purpose of a country artist even trying to earn respect for the entire music industry?

    As a country fan, it hurts to think we are allowing that to happen.
    Not to mention I can’t even believe Lady A actually won for their otherwise bland album with one great song. This win is right on parnom with Taylor Swift winning the Grammy for Female Vocal when every other nominee was a far stronger contender.


  6. Plus, it irritates me that so many people seem to think a country artist winning an all-genre Grammy award really solidifies the impact of country music in popular culture. -K

    ….This irks me too, particularly when people say that it is SO amazing that a country artist could beat out other genre artists to win an all-genre award, when the artist isn’t really that country to begin with.

    This win is right on parnom with Taylor Swift winning the Grammy for Female Vocal when every other nominee was a far stronger contender. -K

    If Taylor Swift had to win a Grammy for any song of that time frame, I’m glad it was for “White Horse,” which was amazing for such a young singer-songwriter… At the same time, I fault whoever submitted “Last Name” in 2009 instead of “Just A Dream,” but I can honestly say that I didn’t mind Swift taking the win, particularly for “White Horse,” even though “Just A Dream” was brilliant.

    Remember that the Grammy for Female Vocal (Country) isn’t always about who sings the best (which also goes for Female Vocalist of the Year) if that were so, Mary Chapin Carpenter wouldn’t have won four in a row (Grammys), and Wynonna would have a few solo Grammys by now.

  7. K, if you as a country fan have control over what gets play on country radio, you’ve got some explaining to do, but I assume you don’t. It’s a shame that country radio has such a narrow view of what is country, but they also research the music they play to ensure it matches with their audience’s tastes.

    I know I come to this with a different perspective, but as a pop and country music fan, I respect “Need You Now” as a well-crafted and well-sung song. “Love the Way You Lie” and “Need You Now” are very different songs, but they do what they do well. For me, the short answer why these songs do so well is that they hit multiple demographics. Maybe it’s time we have a Best Traditional Country category and a Best Contemporary Country category. Anyone? Anyone?

  8. “Waterfalls”, “Gangsta’s Paradise”, “No Scrubs”, “Say My Name”, “Ms. Jackson”, “Lose Yourself”, “Crazy in Love”, “Hey Ya!”, “Gold Digger”, “Irreplaceable”, “Umbrella”, and “Paper Planes.”

    What an awesome list.

    Lady A’s album win irks me the most – mostly because it feels like such a lazy choice.

  9. I’m not sure that winning a Grammy means what winning an Oscar does. -Travis M.

    I do think you have a point, now that I think about it… Reba McEntire’s bios hardly even mention the fact that she won 2 Grammy Awards, unless they mention “Does He Love You,” but at the same time there’s no real mention of a Grammy when it comes to “Whoever’s In New England.” (a song which she does not really perform much in concerts, despite it skyrocketing her career)

    The same goes for many other artists such as Whitney Houston, Christina Agueilera (sorry for the misspelling if there is one), Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss, and even last year’s winner Taylor Swift… I never really hear that they won a Grammy (unless they are mentioned as Grammy-Award-Winning, which still doesn’t address which works they’ve won Grammys for).

  10. I think Miranda Lambert getting the Song of the Year nod for THTBM was a pretty big victory in its own right. That’s a pure Country song with very little crossover success, so the fact that it made that much of an impact is pretty huge in its own right!

    And to whoever mentioned the whole “White Horse”/”Just a Dream” debacle from last year, I’m still blind-sided as to how that happened. It’s a good vocal from Taylor by all means, but JAD was stunningly amazing.

  11. @John – You know, a Traditional Country and Contemporary Country award actually makes sense to me. It would be really interesting to see how country music would respond to such a distinction. Would they balk at the notion, or use it to more clearly delineate what Nashville will and will not openly support?

  12. “All that’s changing is the decreasing artistic credibility. With all due respect to Lady Antebellum, they’re a step down from last year’s victors, Taylor Swift and Zac Brown Band, who in turn are nowhere near in the same league as Dixie Chicks and Alison Krauss.”

    While music has its ups and downs I disagree with the basic premise expressed above. I wouldn’t agree that Swift and Zac Brown were a step down from the Dixie Chicks and Alison Krauss. Taylor Swift is a pretty poor vocalist but a very good songwriter whose music seems to resonate with a large audience. The Zac Brown Band’s music is better than any recent music I’ve heard from Krauss or the Chix.

