Women Fill Entire Categories in Country and Rock as Grammys Reset the Scales for Gender-Imbalanced Genres

Chris Willman
·6 min read

For once, the country music patriarchy is riding shotgun.

Country may be renowned as a genre where the women do not always get a fair shake, but you would not guess that from how the nominations for the 2021 Grammys shook out. Female solo artists or bands with women as primary lead singers accounted for all five of the nominations in the best country album category. Moreover, female-fronted material was awarded four out of five slots in two other categories, best country song and best country solo performance. That 80-to-100% imbalance is, of course, pretty much the exact inverse of what a fan of the music will hear on the airwaves.

If the Grammys were making a statement, the Recording Academy wasn’t just making it in country. There was a similar readjusting of the scales happening in some of the rock categories. For best rock performance, all six nominees are women or have a female lead singer. Best rock song and best alternative album are also female-dominated, with women commanding three out of five slots in those two divisions.

Do these strong and sometimes all-consuming showings by women in two of the most male-dominated genres represent a case of activism by rock and country’s respective nominating committees? Maybe. But it could also be a case of a year in which female artists’ contributions were undeniable, even without a vested interest in undoing institutional sexism. At the very least, the separate committee that narrows down the nominees in the top four categories was on the same page, as artists like Phoebe Bridgers, HAIM, Brittany Howard and Ingrid Andress also landed nominations in the genre-agnostic divisions.

Andress, who was nominated for best new artist, is part of the field for best country album, too. Her “Lady Like” debut is up against Brandy Clark’s “Your Life Is a Record,” Miranda Lambert’s “Wildcard,” Little Big Town’s “Nightfall” and Ashley McBryde’s “Never Will,” representing an extremely competitive field with no clear front-runner.

For best country song, Andress’ No. 1 hit “More Hearts Than Mine” faces off against Maren Morris’ crossover smash “The Bones,” Lambert’s “Bluebird” and the Highwomen’s “Crowded Table,” four juggernauts all. Male artists get a surely-not-token nod with Old Dominion’s “Some People Do” landing the fifth slot.

Best country solo performance has Lambert and Clark again in the race, for the songs “Bluebird” and “Who You Thought I Was,” respectively. Mickey Guyton also picks up a nomination there for her racially charged anthem, “Black Like Me.” The other two slots go to Vince Gill’s “When My Amy Prays” and Eric Church’s “Put That in Your Country Song.”

Guyton, of course, is not just representing for women in country: With her nomination, she becomes the first Black, female solo artist ever to be nominated for a country Grammy… and the first Black woman artist nominated in the field at all since the Pointer Sisters improbably picked up two country Grammys with a crossover hit in the mid-1970s.

Only the best country duo/group performance category tips slightly back toward men, with Little Big Town’s “Sugar Coat” and Lady A’s “Ocean” competing against a return appearance of the Old Dominion song, plus Brothers Osborne’s “All Night” and “10,000 Hours” by Dan + Shay with Justin Bieber. (Although Dan + Shay were a dominating crossover presence at the American Music Awards, their look at the Grammys is limited to just this one nomination.)

In rock, the best rock performance category has six nominees, indicating a tie, with male frontmen accounting for none among that half-dozen. The nominees: “Shameika” by Fiona Apple, “Not” by Big Thief, “Kyoto” by Bridgers, “The Steps” by HAIM, “Stay High” by Howard and “Daylight” from Grace Potter.

Best rock song is close to a carbon copy of best rock performance, as Apple, Bridgers, Howard and Big Thief put the same songs into play there as in the other category. Tame Impala’s “Lost in Yesterday” sneaks in for the fifth slot.

Best alternative music album finds Apple’s “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” Bridgers’ “Punisher” and Howard’s “Jaime” up against Tame Impala’s “The Slow Rush” and Beck’s
“Hyperspace.”

If anyone wants to contend that the rock committee was making its choices with some kind of SJW bias, the best evidence against that may be the choices for best rock album, where Grace Potter’s “Daylight” is the lone female-fronted contender against albums by the Strokes, Sturgill Simpson, Fontaines D.C. and Michael Kiwanuka.

If you’re looking for bias, you might be able to argue you find better hints of it in the top four all-genre categories… but it’s not against women, since they command most of those slots this year too. If anything, it might be against country itself, as a genre. Andress’ best new artist nod is the only nomination for a country artist in any of those four top categories, a lonesome presence among 23 total nominees. Gabby Barrett, who was also predicted to be a best new artist nominee, didn’t land a nomination in any category. And the all-star group the Highwomen, who were considered a wild card for album of the year, had to settle for their one country nomination. At least it wasn’t just country women the committee handling the top four categories left underserved; highly commercial country men like Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen also failed to find a place there (or anywhere, for that matter). Clark and McBryde were seen as contenders for the all-genre top album category, as well, and Guyton had been frequently mentioned for best new artist, too, had the nominating committee been more country-conscious.

While rock didn’t exactly dominate the top four categories, either, HAIM and Bridgers did at least land album of the year nods, with the ironically titled “Women in Music Pt. III” and “Punisher,” respectively. Black Pumas’ funk-rock sounds landed record and album of the year spots. To the extent that anyone wants to consider Coldplay a rock and not pop act, they, too, got in for album of the year, the band’s only Grammy score this year. Apple’s lack of presence in album of the year for “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” arguably the year’s most universally well-reviewed album, represents a glaring oversight to many, however.

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