Nominees in country music’s four categories reflect on the last 15 months, touching on performance, radio hits, musical inspiration and more. If appearing in this rag doesn’t put a tear in their beer, nothing will.

What does it mean to you to be nominated for a Grammy award? How do you feel the Grammys are different than other awards?
Carrie Underwood: The Grammys represent the entire music industry, from writers to musicians to artists—of all genres of music. We all get the chance to have our voices heard in voting for the music that not only may have been successful on the radio or in sales, but also for music that we believe in.

Chris Stapleton: When you walk in somebody’s house and see that sitting on the mantle, everybody knows what it is, whether they’re in music or not. It’s something every musician dreams of, if not aspires to, and never expects to get to... When you get the other genres and opinions in the mix, to win or even be nominated means you’re getting recognition outside of home base. It’s a really powerful thing.

Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town: Being recognized for not just Country Song but for all-genre Song of the Year shows how powerful this song has been, and the far-reaching connection that a great country song can have. We couldn’t be more proud of the writers, Liz Rose, Lori McKenna and Hillary Lindsey.

Ashley Monroe: I am so in love with all kinds of music, and a Grammy is all about the art of music. It’s beyond a dream come true. I respect the organization so much and couldn’t be more proud to be nominated for the pinnacle of all music awards.

Cam: It feels validating. All my hard work is getting a nod from my peers and people that I really respect as writers, artists and musicians. Makes me wanna keep working hard.

Could you talk about your nominated work, what you hoped to achieve when you went in the studio and the reactions?
Jimi Westbrook of Little Big Town: People’s reaction to [“Girl Crush”] when the album first came out was mind-blowing. This was well before it was a single, and the sales were huge. It was clear the fans were connecting to it the way we did. When the controversy started, and we started seeing our friends in the industry fighting for the song—and wearing the hats—we realized that the song was going to get the chance it deserved.

CU: We definitely wanted [“Little Toy Guns”] to tell a deeper story. Music is meant to entertain, but also to make us feel something, and sometimes to make us stop and think about our actions or our lives. I feel like we achieved both of these things in “Little Toy Guns.”

Kacey Musgraves: I really wanted Pageant Material to evoke a live feeling—a live-sounding nod to real life, and the music before my time that inspires me. I was listening to a lot of Charlie Rich, Glen Campbell and Marty Robbins while making it. I was even getting inspiration from tejano and classic mariachi music.

Cam: Sam Hunt invited me to be a surprise guest at his street party concert in Nashville, and 10,000 of his fans sang every word [of “Burning House”].

Kacey, with your major label debut, you not only performed on the show but won song and album. What’s your memory of that night and can that be topped?
KM: The night I won at the Grammys was unforgettable. There may not be a higher high. It was so incredible for my first project to be nominated that many times, and to also be nominated as a songwriter in the same category against myself. My mom was my date that night, and it was so special. I had so much fun. It made me feel so good to be recognized, as well as it does for my second record. After the show that night, my whole team went up to my hotel room, and we ordered champagne and beer and a lot of greasy food and danced all night in our light-up suits to Daft Punk, who’d also just won Album of the Year. Pure happiness.

How has country music changed over the course of your careers in terms of styles, subject matter, people you work with?
JW: I think it’s always an evolving process. Of course, a lot of what you write is about things you and the people around you are going through, so that tends to change over time.

Lee Ann Womack: My first single, “Never Again, Again,” had Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White on it, and I kept telling them to turn up the singers—it was as country as you could get, and sounded so different on the radio. But today, the kind of real, true, pure country music I make and the things I sing about, you know, stumbling through life, seem even more out of place in this party-hearty, kiss-a-boy theme park than they did even then. It’s funny, real life, hard things and tough spots have always been what’s interested me about country music, going all the way back to George Jones—and that was country music. Seems like people are afraid of it. Then Chris [Stapleton] has that CMA performance, and everyone’s going “What’s that?” Maybe people will get hungry for this kind of country music again.

KM: I haven’t changed anything about my creative process or approach since being on a major label. That, to me, is a secondary, almost nonexistent factor in regards to art. You shouldn’t ignore your intuition or change what you’re doing just because you have more momentum behind it.

What musicians have you learned from?
AM: I’ve been lucky to have a lot of great friends in this business that have helped to guide me. Vince Gill has been a big one. Sheryl Crow has been amazing to me. Blake Shelton, Little Big Town, Miranda Lambert... I have a lot of champions.

LAW: Man, George Jones! George Jones! George Jones! And all those Starday records—even the Thumper Jones stuff. I get inspired all the time. I remember when Frank [Liddell, her now-husband and producer of The Way I’m Livin’] was my A&R guy at Decca, and he gave me a CD one night as my bus was pulling out. He said, “This isn’t obvious, but I think you’ll get it.” And it was Buddy Miller. I rode down the road gobsmacked! And Jim Lauderdale, too. Brittany from Alabama Shakes; Patty Griffin’s last few records; Lyle Lovett and what he does with songs and style. John Prine. My daughter Aubrie Sellers’ record knocks me out with the way she’s taken garage grunge, almost, but applied it to country. The Fairfield Four and Lucinda [Williams] for being so to the bone, and John Legend, who I did Crossroads with and who took me to school as a singer.

KF: Fleetwood Mac. They showed us the power of blending voices and what happens when people are connected to the lyrics they’re writing. Everything about them—their phrasing, their delivery, their writing—it’s all completely inspiring.

Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town: We grew up on the harmonies of Alabama and the influence they had on country music. Their impact ushered in, and paved the way for, bands like us.

Can you compare this year vs. last and how far you have come?
KF: Everything is growing. The platform is bigger. The fan response has just been incredible, and we’re selling out shows faster than ever before. They want to experience this record live.

Cam: In the dark times, when my manager and I were sharing an air mattress and broke as a joke, we’d trade off having meltdowns every week. That kind of financial strain was not easy to deal with. But trusting my team and our process, believing in us and this music, that was a no-brainer. When you have nothing to lose, that’s when you can truly be free to carve your own path and do things your own way.

AM: It’s very validating to be recognized for doing exactly what is in my heart. It’s just affirmation that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.•