Every style of music produces great songs: even in genres like house or rap, better known for ecstatic mixes and freestyle flows, songs are the going units of measurement. But Americana music lovers are the hierophants of great songwriting, bearing deep knowledge of the bardic traditions of country, folk and soul— upholding the practice of sitting down and really listening to how writers deploy their craft and distill emotion. It's a literary approach to the stuff that also feeds our urge to dance, kiss, or simply relax into a passing moment. Those who do it best are able to make their careful constructions hit close to the heart.
The annual Americana Honors & Awards ceremony—which NPR Music will stream live on Wednesday, Sept. 16—is a great way to discover what's happening among the song sages. This year, the nominees are fairly evenly split among venerable older artists and young ones really coming into their own. Some have made commercial waves—Artist of the Year nominees Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson have both had major breakthrough albums—while others remain more grounded within the devoted Americana fan base. A wide world of musical approaches is reflected in the roster of nominees, from rocking band interplay to high-concept vintage moves to relatively spare balladry.
The songs included here also represent the genre's diversity and excellence. They span a number of Awards categories and include Isbell's Springsteen-esque rock, the classic country of Lee Ann Womack, the political blues of Lucinda Williams, Shakey Graves's imaginative indie-folk and Doug Seegers's troubadour tales. Graves, Rhiannon Giddens, whose tender original song "Angel City" is included here, and the great Patty Griffin will appear on Wednesday afternoon's live edition of Songs We Love, to be recorded at Nashville's historic Studio A, and later archived on NPR Music.
These picks come from NPR Music critic Ann Powers and contributor Jewly Hight, both of whom will be trolling Americana Fest for future award winners. You can follow Ann on Twitter at @annkpowers and Jewly at @rightbyherroots.
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