Country music raised its profile in the 2019 Grammy Award nominations that were announced Friday morning (Dec. 7) — particularly women in country music.

In 2018, country music was shut out of all four of the major mainstream categories of Record of the Year, Song of the Year, Album of the Year and Best New Artist. The 2019 nominees include country music in each of those biggest categories after the Recording Academy changed its rules to expand the number of nominees in those categories to eight.

Women dominated the men of country music in those mainstream categories, with Kacey Musgraves and Americana singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile both nominated for Album of the Year. Carlile is also nominated for Record of the Year along with "The Middle," Maren Morris' collaboration with Zedd and Grey, and both songs — Carlile's "The Joke" and "The Middle" — are nominated for Song of the Year. Additionally, Margo Price is nominated for Best New Artist along with Luke Combs.

Country women fared well in the genre-specific categories, too, with roughly equal, and in some cases more representation than men in categories including Best Country Album, Best Country Song, Best Country Solo Performance and Best Country Duo/Group Performance. That's a startling and revealing contrast to the situation female artists face at country radio. Billboard's current Country Airplay chart lists zero women among the Top 20 singles in release, marking the first time that's happened in the history of the chart, which dates back to 1990.

Taste of Country spoke to the Recording Academy's Head of Awards, Bill Freimuth, on a conference call Friday morning with a group of journalists, and he opened up about how changes in the nomination process have impacted the diversity of the awards and shed some light on how certain nominations work.

In the country world, there's this big conversation around women in country music going on. There's not a lot of female voices on the radio, but when you look at the nominees in the country field, they're at least 50 percent, and sometimes more women, and there are a lot of women that got nominated in the general fields as well. Can you reflect on what that might mean in terms of what voters saw, and what that means to you in light of that conversation?

I'm certainly aware of that conversation, and I find it interesting, and the whole situation a little disturbing [Laughs], sometimes, in terms of country radio and the issues that women in country music are facing these days. Bottom line, as far as we're concerned, I think that our voters listen to the music with less bias in mind, and really just felt that several of the female country artists this year just made really fantastic records. And so they voted for them without thinking about whether or not this is getting radio play, or any of those other factors. My hat's off to the women in country for putting out some great work this year.

There are notable nominations for women in major categories this year, from Janelle Monae to Cardi B to Kacey Musgraves. Do you think the nominations are in a better place this year in terms of gender diversity, following the "step up" controversy last year?

I think it's easy to look at this year's nominations versus last year's and say that we've voted in a more diverse crowd, and that's great, and we're all very happy about that. But really, the bottom line is that women just happened to make a terrific number of great recordings this year ... We encourage people not to vote on race or gender or age or region ... just on the quality of the music.

This year, you've expanded the number of nominees in the four biggest mainstream categories. Why was that the decision, and how did it impact specifically the number of country artists we saw in those categories this year?

The main reason that we expanded the nominations in the general categories is really very straightforward. Essentially, in those categories and in the general field, they generally have more than a thousand entries each. So in some cases, that's 10 times the number of entries we see in a lot of the specific genre categories. So we felt it made sense to open it up to more nominees, and yes, to be more inclusive. To be more reflective of all the music released in a year.

I don't think anybody can say that country has been totally disregarded in the general field in the last several years, but this may have — since it broadened the nominations across the board, all genres had a little bit better chance of getting in there, including country.

The category of Best Country Solo performance has a preponderance of album tracks, rather than singles, as the nominated tracks. How do you account for that? By what process did the voting arrive at no singles in that category?

Well, we don't ever make any distinction in our process between a track and a single. They're both eligible each year in the process, and when our voters are voting and our committees are meeting, they're not ever told, "This one is a track, this one is a single." They're just really asked to judge based on the quality of the recording itself. Personally, I don't see it as a significant issue.

Thanks to our friends at TheBoot.com and PopCrush.com for their contributions to this roundtable interview. 

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