2013: The Year of the Songwriter

August 22, 2013 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  14 Comments

Jason-IsbellOn Monday night the Twitterverse blew up around the occasion of songwriter Jason Isbell recording an upcoming episode of Austin City Limits. The taping was streamed live online, and drew a remarkable amount of attention and praise from the online participants who took the time to tune in. Usually music confined to the online format is at such a distinct disadvantage, it is barely worth your time, and though Austin City Limits’ production value is world-class, this wasn’t what made the event special. Jason Isbell is quite the capable singer, and since he started out as a guitarist for the Drive By Truckers, it’s hard to denounce his musicianship either. His band The 400 Unit was sensational as well, and so was his wife Amanda Shires who sang and played fiddle for the set. But none of this is why the event became a singular experience for those who tuned in.

It was Jason Isbell’s songs and his songwriting that made so many online watchers walk away with one of those feelings you get after watching a stellar movie—where your mind gets so immersed in the experience it is hard to return to the real world. Jason’s songs are also why the event was able to cross traditional barriers of genre and taste. Jason Isbell is on a meteoric rise right now, and even though he finished off the night’s performance with a mostly instrumental cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” Isbell’s ability to evoke story is at the center of his success.

Another artist who is seeing success in 2013 is Sturgill Simpson. I once dubbed Sturgill the “Stevie Ray Vaughn of Country Music” because of his incredible guitar playing. But one of the keys to Sturgill’s rise has been his decision to set the Telecaster down and retool his music to be more about his songs.

Everywhere in the independent music world you’re seeing songwriters who have struggled for years finally starting to get signed to record labels and releasing career-caliber albums: Valerie June, Caitlin Rose, Austin Lucas, Amanda Shires, and the list goes on from there, and they are all in the middle of this emerging and relevant rise of independently-minded Nashville songwriters that more established songwriters like Jason Isbell and Justin Townes Earle are the leaders of. Whereas other sectors of the music industry seem to be gripped by the fear that digitization and streaming may ultimately doom the business of music, talented songwriters are benefiting from the search for the next writer to break out with bold and fresh material, and a renewed belief by the independent industry that songwriting is important, even if it is marginally profitable. Nobody wants to pass up the next Jason Isbell.

The biggest divide between active and passive music listeners might be the conscious awareness of songwriting. Passive listeners just subconsciously connect with a song either physically or emotionally without giving it much thought, while active listeners attempt to determine why. Popular music consistently offering less and less choice and substance is not hindering this trend, it is enhancing it as many listeners are fleeing the mainstream ranks for more thoughtful music, and in turn are becoming aware of what truly makes a song worth hearing. Even ABC’s new prime-time drama Nashville broaches the subject of how songs are written on a regular basis—many times delving into great detail on the process—making consumers more enlightened and engaged about how a song is constructed and why songwriting is important.

The Nashville show has also become a new outlet for original songs as the industry attempts to address the dramatic glut of songwriter material worthy of a wider audience. Many Nashville songwriters in this new, up-and-coming crop were featured on the series’ inaugural season, including Caitlin Rose, Lindi Ortega, and Shovels & Rope. Sales of music may be declining sharply, but royalty rates, especially for songwriters whose material appears on television and movies, remain substantial. And this songwriter resurgence is not just confined to the independent music world. Even in the mainstream, songwriters with more substantive material like Kacey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe made their big debuts in 2013. David Letterman has been featuring more songwriters on his show, including ones who’ve never had a network TV break like Ray Wylie Hubbard, Dale Watson, and Pokey LaFarge.

For every era in music, there is a defining element that sets the standard of what is tasteful and relevant. It could be the presence of a powerful guitar riff, a certain style or tone to the music, a specific thematic thread like feelings of melancholy or happiness, or even a stylistic visual element that has little to do with the music itself. In 2013, in the independent music world and beyond, that defining element appears to be the well-written song.

14 Comments to “2013: The Year of the Songwriter”

  • No discussion about ‘the year of the songwriter’ is complete without mentioning Brandy Clark and her stellar 12 Stories album, out Oct 22. Sure she’s written many mainstream hits, but the compositions she’s kept for herself (“What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven,” “In Some Corner,” and “Hungover,” among others) are some of the best songs of their type I’ve heard outside a Trisha Yearwood album in many, many years.

    A little late to the party, I started digging into Jason’s album this morning. I’m not even halfway through and I’m really, really enjoying it so far. It’s living up to the hype.


    • I agree. Brandy Clark’s album might set the standard for female songwriting albums in in a year that has already been packed with these albums, but talking about it in the future tense seems a little bit ahead of the game. There will be plenty of time to celebrate that album once it is released, and the general public can listen along.


    • Brandy’s album is the moment in music I’ve been waiting for since I first saw her on The Marty Stuart Show. She’s beautiful, she’s an amazing songwriter, and she has that voice that just hits you right in the soul. She and Marty doing “Take A Little Pill” as a duet was just beautiful.


  • Great to see so many inspired musicians in today’s world.. Just when I thought all the good songs had been sung…


  • Very important article. The Music industry is sure having a tough time trying to make money and new avenues for new artists that isnt American Idol. Its sure the wild wild west out there for them. I use to like that show Nashville too until it started turning into broke butt mountain last season. Thats where I had to draw the line.


    • Don’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily recommending folks watch “Nashville,” but I do think we should recognize the cultural impact it could have on raising awareness on how the songwriting process and many other elements of the music business work.


    • Nashville has pleasantly surprised me in terms of actually promoting some good music. In addition to the semi-underground bands (you can also add Buddy Miller to the list), they throw in a reasonable number of classic songs. Also, even though it may be a bit corny, every episode is named after a Hank Sr. song.

      I assume a reasonable number of people will give those songs a listen.


  • Great insight! Thanks for reminding us “hangers on” that there’s still a glimmer of hope. I only hope it sustains! “where your mind gets so immersed in the experience it is hard to return to the real world”, great line, it’s how I feel every time I go see Isbell, or the Tedeschi Trucks Band, etc….,
    It’s good to know someone else feels this way.


  • Sturgill plays hard, he really hits the strings with force, just like Stevie Ray.

    very interesting, thanks!


  • Don’t forget John Moreland. I love his music, and his last album is utterly amazing.


  • I’m depressed. Isbell plays ACL and I learn about it after the fact. Wish SCM had mentioned it or did I miss the blurb?


    • It was just the taping. I mentioned it in the site’s news stream, on Facebook and Twitter, and embedded the player on the “live” page. I did just about everything I could do to warn folks aside from posting an article about it. The actual broadcast will probably be in a few months.


  • Jason Isbell also has a new clip out by the way! Traveling alone ;)


  • I think it’s worth noting the rise in “Listening Room” style venues that I think is paralleling the rise of songwriters. I run across more and more venues (besides House Concerts, which is a whole other thing) that expect the audience to shut up and listen, which I think is driven by more and more musicians worth listening to.


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