Sunday, 22 November 2015

Comment on the Shortlist of Nominees for the Inaugural AMA UK Awards

Last week The American Music Association UK (AMA UK) announced the shortlist for their inaugural awards evening in February next year. This fledgling trade body has recently re-aligned its structure and acted on a previous commitment to instigate such a celebration for musicians associated with its genre. This moves it in line with its cousins of folk and country which have long established awards events, a recognition process seen as essential to showcasing the success of any year. Whether such events, for what is purely a subjective art form, are your cup of tea, the value for artists is acknowledged as important, especially for those who capture the imagination of a particular electorate. Whilst not being a participate of this shortlist selection process or the ultimate winner ballot, the names and categories were of particular interest to a person who invests an awful lot of time in listening to Americana artists while in the process of writing 150 plus reviews on an annual basis. So read on for a personal assessment of the selections now being heavily promoted on social media.

The first category on the press release doing the rounds was UK Album of the Year with four records being presented as the choice for the ultimate ballot. Firstly I have to admit surprise at seeing The Staves included and have to further add that the record has not yet crossed my listening path. The band did impress me when seeing them play at Moseley Folk Festival a few years ago but as their flame grew brighter in the wider music press including TV Glastonbury coverage and arena support slots for Florence and the Machine, they still remain elusive to my ear, so further comment is not valid. Two of the other nominations were reviewed on the site with both, WHAT KIND OF LOVE by Danny and the Champions of the World and The Dreaming Spires’ sophomore album SEARCHING FOR THE SUPERTRUTH  meeting my full approval. The fourth entry was another slight surprise as Emily Barker’s THE TOERAG SESSIONS consisted mainly of older tracks recorded in a different format and setting. This album has only been recently purchased and like many of Emily’s previous records is an excellent piece of work. However if I was to make one choice from this quartet,  the vote would have to go to The Dreaming Spires as it is a record that hasn’t left my mobile device since listening for the first time.

On the other hand, International Album of the Year presented four exceptional releases that have been core to my listening activity all year and three have been heard live, with the fourth scheduled for a January UK visit. This last point refers to Jason Isbell whose SOMETHING MORE THAN FREE record is guaranteed to top many end of year lists in the next month. It would probably get the nod from me just ahead of BLACKBIRDS by Gretchen Peters, Cale Tyson’s debut UK release which was an amalgam of his two US Eps and the popular Kacey Musgraves album PAGEANT MATERIAL. Seeing this album on the list was also a surprise as mainstream country records tend to not float the boat of many Americana fans who voice their opinions. I have enjoyed all four of these records and the artists will feature in some format when my 'favourites of 2015' lists are published just before Christmas.

The UK artist category presented a mixed bag from my perception. The repeat nomination for the Champs and the Spires was not totally unexpected as both acts have ripped it up on the live circuit in support of their new records. The nomination of Lewis and Leigh raised a few eyebrows especially as the duo has yet to release their debut full length album. I have enjoyed listening to their Eps and caught them live for the first time at this year’s Maverick Festival. Co-incidentally both Lewis and Leigh and The Dreaming Spires represented the AMA UK in Nashville during the annual convention of the original AMA last September. I’m afraid no comment can be made on the fourth nomination as Bear’s Den has yet to cross my path in any format. Just like the album category, it would have to be The Dreaming Spires just edging The Champs, but it’s a close call and Danny’s show in Oxford is set for a lofty position in the end of year gig list.

The four nominees for International Artist of the Year are all familiar to me to differing degrees. The Bros. Landreth was recommended to me this year and their album was subsequently purchased and enjoyed. Jason Isbell has long been a firm favourite, but his nomination would have been strengthened if he had visited the UK this year. Likewise Sturgill Simpson did play several festival and venue UK dates in the summer, but he falls short as both albums were released in the first half of 2014. This leaves the path clear for Gretchen Peters to get my fictional vote as she combined the release of BLACKBIRDS with several Trans-Atlantic visits to promote the album, with her Birmingham and Leamington Spa shows getting favourable reviews.

The UK Song of the Year category was the most difficult to assess as it contained recordings by Bear’s Den and The Staves, so attention was limited to 'Clear Water' by Danny and the Champions of the World and 'Rubble' by Lewis and Leigh. The live impact and standing of Danny in my hierarchy would get the vote in this category, also cemented by the fact that the nominated track was played fairly regularly around the time of its release. While several nominations for Danny were totally expected and understood, it is interesting to note that he spent a lot of interview time in the run up to the album release explaining the influence of a number of British musicians and suggesting the Americana links can be sometimes overstated.

While not being quite sure of the qualifying period for the nominations,  including those for the penultimate category International Song of the Year, it has to be noted that 'American Middle Class' by Angaleena Presley was reviewed in 2014, although it may have had renewed UK promotion when she played summer dates over here. 'All These Dreams' by Andrew Combs is a noteworthy addition, but I could probably think of well over fifty preferred songs released. The irony of Andrew Combs is that he has almost been loaned by Americana to mainstream country with his place on the 2016 Country to Country bill at the O2 Arena. Jason Isbell’s '24 Frames' and 'Blackbirds' by Gretchen Peters would easily both feature in my top fifty and maybe with a slight bias to its co-writer Ben Glover, I would give the nod to the latter.

There is plenty of twang on the UK Instrumentalist of the Year shortlist with Joe Bennett, B.J. Cole, Paul Lush and Spencer Cullum Jr all worthy candidates. My vote would be confined to the first three as these have been witnessed at close hand during the year. To narrow it down further, I would have to ultimately limit it to a straight choice between Bennett and Lush on the basis of their core roles in The Dreaming Spires and Danny and the Champions of the World. The ultimate selection would just go to Paul Lush as I especially enjoyed his performance with Simon Stanley Ward at Tingestock.

So to confirm what would have been my personal picks from the nominations presented:

UK Album of the Year – Searching for the Supertruth by The Dreaming Spires
International Album of the Year – Something More than Free by Jason Isbell
UK Artist of the Year – The Dreaming Spires
International Artist of the Year – Gretchen Peters
UK Song of the Year – Clear Water by Danny and the Champions of the World
International Song of the Year – Blackbirds by Gretchen Peters
UK Instrumentalist of the Year – Paul Lush

The actual winners will be announced at the awards evening in February and it will interesting to see what the members overall preference is.

Full List of Nominees

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