Pop quiz (pun intended): What do you call a singer with a signature yodel who wears a rhinestone Nudie suit in the style of Gram Parsons and Porter Wagoner? Probably not pop—but that's where Washington-born Brandi Carlile finds herself in the Grammy Award competition this year.
With a strummy style that upholds the storyteller tradition, Carlile has bagged Grammys in the country category (with her Highwomen group and a collaboration with Tanya Tucker) and American roots (for her solo "The Joke"). But when ballots went out for the 64th Grammy Awards last week, Carlile's new single "Right on Time" was placed in the pop performance category.
Fresh off her Saturday Night Live performance of the piano-based ballad, Carlile took to Instagram to note her displeasure. "Americana/American Roots music is more than a genre to me," she writes. "It represents my community, my family, my friends and my beautiful island of misfits." She calls out her consistent use of acoustic guitars, vintage electrics, and "fog horn vocals"
Carlile isn't the first woman reclassified away from what she considers her home turf; a few weeks ago singer Kacey Musgraves's newest album was moved from contention for best country album, which Musgraves has won twice before, to the pop silo.
Why does it matter? It's not just about going up against the likes of Billie Eilish, Lil Nas X, and Olivia Rodrigo in the pop world—a broader competition with more entrants. Moving Carlile farther from the larger country sphere means one less out lesbian identified with that genre. Americana, she says, represents a vital place for LGBTQ and other marginalized voices to be identified with country and roots. "Every rung I can sling my gay sequined boot up on top of gets queer people a little higher on the ladder to being seen," she writes.
The trend reveals one of country music's biggest issues: a tendency to self-define as straight, male, Christian, and white—and nothing else. Poking fun at the problematic heart of mainstream country has become its own cottage industry, like comedian Bo Burnham's recent ode to the genre's anti-minority pandering ("No shoes, no shirt/No Jews, you didn't hear that").
Locally famous for her concerts with the Seattle Symphony, Carlile will likely continue to be known as a genre hopper. After her SNL appearance, the singer released 2022 dates for her Beyond These Silent Days tour, which includes headlining the Gorge Amphitheatre and Madison Square Garden. And come Grammy time, she'll probably still be in rhinestones.