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Sunday, May 24, 2015

a home for the americana diaspora
May 23, 2015
Scott Foley

Nominees were announced this week for the Americana Honors & Awards.  While my own year end favorites lists only occasionally and accidentally cross over with the AHAs, there's still a good deal of integrity in their list (as opposed to the Grammys, the American Music Awards or the Billboard Awards, f'rinstance, which I'll occasionally still follow for the sake of cultural literacy or comic relief).  I figured this year I'd try my hand at a bit of prognostication, handicapping the AHAs in light of who "should" win and who will likely walk away with some of the ugliest trophies since I won the Pinewood Derby at the age of 10 (vs Bobby Bonds, who told me he hoped my wheels fell off).

Emerging Artist
First Aid Kit, Houndmouth, Nikki Lane, Doug Seegers, Shakey Graves
Given his rags-to-less-rags backstory, it'd be cool to see Doug Seegers walk away with this recognition.  First Aid Kit were one of the foremost crossover artists of the past year, but I don't know that they're necessarily an act that the americana community has fully claimed as their own.  Houndmouth's Little Neon Limelight is worthy of recognition, but its later release date will threaten their chances.  That leaves Nikki Lane and Shakey Graves.  Should Win:  Shakey Graves has been laboring beneath the threshold of popular awareness for a number of years, and he has an integrity and artistic vision that will serve him well for years to come.  Will Win:  I have no problem with Nikki Lane earning this recognition.  She's the genre's own choice to be their next official sweetheart. 

Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn, Lone Bellow, Mavericks, Punch Brothers, Shovels & Rope
Not necessarily the sexiest AHA, I think this race is between the returning Mavs, beloved by the americana community, Shovels & Rope, who have already won a couple things two years back, and Bela & Abigail.  Shovels' Swimmin' Time merits some love, but the record doesn't have the momentum of the other candidates.  Bela & Abigail are in the running for the genre's First Couple, but I think the AHA will go home with Raul Malo & co, who have been engaged in a victory lap since their 2013 return.  Tight race, though. 
Should Win:  Shovels & Rope.  Will Win:  Mavericks.

Shakey Graves, "Dearly Departed"; Lucinda Williams, "East Side of Town"; John Hiatt, "Terms of My Surrender"; Sturgill Simpson, "Turtles All the Way Down"; Steve Earle, "You're Best Lover That I Ever Had"
This is the year's weakest list, but it features the year's most sure thing.  Hiatt is the sentimental favorite here, with as much of a personal look back as he's ever offered.  Let's just jump to the obvious, however, and crown Simpson's masterwork.  With the perfect meeting of the classic and the visionary, "Turtles" leaves absolutely nothing to be desired. 
Should Win:  Sturgill Simpson.  Will Win:  Sturgill Simpson

Shakey Graves, Lucinda Williams, Sturgill Simpson, Lee Ann Womack, Rhiannon Giddens
After my inaugural listen to Giddens' record, I predicted it would earn the Grammys' nod for something or other (though prob'ly not the AHAs).  Womack's collection marks a career resurgence, but it's also a batch of covers, which will prevent it from advancing.  Shakey Graves deserves something this year, but he's a longshot versus beloved vets like Lucinda.  Her double CD is generous and worthy of runner-up status, but really made no Grand Statement for the genre or the artist.  Simpson's Metamodern Sounds can check both of those boxes, giving our kind of music a new prominence, and boosting Simpson onto the genre's most prominent podium after just two solo records.  Also, it was Routes & Branches' choice for last year's favorite LP, which counts for absolutely nothing. 
Should Win:  Sturgill Simpson.  Will Win:  Sturgill Simpson

Rhiannon Giddens, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Lucinda Williams, Lee Ann Womack
Isbell won 2014's Album, Song and Artist AHAs, and I can't imagine they'd be so generous with a guy whose follow-up record won't be released for a couple more weeks. Don't worry, he'll show up again on next year's list.  Until then, I can't see any other selection than Sturgill Simpson.  It's been his year.  
Should Win:  Sturgill Simpson.  Will Win:  Sturgill Simpson

For the love of god, please don't put money on these forecasts, though if you do I wouldn't turn down a percentage of the winnings to put towards my library in Hawaii.  Still, I'm not certain if Vegas is taking odds on the AHAs ...

It's my opinion that the americana world needs Sam Outlaw. His debut, Angeleno, trades in an increasingly rare sort of SoCal countrypolitan.  Produced by Ry Cooder and son Joachim, the record comes across as simultaneously retro and immediately relevant.  While the specs vary, think Andrew Combs or JP Harris, both of whom walk a similar path on recent album, paying homage to sounds of the past while dragging those traditions into a more contemporary light - anything less might come across as a hollow impersonation.  

