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01Songs We Love 2015
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Songs We Love: 2015 Americana Awards Edition

Songs We Love: 2015 Americana Awards Edition

01Songs We Love 2015
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The Americana Music Association Honors and Awards show takes place annually at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Tune into this year's show on Sept. 16, 2015. i

The Americana Music Association Honors and Awards show takes place annually at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Tune into this year's show on Sept. 16, 2015. Erika Goldring/Getty Images for Americana Music hide caption

toggle caption Erika Goldring/Getty Images for Americana Music
The Americana Music Association Honors and Awards show takes place annually at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Tune into this year's show on Sept. 16, 2015.

The Americana Music Association Honors and Awards show takes place annually at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Tune into this year's show on Sept. 16, 2015.

Erika Goldring/Getty Images for Americana Music

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.

Hear The Songs

Doug Seegers.

Doug Seegers. Gregg Roth/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Doug Seegers, 'Angie's Song'

  • from Going Down to the River

Songs of romantic devotion are often addressed to idealized objects of affection, lovers who are made to sound as though they can do absolutely no wrong. It's a revelation to hear Doug Seegers' tender, patient, country-soul pledge of dedication to a woman who's truly down and out. She's deep in the throes of addiction and probably not at a place in her life where she can give much love or loyalty in return. Yet he's showering her in kindness with a reedy, plaintive throb in his voice. The music video adds new dimensions to these images: a pensive Seegers, guitar in hand, pines for and frets over a wan, detached Angie (played by performing storyteller Minton Sparks). He's writing a song he hopes will make her feel she's worth the journey to recovery. It's a powerful story in its own right. Yet it has even greater resonance because of the modest, open way Seegers has incorporated his real-life experiences with addiction and homelessness into the narrative, framing the songs on his moving debut, Going Down To the River. After gigging at hole-in-the-wall clubs in his youth, then toiling as a carpenter for decades, he was discovered a few years ago busking on the street, and it's about time his musical gifts and generous spirit land him in the Emerging Artist of the Year category. —JH

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Song
Going Down to the River
Album
Going Down to the River
Artist
Doug Seegers
Label
Rounder
Released
2014

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Shakey Graves.

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03Dearly Departed
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    Song
    Dearly Departed
    Album
    ...And The War Came
    Artist
    Shakey Graves
    Label
    Dualtone Music
    Released
    2014

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Shakey Graves feat. Esme Patterson, 'Dearly Departed'

  • from ...And The War Came

The knock-down, drag out duet of the year, this stomper from the musical polymath born Alejandro Rose-Garcia acknowledges the weird twist of joy that runs through the catharsis of leaving a relationship. It's a standout track on his uniformly excellent second album, And the War Came, which earned a Best Album nomination; it's nominated for Song of the Year too. (Graves made it a trifecta with an Emerging Artist nod.) Spooky metaphors that would please a 1920s bluesman receive the slap of rock percussion (generated mostly by handclaps and a kick drum), as well as a gospel-style interplay between the two vocalists. The lyrics are vivid and the sentiment desolate: "I'm as lonely as the catacombs," Graves sings, while Patterson's yearning alto twists around his gruff tenor. When their voices unite, it's bliss; but mostly they run into each other in madcap misery, angry yet still somehow in love and all fired up. Patterson, now a solo artist after rising in the Denver band Paper Bird, is a mighty June to Graves's hopped-up Johnny. When the pair square up to each other and shout, "Weeelllll", the song is hotter than a pepper sprout. —AP

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Song
...And The War Came
Album
...And The War Came
Artist
Shakey Graves
Label
Dualtone Music
Released
2014

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Lee Ann Womack.

