Once again we’re proving why the biggest adversity to independent music is success.
Though the overwhelming sentiment was positive surrounding the utterly surprising announcement Labor Day morning that Jason Isbell had finally broken through the once thought impenetrable barrier for an independent artist to receive a nomination in a major category for the Country Music Association’s annual awards, an audible minority made sure to pipe up on social media and in comment sections proclaiming the folly of finding joy in such an achievement, while summarily running down Isbell’s music, even if they once counted themselves as fans.
This was the same arc of public sentiment that appeared with Chris Stapleton when he started to find mainstream success, and to a similar degree with Sturgill Simpson. When Stapleton was the Dave Cobb-produced bushy-bearded and big built songwriter who had cut his teeth with the SteelDrivers and was covering classic country songs like “Tennessee Whiskey,” he was everyone’s favorite true country champion. But as soon as he started winning CMA Awards, all of a sudden those songs didn’t sound so country, and he was seen as some suave marketeer singing R&B songs.
Jason Isbell is not a country musician, and he will be the first to admit that. In fact that’s the first thing he did after the CMA nominations were announced Monday. In a very smart statement that said so much by saying so little, Isbell tweeted out, “We’re grateful for the CMA recognition. Happy to be included in a category with some real country artists.”
While at the same time taking a subtle jab at artists who are not real country, Jason Isbell was also admitting subtly that he was not country himself, especially compared to Chris Stapleton and Miranda Lambert—two of his fellow Album of the Year nominees. So how and why are we supposed to give Jason Isbell a pass for not being country and receiving a nomination, when we give no quarter to artists who are clearly not country and receive the same thing?
This is a very fair criticism, and a quandary for critics and fans alike. On one hand, you want to root for quality, of which Jason Isbell and The Nashville Sound embodies. But at the same time, it’s unfair to couch Isbell’s music as country, especially when Isbell is admitting it’s not country himself.
You can’t scream “not country!” at a record that is filled with mostly R&B, EDM, and/or hip-hop influences, but conveniently look away just because the non-country influences in an album are rock. Granted, rock music is more akin to the roots of country, while EDM and hip-hop are very much the polar opposites. Rock music, like country, is supposed to be a more organic influence, meaning humans playing music by striking chords on wood and wire, and slapping skins stretched over drum barrels. EDM and hip-hop are decidedly more electronic based. It doesn’t make one right and one wrong necessarily, but organic vs. electronic is why country and rock mix more intuitively than country and EDM.
Make no mistake about it, taking the simple theorem offered above and judging Jason Isbell’s The Nashville Sound, it is decidedly more country than 90% of what is offered as “country” by the mainstream today. Though The Nashville Sound was couched early on as a more hard rock effort—and that’s how the first single came across—in truth it has quite a few acoustical moments, and even country moments. After all, Jason Isbell has a full time fiddle in his band. How many mainstream country outfits can you say that about in 2017?
But beyond all that, let’s not discount Jason Isbell’s eligibility for a country award just because he does what 90% of Music Row is unwilling to do, which is admit they’re not country. Let’s not dock Jason Isbell for honesty, let’s applaud him. If we have a choice for what might be mistaken as country—either Jason Isbell’s latest album or some garbage from Sam Hunt—I think the choice is easy.
And though this feels like an extremely weird place to mention Taylor Swift, this is what Taylor did when she decided to be honest with her fans a few years back. You can’t fault any artist for wanting to evoke whatever influences are flowing through them in their music. They’re artists, and let them be artists free of the bounds of genre if they feel so inclined. The sin is when they lie to you about it, when they call a spade a club, and try to tell you that you’re the one that’s stupid and closed-minded for calling it as you see (or hear) it.
Jason Isbell is not country. He is decidedly Americana. And one side discussion about this CMA nomination is how it potentially couches Americana once again as the second tier of country, where artists go to develop or die, while it should be seen as so much more than that, rising up to challenge to reign of the mainstream as the authority on American roots music.
But Jason Isbell deserves his nomination for Album of the Year by the CMAs just as much as anyone has ever deserved that distinction. This is like Guy Clark, or John Prine at their height of commercial appeal breaking through and finding the greater recognition they deserved. With this CMA nomination, Jason Isbell is carrying the dreams of all songwriters with him, past and future. When songwriting is as good as Jason Isbell’s, it transcends genre. Every genre wants to call it their own.
Something else that deserves to be measured here is how much of a citizen of Nashville Jason Isbell has become. He has said his piece about the lack of quality music coming off of Music Row. He’s nobody’s lap dog. He’s spoken honestly about his feelings, just as he has about being considered country. But he’s also not a firebrand, flamethrowing the mainstream for being a bunch of pussies. There’s even pictures out there of Isbell shaking the hands of the Florida Georgia Line guys at a charity function. And good. Perhaps some of Isbell’s quality will rub off on them. We know their infection won’t ride up his sleeve. Isbell’s too honest, and too grounded to go chasing something he isn’t. That’s what’s so cool about Jason Isbell’s ascent. He didn’t take the big major label deal like Sturgill (not to fault Sturgill), he didn’t release some big radio single. Jason Isbell isn’t out there relying on tweets or duet performances by Justin Timberlake, or using backroom deals to get performance slots on Saturday Night Live.