We're ushered into Angeleno on a warm breeze of strings courtesy of "Who Do You Think You Are".  A couple measures later and we're introduced to another central element of Sam Outlaw's sound, the mariachi horns and Latin rhythms that crop up throughout.  The voice is easy and likeable, occupying a tone with the twang of Dwight Yoakam and the lazy romanticism of Justin Townes Earle or Cale Tyson.  "Keep It Interesting" is an ode to "mixing it up" for the sake of the relationship:  "No one stays long / In a love gone cold".  Outlaw's partner in harmony, Molly Jenson, provides a perfectly charming counterpoint, like Tift Merritt or even Sheryl Crow at times.  "I'm Not Jealous" reveals another aspect of Angeleno, a wry sense of lyrical humor that is so welcome in these days of dumbed down "bro country" and self important rock.  Watching as an ex paints the town, Outlaw only half convincingly declares, "I'm not jealous of them / I'm embarrassed for you". At the height of his powers, he is able to repurpose Carrie Underwood's hit on "Jesus Take the Wheel (and drive me to a bar)". 

Like Andrew Combs' All These Dreams, the production surrounding Outlaw's songs cannot be discounted.  The Cooders have constructed a perfect countrypolitan diorama, from Joachim's brushed percussion to the tastefully distributed pedal steel and fiddle touches, and the occasional subtle bed of sad, sad strings.  When executed to the degree of "Country Love Song", the result is ready made for the more traditional edges of contemporary country radio (where such a thing still exists).  Likewise Outlaw's "Ghost Town", which recognizes both the sun bleached romanticism and the sadness inherent in his adopted SoCal home.  Like the act of assuming the Outlaw moniker into his stage persona (it's a family name), there's a boldness and an authenticity to this debut release. 

*  Lucinda Williams, "This Old Heartache"  Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone  (Hwy 20, 14)
*  Doug Seegers, "Angie's Song"  Going Down To the River  (Rounder, 14)
*  Kenny Knight, "One Down"  Crossroads  (Paradise of Bachelors, 15)  C
*  Hip Hatchet, "Ladies Night"  Hold You Like a Harness  (Hip Hatchet, 15)
*  Ryan Culwell, "I Will Come For You"  Flatlands  (Lightning Rod, 14)
*  Samantha Crain, "Outside the Pale"  Under Branches & Thorn & Tree  (Full Time Hobby, 15)
*  Calexico, "When the Angels Played"  Edge of the Sun  (Anti, 15)
^  Sam Outlaw, "Jesus Take the Wheel (and drive me to a bar)"  Angeleno  (Thirty Tigers, 15)  D
*  Wilco, "Casino Queen"  A.M.  (Reprise, 94)
*  State Champion, "Fantasy Error"  Fantasy Error  (Sophomore Lounge, 15)  D
*  T Hardy Morris, "Painted On Attitude"  Drownin' On a Mountain Top  (Dangerbird, 15)
*  Banditos, "No Good"  Banditos  (Bloodshot, 15)
*  the Sonics, "Look At Little Sister"  This Is the Sonics  (Re:Vox, 15)  D
*  Dwight Yoakam, "Little Sister (acoustic)"  (Reprise, 00)
*  Sturgill Simpson, "It Ain't All Flowers"  Metamodern Sounds In Country Music  (High Top Mt, 14)
*  Lee Ann Womack, "Tomorrow Night In Baltimore"  The Way I'm Livin'  (Sugar Hill, 14)
*  Rayland Baxter, "Yellow Eyes"  Imaginary Man  (ATO, 15)  D
*  Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, "I Just Wanted To See You So Bad"  Traveling Kind  (Nonesuch, 15)
*  Lonesome Wyatt & Rachel Brooke, "If the Beasts Should Hunt Us"  Bad Omen  (Tribulation, 15)
*  Shakey Graves, "Big Time Nashville Star"  And the War Came  (Dualtone, 14)
*  Langhorne Slim & the Law, "Strangers"  The Spirit Moves  (Dualtone, 15)  D
*  Michael Dean Damron, "Am I the Only One Drinking Tonight"  When the Darkness Come  (MDD, 15)
*  Iris Dement, "Listening To Singing"  The Trackless Woods  (FlariElla, 15)  D
*  Brown Bird, "Raging Squall"  Axis Mundi  (Supply & Demand, 15)
*  Shelby Lynne, "Be In the Now"  I Can't Imagine  (Rounder, 15)
*  Will Hoge, "Guitar Or a Gun"  Small Town Dreams  (Cumberland, 15)
*  Shovels & Rope, "Evil"  Swimmin' Time  (Dualtone, 14)

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