Yeah yeah, it’s awesome that Sturgill Simpson received an Album of the Year nomination from the Grammy Awards for A Sailor’s Guide to Earth and everything, and just the nomination itself feels like an awesome victory overcoming insurmountable odds for an underdog record and artist. But now that our head rush has worn off from the big surprise, what are the prospects that Sturgill Simpson could actually win this thing?
The odds may be a lot more in Sturgill’s favor than one might think, though it goes without saying he’s a big time underdog in a field of huge heavyweights. However, the fact that there are so many heavyweights in the field could work to his advantage. So let’s look at some scenarios and a historical context to see just how tempered our prospects for him winning should actually be.
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Can a Critically-Favorite Country/Roots Album Actually Win?
It’s not so unprecedented that Sturgill Simpson was nominated for Album of the Year as it appears on the surface. Yes, it’s unprecedented for Sturgill personally, but it’s not unprecedented for a project that was a critical favorite to receive a nomination, and it’s not even unprecedented in independent country/Americana.
2002 – O Brother Where Art Thou Soundtrack
Full of traditional bluegrass music, who thought that it would go on to be nominated for Album of the Year, let alone win it in a field that included the blockbuster Outkast album Stankonia, and albums from U2 and Bob Dylan?
But the story of O Brother is a little bit different. Unlike A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, O Brother was a commercial blockbuster due to its ties to the Coen Brothers’ blockbuster movie. O Brother spent 20 weeks at #1 on the Top Country Albums chart in 2001, and eventually sold over 8 million copies. It made international superstars out of Alison Krauss and Ralph Stanley. Even the CMA’s got on board giving “Man of Constant Sorrow” Single of the Year, and the soundtrack won two other Grammy Awards. Though the music was traditional, the momentum behind O Brother was mainstream. Sturgill’s A Sailor’s Guide has done well, but doesn’t have nearly the commercial showing O Brother did.
2009 – Robert Plant and Alison Krauss – Raising Sand
This Plant/Krauss collaboration is probably a better test case of how Sturgill Simpson could pull out a win. An Americana album that sold quite well, but was not nearly on the winning streak the O Borther soundtrack was on, it shocked everyone when it upstaged blockbuster albums from Radiohead, Lil Wayne, Coldplay, and Ne-Yo in 2009. Sure, Robert Plant was part of one of the most successful bands in history, and Alison Krauss had already proven Grammy acceptance with O Brother (along with T Bone Burnett, who produced both O Brother and Raising Sand), but it was still shocking nonetheless. As Robert Plant pointed out at the time, the Grammy Awards never paid much attention to Led Zepplin, and Led Zepplin did pay much attention to them back in the day. 2009 was a year a critical roots favorite slayed the giants.
2003 – Norah Jones – Come Away with Me
Though you may consider the Norah Jones breakout more of a traditional pop record veering towards light jazz, and just like O Brother Where Art Thou when it won Album of the Year it was on an incredible and unexpected commercial run, it could still offer some hope to Sturgill’s prospects in the way it upstaged much more well-known and commercially successful competition such as Eminem, The Dixie Chicks, Nelly, and Bruce Springsteen.
2016 – Nominations for Alabama Shakes and Chris Stapleton
Though neither the Shakes’ Sound & Color, nor Stapleton’s Traveller won (it was Taylor Swift’s 1989), nominating two records that both had ties to the independent country/roots/Americana world showed a growing acceptance and awareness by Grammy voters that independent roots continues to show upward trends in commercial viability, while also being a bastion for critical achievement. The Grammy Awards would not give up that much real estate to nominees if they didn’t think an album that didn’t get any radio play could eventually win.
Splitting of the Popular Vote
If Sturgill Simpson can’t win from the sheer power of the record itself, perhaps a split field could result in a Dark Horse victory via a plurality of the votes. Just like a critically-favorite roots project winning, this is not at all unprecedented in recent Grammy history, including for critically-favorite roots projects. If fact it’s happened a number of times. And since the field Sturgill is in includes Adele, Justin Bieber, Drake, and Beyonce, the idea that these massive artists could siphon votes from each other and ultimately result in a Sturgill victory is a very real possibility. In fact a very similar scenario has arguably happened eight times in the last 15 years:
#1 – 2001: Steely Dan – Two Against Nature
Who saw this beating Radiohead’s Kid A and Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP? Votes got split between the two monster projects, and Donald Fagan’s foot fit in the glass slipper. It was a historic blunder, but one that proves that vote splitting is a real force of nature at the Grammy Awards.
#2 – 2002: Various Artists – O Brother Where Art Thou Soundtrack
#3 – 2003: Norah Jones – Come Away with Me
#4 – 2005: Ray Charles – Genius Loves Company
Remember, Sturgill Simpson’s previous record Metamodern Sounds in Country Music was named partially in tribute to Ray. It must be stated though, Genius Loves Company walked away with a whopping eight Grammy Awards in the aftermath of Ray’s death. The sympathy vote was strong that year.
#5 – 2008 – Herbie Hancock – River: The Joni Letters
An excellent example of how Sturgill Simpson could win, because The Joni Letters had absolutely no commercial traction heading into the 2008 Grammy Awards at all. What it did have was Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, and The Foo Fighters’ Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace blooding each other up, leaving Herbie Hancock as the last man standing.
#6 – 2009- Robert Plant and Alison Krauss – Raising Sand
#7 – 2011 – Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Ah yes, the year hipsterism and indie rock went mainstream. The Suburbs sold like hot cakes, but had absolutely no radio play, and shocked everyone when it won over Lady Gaga and Katy Perry that split votes between each other, cancelling both pop divas out.
#8 – 2015 – Beck – Morning Phase
This was only two years ago folks, and after Beck shocked the world (and a #whoisbeck hashtag was born) the autopsy by the pop industry concluded that putting Ed Sheeran, Beyonce, Sam Smith, and Pharrell all in the same field resulted in Beck inexplicably slithering through with a victory due to parsing of the popular vote. Four massive stars with huge commercially-successful projects and an undeniably overlooked Dark Horse? This is basically the same exact scenario we’ll see in 2017.
After meticulously analyzing past history of the Grammy Awards in the modern era, I think it’s wise to determine that … Adele’s likely wins in a landslide in 2017. Sorry, 25 was just too much of a blockbuster, and too much of a critical favorite to be denied. But as extrapolated upon above, Strugill Simpson walking away with Album of the Year would not be unprecedented at all. In fact there’s a decent likelihood it could happen if enough votes get split between his competition. You may even go as far as to say he’s #2 on the depth chart if enough votes get split between Beyonce and Adele.
So yes, there’s a chance.