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Billie Eilish and Lizzo are competing for a string of the top prizes, but could the likes of Ariana Grande, Lana Del Rey and Rosala cause upsets?

Noise threatens to drown out the music at the 2020 Grammy awards. A line had been drawn under the tone-deaf leadership of Neil Portnow, who had presided over the ceremony since 2002 between 2013 and 2018, Grammy winners were 91% male, but, after a 2018 ceremony where men swept the board again, Portnow said it was on women to step up and create opportunities for themselves.

A woman, Deborah Dugan, replaced him; a taskforce was appointed, and in December they published their report, calling for greater diversity in the Academy voters. Any hopes that they had moved on, though, were scotched last week by Dugan being suspended for alleged misconduct; Dugan countered by saying she had been sexually harassed, that the Academy had covered up an alleged rape by Portnow, and that the voting was corrupt.

So we go into this years ceremony more jaded than ever, but the irony is that, no matter how poisonous the Academy is and regardless of whether it is rigged or not, we ended up with a much more diverse range of nominees this year. Leading the pack are Lizzo with eight noms and Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X with six each a vibrantly youthful and non-conformist trio. But will the Academy members shake off the past and vote for the future?

Record of the year

Bon Iver Hey, Ma
Billie Eilish Bad Guy
Ariana Grande 7 Rings
HER Hard Place
Khalid Talk
Lil Nas X ft Billy Ray Cyrus Old Town Road
Lizzo Truth Hurts
Post Malone & Swae Lee Sunflower

Aside from the merely pleasant HER and Khalid tracks, this is a strong field. While lots of eyes are on Lizzo and Eilish, this could perhaps be Ariana Grandes year. Its her first time with nominations in the big four categories rather than being patronised in the pop awards and, with its My Favourite Things melody, doddering Academy voters might listen to 7 Rings and say: Hey, its one I know! Triumphant earworm Old Town Road is the longest-running No 1 in US history; Bad Guy is a showcase of the kind of fiendish genius usually employed by Hollywood horror movies to construct elaborate ways for teenagers to get killed. But an Academy eager to telegraph its modernity might go for Lizzo: Truth Hurts is a great underdog story, reaching No 1 two years after release, and her charisma is near universally infectious.

Will win: Lizzo Truth Hurts
Should win: Billie Eilish Bad Guy

Album of the year

Bon Iver i, i
Lana Del Rey Norman Fucking Rockwell!
Billie Eilish When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?
Ariana Grande Thank U, Next
HER I Used to Know Her
Lil Nas X 7
Lizzo Cuz I Love You (Deluxe)
Vampire Weekend Father of the Bride

This is Grandes best chance of a big win. Thank U, Next is a superbly realised almost-concept album about heartache, grief and moving on that can be witty, even caustic, but never cruel it sealed her as one of the three or four definitive pop stars of our time. Lizzo, HER and Lil Nas X are hampered with too much 6/10 material across their albums; Lana Del Rey was the critical hit of the year and will certainly beat out fellow Pitchfork darlings Bon Iver and Vampire Weekend, but may not cut through to the more august and mainstream Academy members. Eilish was the inescapable pop-cultural breakthrough of the year, and her album has such terrific range and invention. She will, hopefully, squeak this.

Will win: Billie Eilish
Should win: Billie Eilish

Song of the year

Lady Gaga Always Remember Us This Way
Billie Eilish Bad Guy
Tanya Tucker Bring My Flowers Now
HER Hard Place
Taylor Swift Lover
Lana Del Rey Norman Fucking Rockwell
Lewis Capaldi Someone You Loved
Lizzo Truth Hurts

Piano-driven ballads dominate the songwriting category, including Taylor Swifts only big nomination. Lover is such classic American songcraft, though Lewis Capaldis powerful Someone Like You is the best of these ballads and it would be a British win to remember. Eilish is streets ahead in terms of songwriting innovation and should win for that Duh! alone. But, while Truth Hurts most famous lyric (I just took a DNA test, turns out Im 100% that bitch) may have been plagiarised and its British author later added to the credits, Lizzo has this sewn up. The lyrics are hilarious, and it is a massively successful example of that new school of songwriting where a single melody is repeated over and over until the brainwashed public is involuntarily chanting it and then clawing hopelessly at their faces.

