No sooner were the Thanksgiving leftovers stashed in the refrigerator than the Christmas lights went up all over town and the Best Of 2016 music lists began to appear, notably those from American Songwriter and National Public Radio. Then, yesterday’s Grammy nominations, where art annually meets commerce for an awkward but potentially hot prom date, further focused the spotlight on the albums and artists we’ll potentially still be listening to and talking about years from now.
Following is an objectively subjective, Americana-focused, Nashville-centric, Roots Radio-slanted ramble through what we’re learning about how the mavens, tastemakers and cognoscenti view the best music released in this rapidly waning year.
The audible gasp you heard across Nashville at about nine on Tuesday morning heralded the news that Sturgill Simpson’s ambitious, soul country masterwork A Sailor’s Guide To Earth was nominated for the Album of the Year, alongside Beyoncé, Adele and Drake and the twerp who shall not be named.
This is quite incredible. It feels like a rebel from the resistance snuck into a group photo with the top brass at the Death Star Year End Banquet. I can’t help but wonder if Simpson’s August blog rant and media kerfuffle about the Academy of Country Music’s memorial Merle Haggard Award sparked that little extra edge of bad-boy relevance and name recognition, thus tipping the already surging Sturgill into this big time category. If you’ll recall, he called contemporary country music 30 years of “high school pageantry, meat parade award show bull***t.” And then there were the not nice parts too.
So Simpson has become an acerbic champion of country tradition and outlaw soul in an industrial-strength time, but he’s also an artist whose work has deepened and evolved in thrilling ways. The critics agreed, with American Songwriter flagging him the fourth best disc of the year (in all song-based genres), while NPR slipped him in at #49.
Chris Stapleton’s shock nomination in the same category last year notwithstanding, fans with our musical world view are more typically inclined to skim over the mega-categories and scroll way down to the Grammy award field called American Roots, despite its vague overlap of categories, to find our favorites. And this year it’s full of riches that can be cross referenced against the music media’s Best Of lists with some success.
Leaping out at me this year is William Bell’s nomination for Best Americana Album for his June 3 release This Is Where I Live and its associated nod in the Traditional R&B Performance category for its opening song “The Three of Me.” Bell, 77 years old and sounding even more silky and emotional than he did when he was a young artist on Stax in the 60s, made the record with standout producer (and Rosanne Cash husband) John Leventhal for a revived Stax label.
The album was flagged by American Songwriter as its #16 album in all genres. NPR passed, but it did recognize “The Three of Me” as its #50 song of the year. I’m happy to say that the Americana Music Association did its part on this one. Bell performed on the Americana Honors and Awards in September upon being given a Lifetime Achievement Award for songwriting. The early days of Americana didn’t recognize classic soul and blues sufficiently, but this is one of several recent happy examples of a more inclusive and diverse (and thus accurate) reflection of American roots music.
Anyone who views Music City through its values of musicianship, songs and country music heritage will know that The Time Jumpers was Nashville’s most outstanding band even before Vince Gill joined on as a full time member. About that time though, funny thing, this studio cat super group started getting Grammy Award nominations, and this year they landed two. The big swinging ensemble will compete for Americana Album with Kid Sister and American Roots Song with its title track. The album paid homage to the late great singer for the band (and for Vince on the road), Dawn Sears who died after fighting cancer in late 2014. This one’s a landmark of class, courage and catharsis, even if the big magazines have so far overlooked it.
Another multi-category standout is Lori McKenna, who’s so beloved in her professional hub of Nashville that it’s hard to remember she lives in her hometown of Stoughton, Mass. with her husband and kids. She’s been on a mid-career roll of late. Her song “Girl Crush” crushed it at the Grammys and CMA Awards last year. Now she’s up for Americana album for her ninth solo project The Bird And The Rifle, which made NPR’s all genre album list at #34. Her own track “Wreck You” earned two nominations, but so did her solo-written country hit “Humble And Kind” as recorded by Tim McGraw. Ms. McKenna, who actually is humble and kind, is one of those rare writer/artists who can slay it on her own or as the composer-behind-the-scenes.
The amorphous but always enticing Folk Album category promises a titanic death match of collegial hugs between two of the loveliest women you’ll ever meet or hear, as Sarah Jarosz and her CD Undercurrent meets Sierra Hull and her innovative Weighted Mind album. I predict it will be one of those two in the envelope in February, but of course Rhiannon Giddens and her Factory Girl project is stiff competition and Robbie Fulks offered Upland Stories, perhaps the deepest and most complex work of his career.
And we can’t overlook bluegrass, where a remarkably seasoned and almost Mount Rushmore scale group of artists has been assigned to the five slots. Mark O’Connor earned a nomination on his first gesture back at the bluegrass that raised him up in ages; it’s a wonderful project with his new family band, and I got to interview him and his son Forrest about that for Roots Radio this year. Fellow Music City Roots alums Doyle Lawson, Claire Lynch and Blue Highway received nods, along with West Coast legend Laurie Lewis and her tribute to Hazel and Alice. There’s no filler here.
We shall not speak of “snubs” because the world is too cynical already, but I will observe that our list-makers and the Recording Academy seem to have been out of step on a couple of prominent projects. Margo Price’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was flagged as the third best album on the planet in 2016 by American Songwriter and #20 by NPR. Yet in Grammy land, she is bereft, unfairly in my view. (Wait, I guess that’s a snub, isn’t it?) Similarly loved by the mags is Parker Millsap’s The Very Last Day. When he last played Music City Roots in 2014 he previewed a few of these songs and we knew adulation would follow. Aaron Lee Tasjan’s amazing Silver Tears made both Top 50 lists but came out a few weeks too late for this round Grammys. Let’s hope we see his bedazzled suit on the nominees list a year from now, assuming they can figure out what category it could possibly fit into.
It’s hard to call 2016 a “great year” for music, with the litany of heart-wrenching losses among the ranks of our heroes and heroines. Merle Haggard died, as did Jean Shepard, David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Sharon Jones, Leon Russell, Glenn Frey, Joey Feek and Pete Huttlinger. Great new music can ease but not erase the grief over such profound and untimely partings, but as we investigate the year’s most honest and expressive and original music, it helps to keep the standards set by that pantheon of departed greats in mind as we talk about “best” anything.