Grammy Preview: 13 of Country’s Top Nominees

Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton and Taylor Swift Are Among Hopeful Winners

Country music is well represented this year at the 54th annual Grammy Awards, the one awards show that crosses genre boundaries to crown the best in music.

Even though the show decided to simplify and remove a few categories this season, there are still 13 country acts being recognized for their success in 2011. The hitmakers who write our favorite songs will also be praised, and one young country group will stand alongside artists in all fields of music for the title of best new artist.

Veteran Grammy nominees like Kenny Chesney, George Strait and Taylor Swift will compete against new favorites like Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton and Eric Church, but deep down, all will likely be wondering if their year of hard work was enough to earn a golden Grammy trophy.

The Grammy Awards will be telecast Sunday (Feb. 12) at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.

Here’s how the argument for each country artist shakes out:

Jason Aldean
Aldean pulled three nominations — best country album, best country duo/group performance and best country solo performance — making him this year’s top country nominee. His My Kinda Party rages on, selling more than 2 million copies to date, while “Don’t You Wanna Stay” (featuring Kelly Clarkson) and “Dirt Road Anthem” both took this country rocker to the top of the charts. Aldean has yet to win a Grammy, but his chances look bright this year.

The Band Perry
After “If I Die Young” captured hearts and earned the group a Grammy nomination for best country song last year, the family band has kept up their momentum. “All Your Life” is currently Billboard‘s No. 1 country song, “You Lie” climbed to No. 2 and their self-titled debut album has been certified platinum. They also scored multiple television and sporting event appearances, helping build their crossover fan base. The Band Perry will vie for their first Grammy win against Bon Iver, J. Cole, Nicki Minaj and Skrillex in the multi-genre best new artist category.

Kenny Chesney
The perennial country favorite makes a return to the Grammy nominees list after missing out last year. “You and Tequila,” Chesney’s duet with rock singer Grace Potter, resulted in two nods — one for himself in the best country duo/group performance category and one for songwriters Matraca Berg and Deana Carter in the best country song contest. Surprisingly, Chesney also has yet to take home a Grammy award.

Eric Church
Chruch’s latest album, Chief, wraps up what the North Carolina singer-songwriter calls his “six-year overnight success story.” After touring hard and growing a legion of enthusiastic fans even before scoring a major radio hit, Church finally placed an album at the top of the Billboard country charts. Featuring the singles “Homeboy” and “Drink in My Hand” (which has recently became his first No. 1 single), Chief landed on many critics’ best-of-2011 lists. He’s up for best country album, and this would be his first Grammy.

The Civil Wars
The Civil Wars rose to fame on the strength of rich two-part harmonies and placement of their music on the hit TV show Grey’s Anatomy. Taylor Swift eventually professed her love for the band, which didn’t hurt, either. Their melancholy “Poison and Wine” went down smooth with country fans, but the Southern Gothic landscape they painted in “Barton Hollow” earns them a nod in the best country duo/group performance category. They also nabbed a nomination in the best folk album category for Barton Hollow.

Vince Gill
Gill is no stranger to the Grammy ballot, having won 20 awards dating back to 1990. This year, his “Threaten Me With Heaven” takes center stage in the best country song category, along with his co-writers — wife Amy Grant, Dillon O’Brian and Will Owsley. It’s an especially meaningful nomination because since writing it, Owsley took his own life. The song features a man of faith facing down death and has been called a companion to Gill’s famous ballad dedicated to his late brother’s memory, “Go Rest High on That Mountain.”

Lady Antebellum
After cleaning up at the Grammys last year — the group won five awards stemming from their Need You Now project — Lady Antebellum secure one nod this time for best country album (Own the Night). The album has already spawned two No. 1 singles — “Just a Kiss” and “We Owned the Night” — and a third track, “Dancing Away With My Heart,” is currently climbing the country chart. Released in September 2011, Own the Night has racked up sales of more than 1 million copies.

Martina McBride
McBride notches a nomination in the best country solo performance field. Her “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” is an inspirational anthem celebrating those who stand steadfastly alongside loved ones in difficult times. The song has become a rallying cry, especially for the breast cancer awareness movement. Recently breaking into the Top 10 of Billboard‘s country songs chart, the track would give McBride her first-ever Grammy.

Blake Shelton
Grammy voters aren’t supposed to take public buzz into account, but if they did, Shelton would be a shoo-in for his first victory. Scoring nods for best country solo performance (“Honey Bee” ) and best country album (Red River Blue), he arrives on this year’s nominees list at the top of his game. His album rose to No. 1 on Billboard‘s country albums chart and is still floating in the Top 10, while two songs from the project also reached the high-water mark, “Honey Bee” and “God Gave Me You.” The latter song also earned a nomination in the best country song category for its composer, contemporary Christian singer-songwriter Dave Barnes.

George Strait
Strait has never been very concerned with awards, but I’ll bet he’d like a repeat of the 2008 Grammys. He won the best country album trophy that year for Troubadour, and this year places Here for a Good Time in the same category. The album partied its way to the top of the Billboard country album chart in its first week, while the title track made it to No. 2 before calling it a night. His latest single from the album, “Love’s Gonna Make It Alright,” broke into the Top 10 this week.

Taylor Swift
Swift already has four Grammys to her credit, all stemming from her Fearless clean sweep of 2009. This year she’ll try for three: best country solo performance (“Mean” ), best country song (as the writer of “Mean”) and best country album (Speak Now). Speak Now boasts sales of 3.9 million copies, by far the highest total on the chart. Likewise, “Mean” looks ready to break the 2-million mark for digital downloads.

Thompson Square
The husband and wife duo of Thompson Square burst onto the scene in 2011 with the smash hit “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” and were rewarded by Grammy voters with two nominations connected to the song. Best country duo/group performance will go to them if they win, while the award for best country song would be presented to songwriters Jim Collins and David Lee Murphy. This is the first time on the ballot for the just-out-of-the-box stars.

Carrie Underwood
Underwood had a relatively slow year because she did not release a new album, but she did sneak “Mama’s Song” up to No. 2 on Billboard‘s country songs chart in January of 2011. That was enough to earn a spot in the best country solo performance contest alongside Aldean, McBride, Shelton and Swift. This would be Underwood’s sixth Grammy, as she already brought five home to mama dating back to her best new artist win in 2006.

Chris lives in Nashville and has written for CMT.com and CMT Edge since 2007.