    Of course in most years artists like Willie Nelson, Gene Watson, Amber Digby, Landon Dodd and the recently departed Charlie Louvin produced albums better than anything nominated for a Grammy so you simply take the awards with a king-sized grain of salt and continue on your merry way listening to the music that you feel is worthwhile

  13. “It borders on disgrace that an urban or hip-hop record hasn’t won Record of the Year at this point. There were four excellent opportunities to right that wrong this year, to make up for overlooking “Waterfalls”, “Gangsta’s Paradise”, “No Scrubs”, “Say My Name”, “Ms. Jackson”, “Lose Yourself”, “Crazy in Love”, “Hey Ya!”, “Gold Digger”, “Irreplaceable”, “Umbrella”, and “Paper Planes.”

    Yes! Yes. It bugs me that “Need You Now” won against four vastly better songs regardless of genre, but that the genre it won over has been completely ignored in this category so far is even worse.

  14. If we’re looking at it purely from the standpoint that Lady A represent country music to the rest of the world through these all genre wins, then we have nothing to worry about. Lady A do a great job of upholding country ideals even if they’re a far cry from traditional. There are far worse people who could be in their shoes. For example, this isn’t Sugarland (their latest album) or JaneDear Girls or even Jason Aldean that we’re talking about here. Lady A may be “hollow” but they’re not the worst we’ve got – by a long shot.

    As for the dwindling artistic credibility, I have to agree. Lady A won the popular vote last year with their massive single and album. That’s why they were nominated. “Need You Now” is a monster in the same vain as “I Hope You Dance.” Both songs will never die and go on to live very happy lives forever as a staples on both country and pop radio.

    I don’t agree with the assumption that Dixie Chicks are better than Alison who’s better than Zac and Taylor who’s better than Lady A. I for one think Zac Brown Band are fantastic because they have quality material with very traditional arraignments. Zac has a very expressive and clear voice and when he sings you can actually understand him. I put him on par with Alison Krauss and even Dixie Chicks any day. All three know a quality song when they hear it. Taylor though is better than Lady A in the song department. Vocally, Lady A is better but it isn’t fair to compare Taylor Swift and Charles Kelley.

    If the Grammy’s didn’t take popularity into such strong account, then we might have seen Miranda or Jamey score a Album of the Year nod instead. The strength of “The House That Built Me” should’ve given Miranda a real shot in that category and going on artistic credibility alone, should’ve gotten a nod in place of Katy Perry.

    The Grammys do make you wonder – their choices are often out of left field but I wasn’t all that shocked about Lady A’s five wins. Ever since they hit it big, Lady A have been the second coming for country music and can do no wrong in the eyes of any voting public. Within a matter of two to three singles they became the replacement for Rascal Flatts in vocal group prizes. By their second album, their greatness has extended to the Grammy Awards.

    I understand the love for both “I Run To You” and “Need You Now” – both are fantastic singles. But I’ve always been baffled by the industry who seems to pin Lady A and Zac Brown Band against each other. For some reason Zac Brown always comes out the looser even when, single for single, they have the better catalog. They’re also better musicians and put on a far more entertaining concert as well. Thank goodness for their duet with Alan Jackson or they wouldn’t have seen any Grammy love at all.

    What upsets me is that people who don’t regularly listen to country music are going to look at Lady A’s country album win and say, because it won, that Need You Now must’ve been the best country album of last year. They only won because they’re Lady A and can do no wrong in the eyes of the industry. Jamey, Zac Brown, and Miranda all had stronger albums – song for song. Even Hillary Scott called Miranda’s album a masterpiece.

    The other thing that annoyed me was including Jamey and Zac Brown’s albums in the Grammy pool this year. Their albums deserved a real shot at Grammy gold which should’ve come next year. The changing of the eligibility period only pinned some great albums against Lady A. It isn’t fair that either of them got short changed. I wish the singles were nominated this year and the album in 2012. Much like Vince Gill for These Days.

    It’s also funny that prediction polls had Zac Brown winning duo/group vocal for “Free.” There wasn’t any chance they’d turn up victor over Lady A. You could’ve hoped, but it wasn’t happening.

    As for the country grammy winners that weren’t Lady A – I found it hard to get excited for Keith Urban. As much as I loved “Till Summer Comes Around,” the best story song at country radio at the time of it’s release, the win was too predicable. When the same artist keeps winning over and over I find it difficult to look at artistic merit. Like Lady A, just because they’re nominated doesn’t mean they’re always the best choice. Toby, David, or Jamey would’ve been better choices.

    I’m also very happy for Patty Loveless. She’s always been my favorite female country vocalist (behind Trisha Yearwood) and even if I didn’t really like MSII, she was long overdue. I wish the first MS had won nine years ago, but that’s a different story.

    But what really amazes me is that “The House That Built Me” lost all songwriting awards. Miranda deservingly won for her stunning vocal, but if ever there is a song that needs a songwriting Grammy it’s that one. “Need You Now” is great but doesn’t even come close to reaching the greatness of THTBM. The Grammy people will one day look back and see their great oversight.