Will win: Lizzo Truth Hurts
Should win: Billie Eilish Bad Guy

New artist

Black Pumas
Billie Eilish
Lil Nas X
Maggie Rogers
Tank and the Bangas

Nice to see some country-soul curveballs here in the excellent Black Pumas and Yola, though the less said the better about the tune-free Tank and the Bangas at any rate, theyre all making up the numbers. Maggie Rogers didnt really break beyond her fanbase with her underrated debut album, and Im sure the Academy will see Lil Nas X merely as a two-hit wonder. Lizzos debut album came out in 2013, whereas Eilish has only just turned 18 and feels like the rightful owner of this award. But you can bet than every Latinx voter is going to be going for the astoundingly talented Rosala, who won big at the Latin Grammys and could cause an upset here.

Will win: Billie Eilish
Should win: Billie Eilish

Pop solo performance

Beyonc Spirit
Billie Eilish Bad Guy
Ariana Grande 7 Rings
Lizzo Truth Hurts
Taylor Swift You Need to Calm Down

Just as performances where you cry, shout and climb inside the carcass of a bear win you Oscars, the leading pop award rather behoves you to give it some welly not for nothing has Adele won it three times. Eilish and Grandes variously murmured and chatted performances will appear to the Academy like weirdo arthouse choices here, and even Swift is in a relatively conversational mode. Beyoncs ponderous Spirit was the lame old wildebeest eaten by the younger jackals on the Lion King soundtrack, so this is Lizzos to lose.

Will win: Lizzo
Should win: Billie Eilish

Rock performance

Bones UK Pretty Waste
Gary Clark Jr This Land
Brittany Howard History Repeats
Karen O & Danger Mouse Woman
Rival Sons Too Bad

Anyone looking for evidence of backroom dealing in the Academy might well make Bones UK their exhibit A: Pretty Waste is the kind of creative vacuum beloved only of nihilistically cocaine-addicted LA music industry execs looking for something to soundtrack rock bottom. The rest is pretty good. Rival Sons riffs and hollering make them the most tangibly rock thing here Karen O essays 60s pop, and Brittany Howards History Repeats is a kind of bluesy funk tune, but with mainstream rock stranded out on a sandbar while rappers and pop stars taunt it on jetskis, they need to blur the genre lines. Gary Clark Jr could edge this with his politically charged This Land, half-rapped over a heavily skanking backing.

Will win: Gary Clark Jr
Should win: Rival Sons

Rap performance

J Cole Middle Child
DaBaby Suge
Dreamville feat JID, Bas, J Cole, Earthgang & Young Nudy Down Bad
Nipsey Hussle feat Roddy Ricch & Hit-Boy Racks in the Middle
Offset feat Cardi B Clout

Many voters hearts will go with Nipsey Hussle, whose murder last year robbed the world of a skilful, soulful MC who united backpacker hip-hoppers and mainstream rap fans. Racks in the Middle also features Roddy Rich, who has broken through spectacularly over the last year. But the track pales next to two others here: DaBabys Suge is a slowly prowling piece of minimalism that makes Offset sound fussily overworked in comparison; its ridiculous that DaBaby isnt up for best new artist. He is rather damaged goods after a series of run-ins with the law, however. That could hand Middle Child the win, on which J Cole raps as if hes high-stepping across the surface of a lake, his triplet time full of balletic grace.

