Kelsea Bal­lerini, Maren Mor­ris lead wave of coun­try women

The Hamilton Spectator - - A & E - KRISTIN M. HALL

NASHVILLE — Fe­male artists may of­ten be over­looked on coun­try ra­dio, but the one place where they feel the love is at the Grammy Awards. This year, two new­com­ers, Kelsea Bal­lerini and Maren Mor­ris, are lead­ing a wave of coun­try women dom­i­nat­ing the Gram­mys this year.

Mor­ris and Bal­lerini share nods in the all-genre new artist cat­e­gory, the first time in Grammy his­tory that two coun­try women have been hon­oured in that cat­e­gory.

“I think it’s a huge step for­ward for peo­ple tak­ing women into con­sid­er­a­tion be­cause you have to have another per­spec­tive on the ra­dio,” said Mor­ris, a 26-year-old singer-song­writer from Texas. “And I think the Gram­mys have done a re­ally great solid by rec­og­niz­ing qual­ity art. And I think the girls re­ally brought it this year.”

Women out­num­ber the male nom­i­nees in the best coun­try al­bum and best coun­try solo per­for­mance cat­e­gories. In ad­di­tion to Mor­ris and Bal­lerini, Mi­randa Lam­bert, Brandy Clark, Car­rie Un­der­wood, Lori McKenna, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Par­ton and Cas­sadee Pope are up for awards at the Feb. 12 show, air­ing live on CBS from the Staples Cen­ter in Los An­ge­les.

Mor­ris and Bal­lerini broke out just as the bro-coun­try wave hit a crit­i­cal mass and crit­ics and fans alike were clam­our­ing for songs with a mes­sage and artists with a more di­verse sound.

“I def­i­nitely feel like for any fe­male, the odds weren’t nec­es­sar­ily in our favour,” said Bal­lerini, a 23year-old from East Ten­nessee. “We were re­ally maybe un­der­rated a bit in the be­gin­ning be­cause we were on this in­de­pen­dent la­bel.”

Bill Freimuth, se­nior vice-pres­i­dent of awards for The Record­ing Academy, said Grammy vot­ers, who are mu­si­cians them­selves, aren’t nec­es­sar­ily swayed by an artist’s ma­jor la­bel back­ing, mar­ket­ing bud­get or al­bum sales, so that gives more op­por­tu­ni­ties to artists who are crit­i­cal favourites, but un­der-rep­re­sented on ra­dio.

“It frees them up from think­ing about chart po­si­tion and ra­dio play,” Freimuth said. “The only thing that is im­por­tant to us is the qual­ity of the record­ing and the per­for­mance.”

The Record­ing Academy elim­i­nated gen­der-based cat­e­gories in 2011 and Freimuth said since then women have dom­i­nated or have been rec­og­nized on par with their male coun­ter­parts in pop, R&B and coun­try mu­sic, while other gen­res, like rock and rap, have been mostly male dom­i­nated.

Bal­lerini’s 2015 de­but al­bum, “The First Time,” spawned a re­mark­able three con­sec­u­tive No. 1 sin­gles on Bill­board’s coun­try air­play chart. Bal­lerini was de­lib­er­ate by re­leas­ing a pair of poppy up­beat flirty songs in the vein of Tay­lor Swift be­fore re­leas­ing the strong­est song on her al­bum, a power bal­lad called “Peter Pan.”

“We knew that ‘Peter Pan’ was like our baby and we wanted it to be put out at a time where it could be heard and not just shut down be­cause it was a bal­lad by a fe­male,” Bal­lerini said.

Mor­ris is up for four Grammy Awards, in­clud­ing best coun­try al­bum, best coun­try solo per­for­mance and best coun­try song for “My Church.” With her ad­dic­tively mem­o­rable lyrics on songs like “My Church” and “80s Mercedes,” Mor­ris wants to be the gate­way for more peo­ple to lis­ten to coun­try.

“I have sort of kicked that door in for them to lis­ten to more coun­try artists, and then go back and lis­ten to clas­sic coun­try artists be­cause I ref­er­enced them and am vo­cally in­spired by them.”

Mor­ris said she ap­proached her first ma­jor la­bel record, 2016’s “Hero,” as if she if might not get another.

“I’ve had friends who had record deals that their la­bel dropped them after re­leas­ing one song or they made full records and they were shelved,” Mor­ris said. “That could eas­ily hap­pen to me. I am a new artist and I am a woman and I have some­thing dif­fer­ent to say.”

For both singers, the new artist nom­i­na­tion isn’t a com­pe­ti­tion. They’ve al­ready won the race by beat­ing the odds against them.

“It’s the peo­ple that love mu­sic, do mu­sic, judge mu­sic, fight for mu­sic for a liv­ing, say­ing, ‘We’ve lis­tened to 500 hun­dred new artists that are el­i­gi­ble this year and we think you’re one of the best five,’” Bal­lerini said. “That makes me feel cooler than I have ever felt in my life.”

MARK HUMPHREY, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Kelsea Bal­lerini is nom­i­nated for a Grammy Award for best new artist.

MARK HUMPHREY, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Maren Mor­ris is nom­i­nated for a Grammy Award for best new artist.

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