    Marty Stuart’s win for “Hummingbird” was great too. His album should’ve been a country album nominee. One of the most underrated and highly overlooked country records of last year.

    All and all, popularity beat artistic credibility yet again. Very deserving nominees were left out in the cold in favor of the flavor of the month. I didn’t expect a different outcome but it’s still painful none the less.

    Now lets see a hip/hop song win Record of the Year – that would be something worth celebrating!

  15. Also, is it me, or has the Grammy’s made a shift in the country categories? It used to be that artistic merit won over popularity. Recent wins for Loretta Lynn, the Louvin Brothers tribute album, and Emmylou Harris come to mind.

    Now the categories are far more representative of country radio and that isn’t a good thing.

    Let’s hope they shift away from the mainstream and start awarding all aspects of the country universe again. Merle Haggard should’ve been nominated this year.

    BTW, I’m still not over Jamey Johnson not winning for “In Color.” Based on the artistic merit theory, I thought he was a shoo-in. “Letter To Me” was great too, but I really thought Jamey was going to win that year.

    To think…if Johnny Cash were still alive he may loose to the likes of Keith Urban or Brad Paisley. Yah, maybe we shouldn’t think about that…

  16. Great points. And, just throwing this in there, I was disappointed in MirLam’s performance. She was flat and pitchy throughout. I know it was probably nerves, but her ACM performance was flawless and this performance was one of the worst of the night.

  17. @Jonathan – It definitely does seem that the Grammy’s take on country music has changed recently. Look at the 90s and it’s pretty much all Johnny Cash, Dixie Chicks and bluegrass. Of course, in the 90s everyone but Chicks fans complained that the Grammy’s were “out of touch” with what was going on in country music. Now, we’re griping that they’re entirely too much in line with the ACMs and CMAs. Go figure.

  18. Ironically, that source comes from a conservative news source, from what I can see in the ads on the page and the links.

    Why can’t we just nominate a song because it’s clever and funny? It was very brilliant, and I don’t see how it degrades black life (as if the writer knows anything about it, if you look at his picture above the article).

  19. Might I also add that the Lady Antebellum song isn’t all niceties, I mean it IS about being drunk and going back to your ex-lover, so any discussion of morality issues with the other nominees should also address “Need You Now” as well (IMO).

  20. I’m happy for Lady A, but their album got very, very mediocre reviews. Jamey Johnson’s album recieved GLOWING reviews from several critics. How did that not win?

  21. A friend of mine posted the Alan Parsons Project song “Eye in the Sky” along with “Need You Now” the day after the Grammys. It’s creepy just how close the two songs are sonically.

  22. …it was really funny, after their sweep at the grammys , swiss radio stations talked about lady antebellum all day long, calling them “the country-band lady antebellum” and it felt like they were approaching the subject like someone poking something still quite unknown with a stick.

    “need you now” has been played all year long on the radio in various countries in europe and it sounded great everywhere. on top of that it sounded kinda country compared to the average pop staple on the playlists over here. but most of all, it’s a monster of catchiness. so i guess, the grammy is well deserved, from a more global perspective.

    having said that, the “…i’m a little drunk..” line probably prevented it from becoming a big hit in the islamic part of the world. annoying the talibans never sounded any better – almost patriotic, that tune.

  23. It’s hard to take the Grammys seriously when the Album of the Year (Arcade Fire) lost to The Black Keys’ Brothers for Alternative Album of the Year and The Black Keys bested Arcade Fire in the Best Rock Performance Category. So…really, what was the Album of the Year again?

  24. Oops! I forgot to comment on Lady A. Which is pretty much a commentary on how I feel about the band. Forgettable. I won’t remember them in 5 or 10 years.

    All that’s changing is the decreasing artistic credibility. With all due respect to Lady Antebellum, they’re a step down from last year’s victors, Taylor Swift and Zac Brown Band, who in turn are nowhere near in the same league as Dixie Chicks and Alison Krauss.

    I absolutely agree. I wonder what we’ll see next year?

  25. I have a hard time hating the Lady A album since I got it as a birthday present from one of my best friends. But I don’t think I managed to get through it. Some of the songs were pretty bland.

  26. Nice to see classic ’70s music still garnering awards these days. “Need You Now” is nothing more than a complete rip-off of The Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye In The Sky”.

    Even more proof that one would be hard pressed to find an original thought in both Hollywood and Country music.

  27. The Grammys really is going down the drain. It’s more of popularity now than quantity. Shock value more than artistry. I mean, come on, Eminem’s album eclipsed its competition by a million miles and he still lost? So the Lady Antebellum win was like meh for me. Lady Antebellum wasn’t the best representative for country music for this year in that category.

    Taylor Swift’s White Horse win over Carrie Underwood’s Just a Dream was tragic. Really.

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