On Tuesday May 9th, the Americana Music Association revealed the nominees for the 2017 Americana Honors and Awards. As the Grammy’s have turned into a mush related field of industry and big business pop cultural influences, the Americana Awards remain grounded in honoring the best in songwriting and artistry. The 2017 Americana Honors and Awards will be held at the Ryman Auditorium on Sept. 13. The awards show is the centerpiece of the Americana Music Festival and Conference (Sept. 12-17), six days of music, seminars and other events centered on American roots music.
Glide’s Trevor Christian, and resident Americana expert has given his picks on this year’s Nominees and tossed his in a few of his own asides…
Album of the Year
American Band, Drive-By Truckers
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Sturgill Simpson (prediction)
Close Ties, Rodney Crowell
Freedom Highway, Rhiannon Giddens
The Navigator, Hurray for the Riff Raff (vote)
Sturgill Simpson, winner of the Grammy for Best Country Album and nominee for the Grammy for Album of the Year, has to be considered the heavy favorite this year. The politics involved in pointing out he’s been an Americana darling for years and is still largely ignored by mainstream country radio are practically irresistible. Crowell’s album is formidable because it in part celebrates 70s era Nashville. Awards voters love honoring those who honor their industry. See: The Artist, Argo, La La Land, etc. at the Oscars.
If the voters want to spread the love this year like last, when Chris Stapleton won for Artist while Isbell won for album, consider Giddens a favorite. Tracks off Freedom Highway like “At The Purchaser’s Option” and “Julie” were penned by Giddens but are practically indistinguishable from the early African influenced music that forms the foundation for so much of Americana music today. Two well-chosen covers from Mississippi John Hurt and The Staples Family Singers are perfect for building good will with historically-minded voters in a genre filled with historically-minded people. Not to mention, the focus on race and social justice makes Freedom Highway a disturbingly timely album at this stage in American society.
I voted for Hurray for the Riff Raff’s The Navigator. It’s a powerful concept album with Latin and theatrical influences and powerful imagery, but most importantly, it strikes the right tone. Lead singer Alynda Lee Segarra is determined, empowered and defiant even when confronting the worst problems faced by Puerto Rican and other minority communities. Her vocals and innovative style are too penetrating for any folk music ignore, though she may be slightly outside the world of Americana on a few tracks.
Artist of the Year
Sturgill Simpson (prediction) (vote)
Again, Simpson is the favorite, perhaps even more overwhelmingly than in the category of album. His charisma, live performances, and public person are quite a bit more impressive than his most recent album, which doesn’t hold up to his break though Metamodern Sounds In Country Music. Prine is a living legend, but it’s difficult to justify picking him this year after his only releasing a duets cover album. Price, last year’s Emerging Artist, has been a joy on tour and in the media but lacks a new album to justify a win here.
McKenna and Isbell are the most realistic alternatives to Simpson. Isbell has a new album out soon, but that comes a bit too late for voters. After 2013’s Southeastern, he’s also essentially the face of this genre. Grammy darling McKenna’s most significant contributions to music usually come from her role as a songwriter for major country stars like Little Big Town and Tim McGraw, but her recent solo album makes an argument that these songs sound better stripped down and with her voice. Again, it’s useful to be able to claim one of country’s best names as a true Americana artist.
Song of the Year
“All Around You,” Sturgill Simpson (written by Simpson)
“It Ain’t Over Yet,” Rodney Crowell feat. Rosanne Cash and John Paul White (written by Crowell) (prediction) (vote)
“To Be Without You,” Ryan Adams (written by Adams)
“Wreck You,” Lori McKenna (written by McKenna and Felix McTeigue)
I’m rarely a huge fan of song nominees in most award shows, and this list is no different. The Crowell song has the distinction of being the only song on this list that I consider to be the best song on the album and it should be the winner given the relative weakness of the other nominees. Its feel-good quality and acknowledgment of mistakes make it relatable and the appearance by ex wife Rosanne Cash adds tremendous emotional impact to the message. Again, keep an eye on McKenna. “Wreck You” is a wonderful track from a well-loved songwriter. As for the Simpson and Adams songs, I’m just left curious. Each of the nominees for the album and emerging artist categories has a song I’d rather see on this list, including Simpson for his far more interesting “Call to Arms.” Yes, it’s mostly instrumental and gets weird at one point. It still deserves serious consideration.
Duo / Group of the Year
Billy Bragg & Joe Henry
Drive-By Truckers (prediction)
Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives ( vote)
It has to be Drive-By Truckers here, right? They have one more 2017 album of the year nomination than any other artist on this list and Billy Bragg and Joe Henry’s release actually wasn’t that good. The Lumineers fired off a couple of amazing songs on their latest album but they’re more pop than Americana and have more star power than raw talent. Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives are my pick for their fantastically weird album Way Out West. It’s driven by the personality and vision of the entire band the way Simpson’s albums are. They may be a little too odd to overcome the well-loved Patterson Hood and crew, however, especially given the liberal lean of the Americana community.
Emerging Artist of the Year
Aaron Lee Tasjan
Brent Cobb (prediction)
Sam Outlaw (vote)
These are four fine artists, two of whom released their debut albums last year. Cobb’s first, Shine On Rainy Day, shines thanks to its common man relatability and sharp production. Cousin Dave Cobb’s extraordinary work producing albums for superstars like Simpson, Isbell, and Stapleton should gain him some instant good will. Add the fact his streaming numbers dwarf the other candidates, and he should be the favorite.
Shires, who should also benefit from her association with husband Isbell, has enough experience in the industry to have made some real friends, but I have a hard time seeing how she could be described as an “emerging artist.” She has five albums out and to my mind hasn’t shown any spectacular leap forward in recent years to justify nominating her as part of a reintroduction. This could work both ways, as her lack of growth is in part because she’s always been well above average as a songwriter.
Based on his recent wave of critical acclaim for Tenderheart, Outlaw should also be considered a real possibility. His first album, Angeleeno, was more accessible and at only two years old could still play a part in this category. I cast my vote for him on my love for that album alone, and I also like Tenderheart a lot. Tasjan is the best songwriter on the list, as demonstrated by last year’s Silver Tears, but his style is the least Americana of the nominees and his vocals are nowhere near as impressive as Cobb’s. As much as I’d pick two of his songs, “Little Movies” and “Dime” over any of the Song of the Year nominees, Emerging Artist isn’t where I’d cast my vote for him.
Instrumentalist of the Year
Spencer Cullum, Jr.
Courtney Hartman (vote)
Charlie Sexton (prediction)
Sexton has a long history with Bob Dylan and Gunderman was a member of the Jayhawks and both are incredibly talented. The fact that Sexton is still working with Bob Dylan gives him the edge in my mind. Cullum, Jr. is a unique and lyrical steel guitar player who will win the votes of those looking for an instrumentalist capable of carrying a tune without vocals. My vote will go to Hartman, whose work as a flatpicking guitarist with Della Mae has been a gift for both folk and bluegrass fans. Her recent EP features a rendition of “Cumberland Gap” that makes my decision easy to defend.