Grammy for Best Country Album: Sturgill Simpson challenged by newcomer Maren Morris & legend Loretta Lynn

Sturgill Simpson was one of the biggest surprises on Grammy nominations morning when his third studio album, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” was announced among the contenders for Album of the Year. He’s also up for Best Country Album, and he’s the only nominee in that genre race who also competes in the night’s top category, so that should make him the clear frontrunner to win, right? Well, he might not be a sure thing.

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It is true that Album of the Year nominees tend to have an advantage in genre categories, and Best Country Album is no exception. When this category has included a nominee for Album of the Year, that album has won seven out of nine times: Dixie Chicks (“Fly” in 1999, “Home” in 2002, “Taking the Long Way” in 2006), Vince Gill (“These Days,” 2007), Taylor Swift (“Fearless,” 2009), Lady Antebellum (“Need You Now,” 2010) and Chris Stapleton (“Traveller,” 2015). That gives Simpson a major statistical advantage.

However, there are two exceptions to this rule. In 1998, Shania Twain was nominated for Album of the Year for “Come on Over,” but lost Best Country Album in an upset to the Dixie Chicks’ breakthrough, “Wide Open Spaces.” And in 2013, Taylor Swift was up for Album of the Year for “Red” but lost the country award to Kacey Musgraves for her breakthrough, “Same Trailer, Different Park.”

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That could be good news for one of Simpson’s rivals, Maren Morris. Like Musgraves she’s a critically acclaimed newcomer nominated in the general field for Best New Artist. And though her major label debut, “Hero,” isn’t up for Album of the Year, she may actually have more support overall from the recording academy. Because while Simpson is only nominated in two categories Morris is nominated in four. In addition to Best New Artist and Best Country Album, Morris could win Best Country Solo Performance and Best Country Song for her breakthrough hit “My Church.” Simpson has no nominations for performance or writing — does he really have the best country album if he doesn’t have any of the best country songs?

Of course both Simpson and Morris should watch out for a country music legend who has been an industry superstar for longer than either of them has been alive: 84-year-old Loretta Lynn. She’s nominated for “Full Circle,” a critically acclaimed collection that is her first album in 12 years. Her last effort was “Van Lear Rose,” which won this category in 2004. But throughout her career Lynn has only ever won three competitive Grammys. She also received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010, but voters may want to tip their cowboy hats to an under-rewarded icon.

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Also nominated in this category is Keith Urban (“Ripcord”). This is his third nomination in this category, following “Be Here” (2004) and “Defying Gravity” (2009), but he has yet to win. He is, however, the most awarded artist in this category with four past Grammy victories for vocal performances. This year he has another such nomination: Best Country Solo for “Blue Ain’t Your Color.” That song is also up for Best Country Song, but he isn’t one of its writers.

Rounding out the category is Brandy Clark (“Big Day in a Small Town”), who was nominated once before, for “12 Stories” (2014). She’s also in the running for Best Country Solo for “Love Can Go to Hell.”

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