It was difficult to whittle down this decision even to two. Raul Malo of The Mavericks had one hell of a year. Songwriter and schoolteacher Possessed by Paul James with both a breakout album There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonely and a “Teacher of the Year” nod seemed to embody the balance of both a great person and a great artist that the Artist of the Year distinction is meant to honor. And if there was a runner up to the two men eventually selected, it would be a collection of all the inspiring women in country music in 2013 presented together as a collective Artist of the Year.
In the end though, two individuals in 2013 outshone all others.
Artists of the Year are not just measured against their peers, they are measured against themselves. We’re inspired by artists because they do things that we can’t. At the same time, the best artists inspire us to try to do things that we thought we never could. How many times does an artist’s finest work proceed an era of turmoil and/or redemption in their personal lives, almost to the point where if you start telling too many of the specifics of their success story, it just begins to feel like platitudes? Jason Isbell is the same man he was before 2013’s rousing success, gifted with the same skills as a guitar player and songwriter, influenced by the same legends and works, with the same Muscle Shoals roots intertwining with his fibers to create his unique interpretation of American roots music.
But 2013 is where it all aligned. You could blame his recently-found sobriety. You could blame his manager Traci Thomas and the entire Thirty Tigers organization that is on the cutting edge of the new music business paradigm of giving artist’s world-class support while allowing them to keep control of their music. Or you could blame the love and support of his new wife, Amanda Shires Isbell. But none of these people could write those songs, or deliver them with such feeling. None of them could get sober for Isbell, nor is getting sober the solution for every artist to stumble into the true essence of themselves, or the fortune to be able to share that essence with a wide, appreciative audience. It’s not like Isbell was some slouch to start, or wasn’t graced with attention or accolades in previous years. It just happens to be that when he was able to refine himself as a man, his music followed suit to create one of the most consensus picks for who outshone everyone else in a given year that we have seen in country/Americana music in a long time.
2013 was Jason Isbell’s year, and Southeastern was 2013’s songwriter album that all others will be measured against for very a long time.
The idea that country music needs to be saved is woven into the very fabric of the genre. It’s the reason the Outlaws were able to rise in the 70’s, and deliver country music’s first million-selling album. It’s the reason a song like “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” can reach #1 in 1975, and a song like “Murder On Music Row” can win the CMA for Song of the Year in 2001.
And within this mythos of country music, and residing in the hearts of millions of despondent country fans is this idea, however fanciful or misguided, that an artist, or a group of artists, could rise up and return sensibility, substance, and the roots of country back to the music. Eric Church once mocked this idea in a song called “Country Music Jesus,” laughing at both the idea that country music needed to be saved, and that we needed some artist to do it.
Did Sturgill Simpson save the country music genre in 2013? Of course not. He didn’t even come close. But what he did do is fulfill that promise that the future of country music will be better than the present for the many true country fans who were fortunate to come in contact with his debut, breakout album High Top Mountain. Sturgill Simpson doesn’t want to save country music, he just wants to play it. He may not even want to call it country music, or care that anyone wants to save country….and that’s one of the reasons that he very well just might.
In some respects, Eric Church, and all the other mainstream artists and fans who say country music must evolve are right. And what Sturgill Simpson proved in 2013 is that country music can evolve, can still feel fresh, invigorated, and renewed, while still paying the highest regard and respects to the roots of the music. But maybe most importantly, and the truth that can bring shivers to all those fans hoping for that one artist that can help turn the country music ship around, is the fact that Sturgill Simpson is only just getting started. A brighter future for country music is what Sturgill Simpson delivered in 2013, and there’s no value or distinction that can repay what that means to the hearts of true country fans.