Will win: J Cole
Should win: DaBaby

Country solo performance

Tyler Childers All Yourn
Ashley McBryde Girl Goin Nowhere
Willie Nelson Ride Me Back Home
Blake Shelton Gods Country
Tanya Tucker Bring My Flowers Now

If you scoff at country, youll probably always scoff at country, but this spread of songs shows off the admirable breadth of the genre and may pique your interest yet. Willie Nelsons song is a bit something-and-nothing; Tanya Tuckers Bring My Flowers Now is nominated in the song of the year category, and its live-for-today message and simple piano backing will appeal across the Academy, but its rather workmanlike. Ashley McBryde outdoes her in the ballad stakes, but its Tyler Childers and Blake Shelton both strongly channelling the gospel and soul music that not so secretly underpins country who are the strongest here. Childers song would make for a classy first wedding dance, while Sheltons stirring ode to proud Christian labour, while deeply unfashionable, will have you gazing soulfully across a cornfield.

Will win: Tanya Tucker
Should win: Tyler Childers

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Overturning customary ideas about older artists slowing down, Nelson now 86 has been in prodigious form over the past decade, pumping out a dozen albums of assorted duets, originals, covers and tributes. Nine months after My Way, his homage to Sinatra, comes this final instalment in a trilogy (with 2017s Gods Problem Child and 2018s Last Man Standing) in which mortality looms large.

In contrast to the sombre hues of late era Johnny Cash, Nelson has kept his tone buoyant defiant and droll as often as reflective, moods maintained here on three numbers penned with producer Buddy Cannon. Seven Year Itch has Willie riding my mind round my neighbourhood, while Come On Time battles ageing. Two songs from the late Guy Clark, Immigrant Eyes and My Favorite Picture of You, supply rueful gravitas, while Stay Away From Lonely Places brilliantly resurrects a 1972 Nelson obscurity. Only the title track, written by Sonny Throckmorton, gets sloppy, a mawkish tribute to the stable of 70 retired horses Nelson has saved from the knackers yard. The voice has weathered like timber, but his timing is impeccable, his Tex-Mex guitar flurries thrilling. The cowboy sage (and Beto Democrat) remains unique.

Watch the video for Seven Year Itch by Willie Nelson.

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At 85, Willie Nelson still spends half the year on the road and is busy supporting Texan Democrat nominee Beto ORourke. And the giant of country musics 2,500 song catalogue just keeps growing

In the Boston suburb of Mansfield, Massachusetts, I am summoned to Willie Nelsons tour bus a couple of hours before he takes to the stage at the Outlaw music festival. Meanwhile, in Dallas, the progressive Democrat Beto ORourke is wrapping up his first debate with Ted Cruz, his Republican opponent in Texass too-close-to-call US Senate race. ORourke will later be seen celebrating his strong performance by air-drumming to the Who in a Whataburger drive-thru.

Soon after Nelson signed on to headline a major ORourke rally on 29 September, some conservative fans reportedly planned to boycott his music in protest. A doctored photograph went viral of Nelson in a Beto for Texas shirt, flipping off at the camera like his friend Johnny Cash. But an actual boycott appeared to be bogus, or at least overblown; and anyway, as singer Wheeler Walker Jr tweeted: You can argue politics all you want, but you cannot argue Willie.

As I make my way backstage, a fan hollers while cheerfully stirring the coals of a barbecue: Tell Willie hello from the guy in the parking lot! Nelson is always saying hello back. He resolves to play what audiences have come to hear, whether its Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain or Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground, or On the Road Again, or Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings and Django Reinhardt covers. Renowned producer Jerry Wexler once said Nelson was the incarnation of humanity; its perplexing that anyone would be surprised by his sticking up for ORourke, whose campaign website defines success thus: It means that we are all treated with dignity and respect.

A waxing harvest moon hovers over the latest incarnation of the Honeysuckle Rose, Nelsons bus and home on the road. Annie DAngelo Nelson, his fourth wife since 1991, greets me warmly. Were you watching? she asks, meaning the debate. I thought Beto blew him away. She is the dynamite to Willies calm when he ambles into the kitchen, his grey hair in two long braids. At 85, Nelson is still vigorously hale, as handsomely and admirably weathered as his battered guitar, Trigger. Willie, you gotta look at her butt! Annie says my jeans are embroidered with a map of Texas. From the pocket I pull a You Beto Vote For Beto! sticker I picked up in Austin.

