Jason Isbell was the big winner at this year’s Americana Music Association Awards. In addition to being named Americana Artist of the Year, his album Southeastern was chosen as Album of the Year and the album’s title track, “Cover Me Up,” was selected as Song of the Year.
Southeastern is an outstanding album. It was recorded after Isbell completed a stint in rehab for alcohol and drug problems and just before his second marriage. It’s mood is set by spare, haunting songs about loneliness (“Traveling Alone”), self-destructive behavior (“Songs that She Sang in the Shower”), sexual abuse (“Yvette”), and lovers dying of cancer (“Elephant”). Isbell’s powerful vocals and gift for simple but evocative lyrics (like the cancer victim’s “sharecropper eyes and hair almost all gone”) bring these troubled worlds to life. If Richard Ford or Raymond Carver wrote country songs instead of short stories, they would sound like this.
Southeastern isn’t all grim, though. In “Cover Me Up,” the singer (likely echoing Isbell himself) beats his addiction and asserts a new sobriety, “forever this time.” “Stockholm” is a jaunty love song; “Bus Depot” exudes gratitude for simple things; and”Super 8″ a rocking tale of a wild night at a cheap motel. “Relatively Easy” also wraps things up on a wise, hopeful note.
As good as Southeastern is, my pick for Americana album of the year would be Somewhere Else by Lydia Loveless. It would have been a controversial choice for AMA (and, in fact, it wasn’t nominated), because Loveless’s second Bloodshot Records release clearly embraces a more straightforward rock sound compared with her cowpunk debut, Indestructible Machine. But Lydia Loveless is too twangy to ever get played on adult rock radio, or even mainstream country stations. That is a shame, because she’s one of the gutsiest songwriters around, with vocal chops that are often stunning. The AMA missed an opportunity to recognize Loveless’s talents, but she’s only 23 years old, so it has time to rectify the mistake.