Isbell, Lambert, Stapleton Bring Americana Flavor to CMA Album Competition

When Jason Isbell set his fall touring schedule, he left a hole on the calendar for Sept. 13 to perform during the Americana Music Honors & Awards. But he had zero expectation that he would be on the ballot for the 51st annual Country Music Association Awards on Nov. 8, and he booked a European tour that will have him playing Berlin the same day that his project with The 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound, competes for album of the year.

Isbell joins Chris Stapleton and Miranda Lambert in tilting that category toward the unpolished Americana sound, a development that numerous critics noticed when the finalists were announced in September.

"People are reaching out for more traditional-sounding music, and that seems to be ringing true at the CMA Awards this year," says SESAC vp creative services Shannan Hatch.

Indeed, the CMA list shines a light for the first time on traditionally tipped males Jon Pardi and Luke Combs. But the heaviest concentration of that trend lies in the album category, where even Little Big Town, never afraid to experiment, makes an appearance with The Breaker, a title that is more relaxed than progressive.

Americana is a rather broad tent that welcomes a variety of artists with rootsy influences who don't typically fit into the current mainstream landscape in rock, country or R&B. As a result, the Americana Music Association frequently recognizes former country hitmakers who are still evolving creatively, including Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Dwight Yoakam and Marty Stuart. Country and Americana certainly overlap, but one thing that distinguishes the two genres seems to be how they handle the age-old struggle between art and commerce.

"Most of the artists you see in our community are trying to write a song in the best way they can to tell a story," says AMA executive director Jed Hilly. "I think in [the country] marketplace -- and I do not mean to be disingenuous -- I just think it's a business and they're trying to write songs to be No. 1 hits. Every now and then, somebody is writing something from the heart, and it might hit in that formulaic pattern."

The album of the year category has proven to be an arena where CMA voters show their appreciation for Americana. Since the turn of the century, the CMA album winners have included such Americana-friendly titles as the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, Johnny Cash's American IV: The Man Comes Around, Lee Ann Womack's There's More Where That Came From and Stapleton's Traveller.

"Chris was pivotal with Traveller and the success of it, having people understand," says Keith Urban, nominated in four categories this year. "There's many ways to speak to an audience, but they're listening."

In some ways, album of the year is a field that's ideal for the Americana mind-set. With the fortunes of mainstream country artists heavily dependent on their performance at radio and, increasingly, in streaming platforms, many acts have admitted in interviews that they attempt to stuff their albums with potential hits. That sometimes leads to packages that lack variety.

Americana, by contrast, is less dependent on marketing via the single, and the artists are more likely to treat the album as a vehicle to show the breadth of their talents and take the listener on a journey. And that's part of the reason that three albums with Americana overtones made the ballot this year.

"With all three of these records, they were very well-thought-out -- the sequence, the songs that were written, the songs that were placed on them -- and they tell a story as a whole album instead of just trying to focus on what radio's going to play," says Hatch.

The albums are also more likely to embrace dark topics. Stapleton's From A Room: Volume 1 includes "Either Way," a haunting account of a loveless relationship that radio largely ignored, and "Death Row," a stark portrait of a prisoner resigned to his doom. Lambert's The Weight of These Wings chronicles a broken heart and subsequent rebound in a two-disc set that runs an hour and 40 minutes. In a world of slick marketing and heavy technology, there's definitely a set of music fans open to such raw material.

"I find, particularly with the younger audience, they're looking for something real, and they can find it in those artists," says Womack.

CMA voters, industry members whose livelihood depends on the bottom line, are by and large appreciative of mainstream country's commerciality, but they're also prone to celebrate the artistic risk that Stapleton, Lambert and Isbell represent. "You're going to do something out of the box because you feel it's a good thing?" iHeartMedia personality Bobby Bones asks rhetorically. "I love that."

Hilly makes the case that many country decision-makers are closet Americana fans -- not surprising, since Music Row is stocked in part with people who were motivated by the traditional sounds of Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard, all of whom were embraced by Americana after their commercial country peak.

"One day, I spoke to the head of an important label in Nashville," recounts Hilly. "I said, ‘I don't understand why you're not doing a Lost Highway type of engagement.' And the individual said, ‘Well, that's the kind of music I listen to when I go home, but I've got a bottom line with shareholders.' That made me sad, but it also gave me respect. These guys at the top of those companies are expected to deliver in this very specific area of music, and their pipeline is commercial radio and songs that reach the greatest common denominator."

Still, the nominations for the Stapleton, Lambert and Isbell albums, with their raw tone and storylines, suggest Americana has the potential to become more common in the mainstream country equation.

"It's authentic, it's rooted in everything that set the foundation of country music, and it connects with people," says Urban. "That's what all great music does."