Thoughts On Americana Music Association Album Of The Year Nominations
Last week the Americana Music Association went to L.A. and had Walk Hard star John C. Reilly read this year’s nominations. My friend Kim Ruehl has a piece on all the nominations here. As you can see, it’s a great group of artists nominated in all categories. Congratulations to all – the awards ceremony in September should be fantastic. I’ll be there with bells on. Figuratively speaking, of course.
I must admit a bit of mixed emotions about the album of the year category. I’m just guessing, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if two of the records nominated were on 90% of the nomination ballots (they were certainly on mine). Jason Isbell’s Here We Rest and Gillian Welch’s The Harrow and the Harvest represent the best of Americana these days. If you were trying to introduce someone to the “genre” (if you can call it that), you could do no better than to play Isbell’s Deep South ballads of place and angst and Welch’s new folk songs that sound like they’ve been around forever. So I’m completely on board with these two.
The other two nominations raise issues for me. In case you didn’t click on Kim’s rundown, those are Steve Earle’s I’ll Never Get Out Of Here Alive and the Guy Clark tribute record, This One’s For Him. I’m hesitant to criticize these nominations – Steve Earle’s an icon and probably a good part of the reason we’re even having a discussion about Americana. He’s a hard core troubadour who’s had his boots on the risers more times than anyone can count. He’s rocked and played bluegrass and been on television and been a voice of conscience for all of us. And his record is good. But is it one of the four best Americana records in the 2011-12 period?
The Guy Clark compilation is really nice. I have listened to it and written about it. I like it. But it is a collection of covers, a tribute. Tributes can be great. For example, I still listen to Enjoy Every Sandwich, the Warren Zevon tribute record. I have selected songs from lots of other tribute albums in my playlists. But I’m not sure a tribute record belongs in this category, taking up a slot that could have gone to a new record by an artist or group. [As an aside, one of the Song of the Year nominees is Patty Griffin’s version of Tom T. Hall’s I Love, also from a tribute record. I love Patty Griffin. I love Tom T. Hall. But with limited nominations, I have to question using one of the nominations for that song. There are so many great new songs out there and, well . . . but I do love Patty Griffin.]
So where am I going with this? First of all, recognizing that there are only four nominations for Album of the Year, there are going to be deserving records left out. I have no involvement in the process for choosing the nominees except that, as a member of the Americana Music Association, I send in a list of nominations like all other members are entitled to do. I would like to see the final nominations represent the best of the current crop and focus, as much as possible, on individual artists and groups who are putting out original material that is top of its class. And while I’ll be there in September cheering on all four of these nominees (and a bit conflicted about whether the winner should be Isbell or Welch), here are my thoughts on some records I believe would have been better picks for the other two nomination slots.
- Hello Cruel World, Gretchen Peters – this record is one of the best, top to bottom. Ms. Peters is a great songwriter and singer at the top of her craft.
- The Grifter’s Hymnal, Ray Wylie Hubbard – Hubbard just keeps getting better, and this record is a great example of the alt-country poet at work. Shame that this one was released 5 days before deadline.
- Sleep With One Eye Open, Chris Thile/Michael Daves – this is simply the best modern take on old-school bluegrass I’ve heard in a while. I will concede these are covers, so I’m being a bit inconsistent.
- Who’s Feeling Young Now, Punch Brothers – this is their best effort to date (there aren’t any bad ones).
- Family Man, Shooter Jennings – Jennings went against the XXX grain and went country on this record, making the best record of his career.
- Old Mad Joy, The Gourds – listen to this record and hear a great band at their best.
- Out Of These Blues, Robyn Ludwick – this is my favorite record of the time period covered by the awards. Blue-eyed Texas alt-country soul. If that ain’t Americana, what is?
Two things about the list I just made: First, it’s incomplete. Even as I type I can think of others that might be on it. I was working off of my own nomination form. I’m sure there are many others I’ve missed. Second thing is that I’m guessing all the artists left out would subscribe to the notion that once the nominations are made, you congratulate the nominees and forget the second guessing. Keep your mouth shut. So I’ll shut up now.
Mando Lines is on Twitter @mando_lines.