The nominations are in for the 16th annual Americana Awards, to be held Sept. 13 in Nashville as the signature event of AmericanaFest — and in at least one category, they tell a tale of how this progressive yet traditionalist community is rising to the political challenges of a complicated historical moment. Four of the five releases in the Album of the Year category have protest at their core, demonstrating how the genre is stretching itself even as it builds on long-established artistic family ties.
Sturgill Simpson and the Drive-By Truckers led the nominations; both are up for Album of the Year, Simpson for the contrarian A Sailor's Guide To Earth and the Truckers for the deeply political American Band. Simpson is also up for Artist of the Year and Song of the Year (his soulful bouquet of parental advice "All Around You," for which he released a kind of protest video in February), while the Truckers got a nod in the Duo/Group category.
Also tapped for Artist of the Year was Jason Isbell, whose new album with his band the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound, comes out June 16 — and includes some powerful confrontations with issues like white privilege and the fear of extinction that plagues some members of the Southern working class.
The announcement program itself, which included an unexpected reunion of Truckers songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley and Isbell, who started his career in the band, also spoke of the way Americana music most meaningfully engages with a divided America. They performed the Isbell composition "Outfit," one of many Truckers songs to consider the internal arguments that consume many Americans — about progress versus conventionalism, and the love of one's small view out the window versus the awareness that America's social landscape is changing every day. "Don't try to change who you are, boy, and don't try to be what you ain't," Isbell and Hood sang as Cooley played lead acoustic guitar. Isbell's protagonist is trapped within such advice, but he also believes it.
Other Album of the Year nominations broaden the perspective on what constitutes a core American experience. Rhiannon Giddens is up for Freedom Highway, which continues her project of tracing the African-American roots of this music from slave times to the present day. And Hurray For the Riff Raff's The Navigator, through which Alynda Segarra presents an odyssey reflective of her Puerto Rican family story, is also under consideration. (The final AOTY nominee, Rodney Crowell's rich Close Ties, is a more individual take on an epic saga: one man's life story, lived within the singer-songwriter community.)
Beyond the intriguing AOTY category, Americana honored favorites older and newer, from emerging artists Brent Cobb and Aaron Lee Tasjan to young standard-bearers like Isbell and Margo Price to icons like John Prine. The full slate is listed below, followed by more World Cafe sessions with some of the nominees.
Album of the Year
American Band, Drive-By Truckers (Produced by David Barbe)
A Sailor's Guide To Earth, Sturgill Simpson (Produced by Sturgill Simpson)
Close Ties, Rodney Crowell (Produced by Kim Buie and Jordan Lehning)
Freedom Highway, Rhiannon Giddens (Produced by Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell)
The Navigator, Hurray for the Riff Raff (Produced by Paul Butler)
Artist of the Year
Duo/Group of the Year
Billy Bragg & Joe Henry
Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives
Emerging Artist of the Year
Aaron Lee Tasjan
Song of the Year
"All Around You," Sturgill Simpson (Written by Sturgill Simpson)
"It Ain't Over Yet," Rodney Crowell (feat. Rosanne Cash & John Paul White) (Written by Rodney Crowell)
"To Be Without You," Ryan Adams (Written by Ryan Adams)
"Wreck You," Lori McKenna (Written by Lori McKenna and Felix McTeigue)
Instrumentalist of the Year
Spencer Cullum Jr.