Settling into the dinette where he regularly hosts guests, Nelson is an intensely receptive listener, eyes twinkling when he lets out full-lung laughter, but never straying. You can see why he tends to win his legendary dominoes and poker games.

At Nelsons annual Fourth of July picnic, ORourke, who played in punk bands growing up in El Paso, and who referenced the Clash in his Cruz debate, joined Willie onstage for Its All Going to Pot and Will the Circle Be Unbroken. We hit it off immediately cause hes a musician too. Hes for the same things Im for in Texas, which is letting everybody do what they want to, Nelson says. He levels his steady gaze. Ev-er-y-body.

With President Jimmy Carter, 1979. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Texas looms large in all his music; in concert, his songs sound as if they were scripted to fill its enormous skies. I miss it all the time, Nelson says. I miss the hot weather, I miss the cold weather, I have some ponies down there I like to see. Nelson used to average 200 days a year on the road, now around 150; its his preferred way of being. His sister, Bobbie, the longtime pianist in Nelsons Family band, says Nelson takes after their mother, a wanderer who left her and Willie with their grandparents when they were very young. The road gives him a rare vantage point; he has seen more of the US, and more of its changes, than most. He takes this in his stride. Ive moved around a lot in 85 years, he says. And I went through a lot of political spaces in our country four years of this, eight years of that.

Collective memory recalls Nelson allegedly getting high on the White House roof during his friend Jimmy Carters administration, but tends to forget Nelsons long history of political involvement. Over the years he has lent his support to friends such as the irrepressible Texas governor Ann Richards, the satirist Kinky Friedman, even the independent presidential candidate Ross Perot. He supported Barack Obama and both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. He has spoken out against LGBTQ discrimination and covered the Ned Sublette song Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other. I call myself a VI, Nelson says. Very independent.

Without deigning to mention Trump by name, Nelson included the protest song Delete and Fast Forward, on Gods Problem Child in 2017, in apparent opposition to the presidents agenda of hate and divisiveness. Nelson was outraged by the detention centres and the forced separation of families: I thought everything that happened there was unforgivable. He opposes the proposed wall, too. We have a statue that says: Yall come in, he says. I dont believe in closing the border. Open them suckers up! When I ask how his 33-year-old charity Farm Aid supports immigrant farmworkers in the US, he is reflective. We need those folks, Nelson says. I used to pick cotton and pull corn and bale hay and Im lucky to play guitar now, but we have to have the people who want to work, and take care of them.

He has written a new song that he will sing onstage at the rally, set to a hymn-like tune. The biggest gun weve got is called the ballot box, he sings to me across the table in a strong, clear voice. If you dont like whos in there, vote em out.

Nelson has always been a VI artist, too. In 1978, on the heels of the masterful narrative Red-Headed Stranger, the gospel album The Troublemaker, and the conceptual Phases and Stages, the studio worried it had been a while since his outlaw hit Shotgun Willie and insisted audiences wanted more edgy cowboy songs. But Nelson ignored them I listened to my heart, he wrote and recorded an album of forgotten standards, the Kurt Weill and George Gershwin numbers he and his sister Bobbie learned as kids in Abbott, Texas, songs that helped form their musical telepathy.

Stardust, with Nelsons searing covers of All of Me and Blue Skies, went platinum and earned a Grammy for Georgia On My Mind. My Way, Nelsons 68th studio album and his second this year, with covers of Sinatra standards, is the latest chapter in Nelsons singular interpretation of the Great American Songbook and a tribute to his longtime favourite singer. Sinatrall lay down behind the beat and hell speed up and get in front of the beat, Nelson says, and I thought that was cool. I tried mimicking it a little and I wound up doing that a lot in my songs.

