The country contingent of this year’s Grammy Awards may be the closest that Nashville ever gets to time travel.
This year’s crop of nominees for the Feb. 4 ceremony includes best new artist candidates Jelly Roll and The War and Treaty, a Dierks Bentley collaboration with Billy Strings, best country album finalists Lainey Wilson and Zach Bryan, and Luke Combs’ remake of “Fast Car.”
Each of those nominations – and most of the other country contenders, too – manage to move in two different directions on the time continuum, pushing the genre into the future while still hanging onto something out of the past.
The Grammys, according to John Carter Cash, are drawn to performances that are both “forward-thinking and connecting with the roots.” He should know: He’s nominated as an arranger on a new version of “Folsom Prison Blues” – most closely associated with his father, Johnny Cash – recorded by String Revolution featuring Tommy Emmanuel. The performance is an adventurous instrumental piece that wraps “Folsom” in folk and jazz ideals, absolutely widening the footprint of the song. Yet it remains significantly old-school: the original melody is intact during much of the recording, and it employs guitars that belonged to the Man in Black and his original guitarist, Luther Perkins.
The Grammys come under criticism every year among some country executives and broadcasters because the nominations don’t particularly line up with the biggest current projects in the genre. But that was never the intent of the awards, which are voted on by the creative class, rather than marketers and managers. Those creatives – including musicians, songwriters and producers – tend to reward the craft as much as the commerce, and the slate typically recognizes performances that build on bedrock influences while making a new statement. Sometimes, as in Bryan’s Kacey Musgraves Billboard Hot 100-topping collaboration “I Remember Everything,” that includes some of the most popular current music. But in others, such as Brandy Clark’s twice-nominated “Buried,” that means elevating music from outside the mainstream.
The nominations tend to honor artists and performances that respect the past without being bound by it. That is, to be sure, how the most original artists operate. “If you love country music, and you’re trying to do it, you love the old stuff,” Bentley notes. But “you can’t just go back and redo the old stuff. It’s already been done.”
There are exceptions. Combs’ revision of “Fast Car,” up for best country solo performance, is a faithful update of a classic, though the current circumstances are different: male singer Combs renders it from a different perspective than female originator Tracy Chapman, and it re-emerged in country instead of the folk/pop arena where she introduced it. Solo competitor Dolly Parton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind” is a reworking of a song she first cut with duet partner Porter Wagoner in 1967. And Vince Gill is a best country duo/group finalist with steel guitarist Paul Franklin for bringing attention to “Kissing Your Picture (Is So Cold),” an obscure Ray Price song re-recorded for a tribute album.
“When I first heard Vince Gill, I thought, ‘Whoa, this is so cool, so new,’ and it was, of course,” Bentley remembers. “Listening to Vince now, that’s nothing but traditional country music, but the way he did it, it felt new. It’s the same thing with Morgan Wallen now. A lot of his songs are super country. My daughter listens to him, she goes, ‘Oh my god, this is so cool and new and different.’ I’m like, ‘That’s pretty country: dobro, and Bryan Sutton on the acoustic.’ So you kind of kind of trick everyone a little bit.”
Carly Pearce’s ability to walk the line between old and new is one of the reasons her Chris Stapleton collaboration “We Don’t Fight Anymore” secured a best country duo/group performance nomination. The spare, acoustic arrangement builds on the genre’s origins, as does its mature lyrical portrait of a debilitated relationship. But the melody and the phrasing are notably modern.
“They’re looking for artistic expression,” Pearce suggests. “That song is one of the most authentic to me, so I think it resonates, obviously, in a commercial way, but more in an artistic way, which is what I love about the Grammys. They see the whole vision of an artist and not just what’s played on the radio. For it to have that marriage together is really [key].”
Even Kelsea Ballerini’s best country album entry Rolling Up the Welcome Mat has that forward-thinking, roots-respecting aura. Compiled as a series of songs that documents her emotional journey following a divorce from Morgan Evans, it mostly features a boundary-testing, pop-leaning sound, though mining her inner world for her art is very much an old-school Hank Williams kind of approach.
“In my brain, it’s like I made a movie,” she says. “It’s solely focusing and zooming in on the songwriting and the storytelling, and to me, that is honoring the genre that I dig my heels into every day. The sonic elements that accompany it, to me, don’t hold as much weight as the story that you’re telling.”
Even personal history can influence the artistic time-machine effect. Songwriter of the year nominee Jessie Jo Dillon (“Memory Lane,” “Halfway To Hell”) compares Jelly Roll’s rise from a prison background and drug abuse to Johnny Cash’s messages about forgiveness. And Wilson sees Jelly Roll’s willingness to mine his experiences as a major influence on the format moving forward.
“Everybody’s past and everything – none of that matters,” she says. “We’ve all done things, we’ve all messed up. It’s about what’s on the inside, and Jelly Roll is nothing but good.”
Ultimately, the creatives who vote for the Grammys all draw from the same musical past as the nominees, and the country finalists list is a qualitative statement about how the genre can continue to evolve.
“It’s very, very difficult to know where you’re going if you don’t know where you come from,” says The War and Treaty’s Michael Trotter Jr. “We like to pay respect, homage, pay a nod to the past — because it’s still our present.”
At the Grammys, that past dictates how country moves into its future.