Jason Isbell has earned everything he’s received, has boot strapped this thing from the very beginning, and found his way to the top his own way. What fun is getting to the top if you lose yourself during the ascent? I remember writing the story nearly six years ago about Jason Isbell’s van being stolen in Dallas. Now he travels around in two buses. Finally, after years of hard work, Jason Isbell is reaping the rewards, and on his terms. Finally, after years of independent fans insisting that the best and brightest artists deserve at least a seat at the table in the mainstream, they have received one.
But what if CMA voters catch wind of all the sour grapes being squeezed by people in the independent realm about how Isbell doesn’t deserve it, the CMAs don’t matter, and the system is all corrupt now anyway. In the last 48 hours, we’ve seen folks running down Thirty Tigers and other elements of Isbell’s team as being turncoats. Just like we saw with Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton before, when people buy in so hard to being the underdogs, they don’t want their favorite music to get big. They want the exclusivity. They want to tell themselves they’re better than all those stupid mainstream fans, and they can’t fathom listening to the same music as them.
But this is what we’ve been fighting for in independent roots music for years. Is Jason Isbell the ideal candidate for a Country Music Awards? Maybe not. Would some rather see Cody Jinks or Tyler Childers walk away with this distinction? Of course. But when has any list ever fit perfectly in everyone’s ideal? Do you think fans of Little Big Town and Lady Antebellum are out there undercutting their nominations because the albums weren’t country enough or they don’t agree with their politics? No, they’re celebrating, and offering their support. Drawing a hard line is important when you’re looking to not lose any ground. But when it comes to gaining it, pragmatism is the name of the game. The great thing about the Jason Isbell nomination is it opens up the possibility that any of your favorite independent music artists could find a similar fate in the future, when previously this was thought to be an impossibility.
And no institution in country music should ever be forfeited to the money changers on Music Row—the CMAs or anything else—just because they’ve fallen out of favor in the modern era. We the people of country music own these institutions. They are for us. The CMAs have been around for over 50 years. Previous recipients of CMA Awards include Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, and Taylor Swift, but they also include Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, and Chris Stapleton. Don’t give the CMAs over to the industry just because adverse forces have been able to burrow their tentacles deep into the inner workings over the last few years. Fight for it.
And as for all the folks that are allowing politics to get in the way of either the enjoyment of this distinction, or Isbell’s music in general: Seriously, it’s time to get over it. If you’re offended from 1 1/2 songs from Isbell’s latest album or some tweets he sent out, then you’d be offended by the vast majority of the politics of your favorite artists, you just don’t know what they are. Jason Isbell chose to enter the political realm with his music, and nobody can be faulted for not wanting to interface with it. This is the risk an artist runs when they broach political subjects in their music. But again, don’t fault Jason Isbell for being honest about his feelings and being willing to answer tough questions when most country artists punt—just like when he admits to not being country.
Most artists won’t tell you the truth about anything, because they’re too afraid how it might affect their careers. Yet honesty is how Jason Isbell got this far, including now being the first independent artists to be nominated for a major award by the CMAs.
Regardless how you feel about Isbell’s music, or his politics, this nomination for Album of the Year by the CMAs should be something all fans of true, honest music should celebrate. Or don’t, and let the joy, fulfillment, and understanding conveyed through the songs of one of our generation’s most gifted songwriters pass under your nose because you allow preconceived notions and intrinsic biases to get in your way.
Awards shows, industry recognition, sales charts and the like can all infer our musical path through life as ways to help curate what others are identifying with, but they shouldn’t define it. Just like we should take back the CMAs and other institutions of country music, we should also take back the meaning of success. For too long, “success” has been under the ownership of some of the worst music country has to offer. Success has been a harbinger for awfulness, which makes many reluctant to want to see their favorite artists find favor with it.
But that era is ending. Sturgill Simpson is selling out amphitheaters and winning Grammy Awards. Chris Stapleton is topping the album charts perennially and sweeping the CMAs. Jason Isbell is getting nominated for awards thought never possible for an independent artist, as well as other incredible achievements for a critically-acclaimed songwriter. These are moments we should be basking in, and attempting to secure for independent and quality artists in the future.
There is a good chance Jason Isbell will lose the CMA for Album of the Year, and may not even be there to perform due to previous commitments touring Europe. But the win is already been secured simply through the nomination. Gripe all you want, and for whatever reason. But I choose to celebrate the reward of persistence and sticking to your principles that the nomination for Jason Isbell symbolizes.