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AND THE WINNER IS...
Handicapping Country Categories at the 42nd Annual Grammy Awards
LOS ANGELES - No one was surprised, really, when the Dixie Chicks captured two Grammy awards a year ago, for best country album (Wide Open Spaces) and best country performance by a duo or group with vocal ("There's Your Trouble").

By the time the awards rolled around, Wide Open Spaces, their debut album, already had been certified four times platinum, for shipments of four million copies. Just a few months earlier, at the Country Music Association awards, the saucy trio of Natalie Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Seidel had been named group of the year and Horizon Award winners, their first major victories in awards show voting.

This year, however, expectations for the group are higher. After last year's awards, the Chicks went on to capture a passel of honors from the Academy of Country Music, the TNN/Music City News Country Awards and, again, from the CMA.

When Grammy nominations were announced in January, the Chicks had nods not only in four country categories (best country duo or group with vocal, best country vocal collaboration, best country song and best country album); they also were entered in the prestigious album of the year field. Selected by a special blue-ribbon committee, their fellow nominees included albums by the Backstreet Boys, jazz singer and keyboardist Diana Krall, Santana and hip-hop favorites TLC.

When the Grammys are handed out during a CBS telecast at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, have the Chicks got a chance at the overall album trophy? Absolutely. If Nashville's Grammy voters close ranks behind the trio of Texans, they have a better-than-average chance at victory, though they can expect stiff competition from guitarist Carlos Santana, likely to be the evening's sentimental favorite.

Over in the song of the year category, Shania Twain and her husband, Robert John "Mutt" Lange have an entry, "You've Got a Way," from Twain's 16-million-selling album, Come on Over. Santana's "Smooth" and the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way" are looking hard to beat there, however.

The Chicks and Twain aren't the only artists with country ties competing in categories outside the country field. Glen Campbell, Roy Clark and Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, for instance, all are entered for best Southern, country or bluegrass gospel album. The Dixie Hummingbirds' Music in the Air, nominated for best traditional soul gospel album, features Wynonna in a guest spot.

June Carter Cash, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, John Hartford and Doc Watson are among hopefuls up for best traditional folk album, while John Prine, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris are candidates for the Grammy for best contemporary folk album.

Willie Nelson, who will receive a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences during Grammy week, is nominated for best pop instrumental performance, for his recording of "Night and Day," the title track from his all-instrumental album.

Merle Haggard is up for best spoken word album, for the recorded version of his autobiography, Merle Haggard's My House of Memories: For the Record. A reissue of Ray Charles' classic country recordings is in the running for best historical reissue and best album notes (by Daniel Cooper of the Country Music Foundation). Rick Bragg's notes for Hank Williams: Live at the Grand Ole Opry, also are up for a Grammy in the album notes category.

Asleep at the Wheel's Ride with Bob project has nominations for best recording package and best long form music video. Dann Huff, producer for Bryan White, Lonestar, Shane Minor and SHeDAISY, is in the running for producer of the year, non-classical. Gary Paczosa is up for best engineered album, non-classical for his work on Alison Krauss' Forget About It, and Joe Chiccarelli, Mick Guzauski, John Kelton and Csaba Petocz are nominated in the same category for their engineering work on Lorrie Morgan's My Heart.

There's even a country-related artist in the classical field, where former New Grass Revival and Nash Ramblers member Sam Bush vies for best classical crossover album, for his work with Edgar Meyer, Joshua Bell and Mike Marshall on the album Short Trip Home.

The heart of the matter in these parts is the country categories, so here's a gander into our country.com crystal ball for some thoughts on which way the Grammy folks are likely to lean:

Best Female Country Vocal Performance

"Ordinary Heart" - Emmylou Harris
"Let Me Let Go" - Faith Hill
"Forget About It" - Alison Krauss
"I Love You" - Martina McBride
"Man, I Feel Like a Woman" - Shania Twain
Harris, Krauss and Twain have been Grammy winners before. Hill and McBride are country favorites, but Twain wins. Though not necessarily the best or most interesting, her song is the best-known of the five.

Best Male Country Vocal Performance

"Don't Come Crying to Me" - Vince Gill
"Choices" - George Jones
"That's Right (You're Not From Texas)" - Lyle Lovett
"Please Remember Me" - Tim McGraw
"Crazy Little Thing Called Love" - Dwight Yoakam
Gill, Lovett and Yoakam have been past Grammy favorites, but Jones' reputation as a legend should earn him the nod. He has won only once before, in 1981, for "He Stopped Loving Her Today."

Best Performance By a Duo or Group With Vocal

"Honky Tonk Song" - BR5-49
"Unbelievable" - Diamond Rio
"Ready to Run" - Dixie Chicks
"Amazed" - Lonestar
"Little Goodbyes" - SHeDAISY
Despite the sustained success of Lonestar's single, the Dixie Chicks tally this one in the win column, a repeat of their win in the same category last year.

Best Country Collaboration With Vocals

"God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You" - Alabama featuring 'N Sync
"Going Away Party" - Asleep at the Wheel featuring the Manhattan Transfer & Willie Nelson
"Roly Poly" - Asleep at the Wheel featuring the Dixie Chicks
"When I Said I Do" - Clint Black with Lisa Hartman Black
"After the Gold Rush" - Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt & Dolly Parton
This one comes down to a duel between two trios of women. The Dixie Chicks, working with six-time Grammy winners Asleep at the Wheel, come out ahead, even though the combined Grammy total of Harris, Ronstadt and Parton is well into double figures.

Best Country Instrumental Performance

"Bob's Breakdowns" - Asleep at the Wheel
"Black Mountain Rag" - Del McCoury, Doc Watson & Mac Wiseman
"Mr. John Henry, Steel Driving Man" - Marty Stuart & Earl Scruggs
"The Greatest Love of All Time" - Marty Stuart
"The Harry Shuffle" - Steve Wariner
Asleep at the Wheel has six nominations this year, as many as TLC and second only to Santana. Ray Benson and his swing pals in the Wheel win here.

Best Country Song - (Awarded to Songwriter)

"Amazed" - Marv Green, Chris Lindsey & Aimee Mayo
"Choices" - Mike Curtis & Billy Yates
"Come on Over" - Robert John "Mutt" Lange & Shania Twain
"Ready to Run" - Marcus Hummon & Martie Seidel
"Two Teardrops" - Bill Anderson & Steve Wariner
Twain's song will earn the nod. Grammy voters outside the world of country music will recognize her name and probably know the tune.

Best Country Album

Ride with Bob - Asleep at the Wheel
Fly - Dixie Chicks
Trio II - Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt & Dolly Parton
Cold Hard Truth - George Jones
Forget About It - Alison Krauss
The great thing about this category is that all five albums are first-rate works. Given that Fly was judged worthy to compete for overall album of the year, the Dixie Chicks should come out ahead here.

Best Bluegrass Album

Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza - Sam Bush, David Grisman, Ronnie McCoury, Jesse McReynolds, Bobby Osborne, Ricky Skaggs, Frank Wakefield, Buck White with Del McCoury
The Mountain - Steve Earle & the Del McCoury Band
The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales From the Acoustic Planet, Volume 2 - Bela Fleck
I Feel Like Singing Today - Jim Lauderdale, Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys
Ancient Tones - Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder
A real tough category to call. Skaggs won last year. Fleck is a favorite. Stanley deserves a Grammy more than anyone else in the bluegrass field for his pioneering work. Earle and McCoury teamed up for a landmark melding of styles. The mandolin project lives up to its name. Give it to Fleck, though. His project was his last original collection for Warner Bros. Records before moving over to Sony, and it involved a number of stellar players.
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