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Grammy countdown: Carrie, Sugarland and country album front-runners

November 30, 2008 |  4:11 pm

Will the Grammys get a little more country this year? Grammy observers may recall there's been a bit of drama between Nashville and the Recording Academy the past few years.

Last year, Vince Gill was the only album of the year nominee not to perform on the telecast. While the country veteran was a visible presence at the awards, he did turn down the performance scenarios offered to him, reported to be a brief medley with Brad Paisley.

Some in the Nashville community took it as a slight.
The previous year, Carrie Underwood and Rascal Flatts were paired up, and it was argued that country artists weren't being given any showcase performance slots. The Recording Academy president even went to Nashville after the 2007 Grammys to calm nerves.

Perhaps Nashville only needed to find a young, photogenic star? Country will be all over the prime-time Dec. 3 nominations telecast. Fast-rising superstar Taylor Swift will co-host and perform at the prime- time nominee special, and you can bet she'll be receiving some nods. But the former best new artist nominee doesn't have an album in contention -- her hot-selling "Fearless" missed the eligibility window and will be nominated for best country album in 2010.

Without Swift, whose appearance on Dec. 3 at L.A. Live will continue a media conquering tour that began with last year's award season, the two safest bets for best country album nods this year are Underwood and Sugarland.

Underwood, a former best new artist winner, took home best female country vocal honors last year for "Before He Cheats" and, in just four years, has gone from an "American Idol" pop to one of Nashville's most celebrated stars. Underwood recently had some hosting duties herself, as she co-anchored the Country Music Assn. Awards.

She may have been the odds-on favorite to win, had the duo of Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush, pictured above, not had a breakout year. Sugarland's "Love on the Inside" arrived at No. 1 on the U.S. pop charts -- a first for the group -- and the duo has honed a friendly pop sound that's still more raw, and more traditional, than most of mainstream Nashville.

The act can easily go big -- see the slow-building anthem that is "Love" -- as well as play to the country in-crowd, as it does on "Steve Earle." To be sure, Sugarland has already crossed over, even getting to perform with Beyonce at last year's American Music Awards, but a few major Grammy nods could set the act over the top, albeit nothing that will likely challenge Swift's crown.

Here are the best bets for country album of the year:

Sugarland's "Love on the Inside"
Carrie Underwood's "Carnival Ride"
George Strait's "Troubadour"
Brooks & Dunn's "Cowboy Town"
Little Big Town's "A Place to Land"

There's some leeway there, however. While Strait is a staple, and Brooks & Dunn are country's most famous duo (sorry, Big & Rich), Little Big Town would have had a bit more momentum last year (the act's album was released in November). Alan Jackson may be the first alternate in for his "Good Time," but Josh Turner has been nominated before as well, and his "Everything Is Fine" was a reliable effort.

And, of course, do not count out Dolly Parton, who went more country than bluegrass with this year's  "Backwoods Barbie." In fact, I'm amending the best bets:

Sugarland's "Love on the Inside"
Carrie Underwood's "Carnival Ride"
George Strait's "Troubadour"
Brooks & Dunn's "Cowboy Town"
Dolly Parton's "Backwoods Barbie"

-- Todd Martens

Photo: Sugarland at the Country Music Assn. Awards. Credit: Associated Press