5 Reasons Jason Isbell’s ‘The Nashville Sound’ Deserves to Win 2017 CMA Album of the Year
Isbell has become one of Americana's most celebrated artists over the course of the last few years, but his somewhat surprise nomination for a mainstream award as big as CMA Album of the Year has officially cemented his position as one of country music's most important artists. He credited his band, the 400 Unit, alongside himself for the album, which is an eclectic mix of styles that somehow all comes together for one of the most impactful overall artistic statements of the year.
It's impossible to imagine any other artist in country music today making an album as bold and personally revealing as The Nashville Sound, which strikes a perfect balance between personal observation and more universal themes. But that's just one of the reasons Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit deserve to win Album of the Year at the 2017 CMA Awards for The Nashville Sound.
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Though country music has a long, rich tradition of social commentary and political activism in the form of artists including Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash, it's been years since a prominent country musician challenged the flag-waving norms of the genre. Isbell questions the sociopolitical direction of the country extensively on The Nashville Sound, taking up for the underdogs, the dispossessed and embittered and those who have been left behind in a bold statement that is as personal as it is universal.
If any artist in this category represents the album-length format, it's Isbell. Writing songs with titles like "If We Were Vampires" is scarcely the fast track to success at country radio, but Isbell has found a way to side-step that completely and find success on his own terms. He released The Nashville Sound independently and saw it debut at No. 1 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart. It also topped the rock, independent and folk albums charts and debuted at No. 4 on the all-genre Billboard 200, making Isbell that rare artist who can translate critical acclaim into real-life marketplace success.
Isbell might or might not be the only singer-songwriter in Nashville who could have written the songs on The Nashville Sound, but he's certainly the only one who would have. He addresses the destitution and hopelessness of Appalachian coal miners in "Cumberland Gap," white male privilege in "White Man's World," and urges people to resist the temptation to give in to hate of their own in the face of a darkening American culture in "Hope the High Road." Elsewhere he addresses his hopes and fears for his daughter in "Something to Love," but the centerpiece of The Nashville Sound is "If We Were Vampires," one of the most unique love songs in the history of country music.
Dave Cobb produced The Nashville Sound, and as he has done with artists including Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson, he manages to underscore every song on the album with exactly the right surrounding vibe it needs to realize its full potential, without cluttering the tracks with unnecessary audio trickery to distract from the true intent of the songs.
All of the albums nominated for Album of the Year in 2017 are worthy, but Isbell is the artist who has made the most uncompromising album-length statement. He eschews any thoughts of commercial success to focus on true musicianship and song craftsmanship, with the result being an album that perfectly captures this moment in time while cutting totally against the grain of commercial country music. Isbell is country music's boldest risk taker on The Nashville Sound, and we're all the better for it.