Country Focus: Chris Stapleton, "Girl Crush" Sweep Field
The GRAMMY Awards showcased some of country music's brightest stars, offering top-notch performances by Luke Bryan, Sam Hunt, Little Big Town, Chris Stapleton, and Carrie Underwood. Known for unique GRAMMY Moment artist pairings, this year's GRAMMY telecast continued the tradition of blending genres and placing icons onstage with today's hottest up-and-coming talent. Rising artist Chris Stapleton and veteran group Little Big Town swept the Country Field, with two wins each.
Stapleton was a first-time GRAMMY winner, earning two of the genre's biggest honors, Best Country Solo Performance ("Traveller") and Best Country Album (Traveller). Stapleton, who has been nominated in past years as a member of the Steeldrivers, said sincerely during his acceptance speech for Best Country Album, "This is something that you never, ever, ever dream of, so I'm super grateful for it." (He also thanked Taylor Swift for glitter bombing him before accepting his award.)
Stapleton contributed soulful country vocals to a memorial tribute to the late B.B. King, performing a rendition of the blues classic "The Thrill Is Gone" alongside Gary Clark Jr. and Bonnie Raitt.
Little Big Town, who had a tremendous year largely thanks to their hit "Girl Crush," won the GRAMMY for Best Country Duo/Group Performance and took to the GRAMMY stage to share their GRAMMY-winning song about lustful jealousy. The quartet stood on a glowing, circular platform and performed an orchestral arrangement of the hit. The performance accentuated the song's somber mood with an a cappella opening followed by a sighing stringed instrumental accompaniment. Little Big Town were also nominated for Best Country Album for Pain Killer.
"Girl Crush" was named Best Country Song, with honors going to songwriters Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose — three of country music's most in-demand hitmakers known collectively as the Love Junkies. "Girl Crush" was also nominated for Song Of The Year in the General Field, an award that ultimately went home with Ed Sheeran for his top-selling pop track "Thinking Out Loud," co-written with Amy Wadge.
Carrie Underwood and Sam Hunt teamed to turn their respective hits "Heartbeat" and "Take Your Time" into a duet mash-up, swapping verses in superb vocal style. Black-and-white wardrobes added to the performance's impact, creating contrast against red lighting effects. Underwood, a seven-time GRAMMY winner, was nominated this year for Best Country Solo Performance for "Little Toy Guns."
Hunt was a first-time nominee heading into the ceremony, with two nods for Best Country Album and Best New Artist in the General Field, following a breakthrough year with his debut album, Montevallo.
Luke Bryan brought plenty of charming country swagger to a tribute to legendary artist Lionel Richie. The medley of Richie hits included Bryan singing "Penny Lover" onstage beside John Legend, Demi Lovato, Meghan Trainor, and Tyrese.
Country newcomer and first-time GRAMMY nominee Cam was a ray of sunshine wearing a yellow gown — her trademark color — when presenting the award for Best Country Album alongside actor Gary Sinise. Cam was nominated for Best Country Solo Performance for her breakout hit "Burning House." Her producer Jeff Bhasker, who also worked with Elle King and Mark Ronson, among others, won the GRAMMY for Producer Of The Year, Non-Classical.
Don Henley of the Eagles, who recently released a solo country/Americana album, Cass County, returned to the drum kit with the Eagles' Bernie Leadon, Timothy B. Schmit, and Joe Walsh, along with Jackson Browne, to perform "Take It Easy" as a salute to Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey who died last month.
Pink and red were popular wardrobe colors on the red carpet for the post-Valentine's Day show. Hunt turned heads in a blush-tinged suit, and Little Big Town's Kimberly Schlapman dazzled in a red-and-pink gown. Country-turned-pop star Taylor Swift accepted her honor for Album Of The Year in a red and pink gown. First-time GRAMMY nominee Ashley Monroe, who was up for Best Country Duo/Group Performance (with Blake Shelton) and Best Country Album, chose a flowing sky blue gown.
The 58th GRAMMY Awards proved to be a strong showing for the Country Field, with several first-time nominees, multiple wins for both Stapleton and Little Big Town and a diverse representation of memorable country performances.
(Sarah Skates has been covering country music for more than a decade. Her recent work has appeared in Nash Country Weekly, MusicRow and Nashville Lifestyles.)