He and Sinatra cemented their mutual admiration with a duet of My Way in 1993. We used to play shows together in Vegas and Palm Springs, Nelson remembers. After one gig, Sinatra invited Nelson to his place in Palm Springs. I was in a big hurry to go somewhere, so I said, Ill catch you next time, and I never did see him again, Nelson says. Sinatra died of a heart attack in 1998. I always regretted that.

Nelson (left) with Waylon Jennings, celebrating their new new album, Waylon and Willie, 1978. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

Nelsons solo rendition of My Way is a spare and honest reckoning. He has frequently faced the final curtain in defiant and affirmative lyrics: I woke up still not dead again today, and I didnt come here and I aint leavin. In recent years, he has outlived good friends and collaborators Merle Haggard, Ray Price and his bandmate Bee Spears. There are fewer and fewer people to turn to these days, he says. Im kind of my own psychiatrist.

I repeat something Kinky Friedman said of him: Willie walks through the raw poetry of time. Nelson has written some 2,500 songs, and numerous books, including two memoirs, but there is a part of him that remains unspoken and essentially mysterious, perhaps even to himself. Early on, he wrote three of his best songs Crazy, Funny How Time Slips Away and Night Life in the span of a week; even in anthems such as Whiskey River there is pure and stealthy lyricism, songs that understand their listeners better than they can articulate. Does Nelson even know, I wonder, where some of his deepest words come from?

Not really, he admits. You know, every song I write that Im proud of, I wonder how it got there. I think the same thing about Merles songs and Hank Williams. Im So Lonesome I Could Cry: what was Hank going through when he wrote that? He died when he was 29 compared to him, I havent had a lot of rough times at all.

But he has been through a mighty lot, I venture, thinking of the absence of his mother, of an often hard-lived life, of the loss of his son Billy to suicide in 1991. I think theres some things that can only come out in songs, Nelson agrees. You can write a beautiful book, but take verses out of it and put a melody to it and youve got another dimension.

I wrote something the other day that said, I dont want to write another song, but tell that to my mind! he continues, laughing. I just throw them out there and try to make them rhyme. I write everywhere, anywhere. I write a lot at home at night.

Its like birthing babies! Annie says from one of the buss built-in sofas. She doesnt mind; in fact, she stays up listening.

He thinks in lyrics first; the music comes after. Usually it starts as a poem, he says. At some point Ill get up and go get the guitar and see what kind of melody those words suggest. A song, he reckons, is just a poem with a melody. I say Ive always thought that words and melody just naturally found each other in his songs. Good! Nelson says. Fooled em again!

As the Family convenes onstage, dust shines up in the spotlights and a musky cloud wafts up from the front row to meet it. Under the lights, Triggers moonfaced complexion is visibly cratered where Nelson has dug into the wood. The crowd is a smoky sea of grizzled grandpas, grandmas in Dwight Yoakam shirts, teenagers whose uncles played them Nelson, people on dates, people in wheelchairs and people who look like they might have just come from the rodeo down the street. Like Nelson says: There are no political debates in my audiences. When he and the Family play Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, it is at once pro-weed anthem and as gospel as Hanks I Saw the Light. Nelson is the poet laureate of the guy in the parking lot; the girl, too.

At last when the house lights go up, a roadie gathers a bunch of rose petals scattered on the stage and tosses them unceremoniously in the direction of a few stragglers. I dont want it to be over! says a veterinarian near me, eyes shining. Willies even better than he was 10 years ago. Her friend confesses she missed that concert the last performance she saw here was the Spice Girls, 20 years ago but in the meantime she has converted to Willie too. Were farm girls from Mansfield, she says, reluctantly following the crowd out of the amphitheatre. The vet glances back at the emptying stage, and as Nelson has just done for us in song, voices the thing we are all thinking inside. Hes the last of them, she says. The last of the real ones.

My Way by Willie Nelson is out now on Legacy Recordings

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