NEW YORK — Country music has not had an album or song nominated in the top three categories at the Grammys since 2011 when Lady Antebellum won big, but the genre is back strong, thanks to Chris Stapleton's overall success and Little Big Town's megahit, "Girl Crush."
Stapleton, a hit songwriter and former leader of The SteelDrivers, is nominated for album of the year for his debut, "Traveller," while "Girl Crush" earned songwriters Liz Rose, Hillary Lindsey and Lori McKenna nominations for song of the year.
The last time a country album was nominated for album of the year was Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now" at the 2011 Grammys (we don't count Taylor Swift's pop-flavored "Red" as country). That year also was the last time a country track earned nominations for song or record of the year, which Lady A took home for their crossover hit, "Need You Now" (Miranda Lambert's "The House That Built Me" was nominated for song of the year that year too).
Charles Kelley of Lady A says the 2011 Grammys "was probably the greatest night of my musical career. It felt like a big win for the genre that night."
Kelley, who is nominated for his first Grammy apart from his Lady A bandmates this year, said country music is returning to the top categories because Little Big Town and Stapleton made unique and unpredictable songs.
"They made the boldest records; they're not down-the-middle records at all, and I think the Grammys always tend to recognize when someone has painted outside the lines a little bit," he said.
Sam Hunt also is representing country music with a nomination for best new artist, a category that typically includes at least one country act.
Part of the reason country music has not earned top Grammy nominations may be because country songs don't chart high enough on the pop- and rap-dominated Billboard Hot 100 chart. Grammy voters who are not paying attention solely to country music may not be as familiar with the genre's songs and albums because it's not in the mainstream as much as rap and rock.
Carrie Underwood's "Inside Your Heaven" was the last country song to hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 in 2005; before that it was Lonestar in 2000 with "Amazed." Though "Need You Now" and Swift's "You Belong With Me" both peaked at No. 2, country songs often chart in the bottom half of the Top 40 pop charts and Top 10 hits are a rarity. "Girl Crush," as big as it was, peaked at No. 18 on the Hot 100.
"It did not perform in the pop radio world anywhere near what we thought it would," said Mike Dungan, the chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group Nashville, the home to Little Big Town, Stapleton and Hunt.
But country acts have a comfortable home with country radio, and can reach double platinum status without crossing over to pop, which is not the case for rap, rock and R&B acts.
"Back when country was really present on pop radio — let's take this as far back as the '80s — these records were really worked to all the formats at the same time ," Dungan said.
But today, "country radio (doesn't) like it when artists crossover. They look at those artists as if they are opportunists who are looking at country as a maybe a stepping stone to a bigger, broader world," he said. "And so those of us who have been on this side of the business, the labels, the artists, their managers, have been very cautious about when you pull that trigger to cross over."
Because music fans today listen to a wide range of genres, once "Girl Crush" was sent to pop radio, it had already been heard by some of that audience: "It was already kind of burned out," Dungan said.
At Monday's Grammys, Little Big Town's "Pain Killer" is nominated for best country album, while "Girl Crush" is also up for best country song and country duo/group performance.
"For some reason this song spoke to people I don't know if it was controversial, I don't know what it was," said Rose, who co-wrote "Girl Crush" and also co-wrote Swift's "You Belong With Me," which was nominated for song and record of the year at the 2010 Grammys. "'You Belong With Me' crossed over so that makes sense to me. This does not make sense. It turned into a song, and not just country, and it's just a universal song that people, even if they don't know country (music), they know the song."
Stapleton's nominations include best country song, solo performance and album for "Traveller." His album became a No. 1 smash after his show-stopping performance with Justin Timberlake at the CMA Awards, along with three-for-three wins. His competition for album of the year includes No. 1 efforts from Swift, Kendrick Lamar, Alabama Shakes and The Weeknd.
Though Lady A, Stapleton and Little Big Town have had crossover success, that doesn't always equate to Grammy love. Florida Georgia Line, who had a Top 5 pop hit with its "Cruise" remix with rapper Nelly in 2013, didn't earn a single nomination; Luke Bryan, despite selling millions of albums and tickets at stadiums, has never earned a Grammy nomination. Both acts fit in the category of the sometimes frowned-upon "bro-country" genre.
"I can make a presumption that the Grammys kind of viewed that music as a bit pedestrian and banal and not art worthy," said John Marks, Spotify's global head of country music, where the genre is the third most active behind pop and hip-hop.
Marks added that the Grammys tend to lean to songs that are "more lyric and art-driven, and largely commercially-driven."
"And that hasn't happened in a little while, and the opportunity has presented itself with Chris Stapleton and Little Big Town."