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05Send It On Down
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    Song
    Send It On Down
    Album
    The Way I'm Livin'
    Artist
    Lee Ann Womack
    Label
    Welk
    Released
    2014

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Lee Ann Womack, 'Send It On Down'

  • from The Way I'm Livin'

Americana loves its songwriters, but Album (The Way I'm Livin') and Artist of the Year nominee Lee Ann Womack has proven that there's also room in the genre for an incomparable song connoisseur and interpreter. Long before she had an inspirational country smash with "I Hope You Dance," she had a thing for acute, singer-songwriter-style emotional insight and mournful, blues-shaded country melodies. "Send It on Down" features both, in spades. Written by Chris Knight, a cult hero of country-folk storytelling, and his longtime collaborator David Leone, it is the plea of a defeated soul who feels shackled to a town, and is haunted by her many disappointments. Womack, a country singer for the ages, gives it a phenomenally empathetic reading. Her supple voice bows and curls beneath the weight of the sentiments, and finds its kindred spirit in the graceful, elongated notes of Paul Franklin's steel guitar solo. By the time it's all over, Womack's done a masterful job of wholly humanizing a woeful character. —JH

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Song
The Way I'm Livin'
Album
The Way I'm Livin'
Artist
Lee Ann Womack
Label
Welk
Released
2014

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Lucinda Williams.

Lucinda Williams. Michael Wilson/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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04East Side Of Town
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    Song
    East Side Of Town
    Album
    Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone
    Artist
    Lucinda Williams
    Label
    Highway 20 Records
    Released
    2014

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Lucinda Williams, 'East Side Of Town'

  • from Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone

A stinging reprimand from the wrong side of the tracks, Williams's monologue—nominated for Song of the Year—stands up to the soulful classics it recalls, like "Poor Side of Town" by Johnny Rivers and "Dark End of the Street" by Dan Penn and Chips Moman. While those songs dwell on sexual intrigue, Williams goes for the subtly political, calling out a privileged power player who'd fit into one of David Simon's inner-city dramas. "There's no empathy in your eyes," Williams snarls at the interloper (a politician? a gentrifying developer?) who covets poor people's real estate but, once there, "can't wait to get the hell out." As the singer spins her tale, it's paralleled by the dialogue between the late Ian McLagan's cajoling keyboard and Stuart Mathis's stinging guitar, a bittersweet sound that perfectly amplifies Williams's illuminating message. —AP

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Song
Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone
Album
Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone
Artist
Lucinda Williams
Label
Highway 20 Records
Released
2014

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Rhiannon Giddens.

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11Angel City
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    Song
    Angel City
    Album
    Tomorrow Is My Turn
    Artist
    Rhiannon Giddens
    Label
    Nonesuch
    Released
    2015

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Rhiannon Giddens, 'Angel City'

  • from Tomorrow Is My Turn

With her debut solo album Tomorrow Is My Turn, Artist of the Year nominee and Carolina Chocolate Drops member Rhiannon Giddens proved herself a brilliant revisionist of the American songbook. It contained only one original composition, the gentle, introspective "Angel City," which, at first, hit with less impact than the classically trained alto's covers of Nina Simone and Odetta landmarks. Yet repeated listens reveal the soft current of the song, which is about not only finding a place your soul can call home, but the peace that comes from deep immersion in a creative project—especially one that connects you with your forebears. Structured around Giddens' measured vocal and a softly rapturous violin line, "Angel City" is the autobiographical coda to a great interpretive work—and an artist's statement that rings true far beyond that frame. "I am closer to free," Giddens sings; it's all any of us can hope for. —AP

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Song
Tomorrow Is My Turn
Album
Tomorrow Is My Turn
Artist
Rhiannon Giddens
Label
Nonesuch
Released
2015

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Jason Isbell.

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01If It Takes a Lifetime
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    Song
    If It Takes a Lifetime
    Album
    Something More Than Free
    Artist
    Jason Isbell
    Label
    Southeastern Records
    Released
    2015

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Jason Isbell, 'If It Takes A Lifetime'

  • from Something More Than Free

The only reason Jason Isbell isn't up for three Americana Awards this time around but just one (Artist of the Year) is that his outstanding new album, Something More Than Free, came out after the nominations had already been announced. Since fans of roots and rock songwriting are invested not only in the music, but in following along with the life events that inform the writing, much has been made of how settled and content Isbell was when he meticulously crafted his latest batch of hefty narratives. "Lifetime," the album opener is definitely one of the more sanguine selections in his catalog, though it's not necessarily inevitable that the listener would locate the singer in this blue-collar protagonist; he's never limited his imagination to straightforward autobiography. A virtuoso lyricist, Isbell details the character's daily drudges and resilience with evocative lines like, "I fight the urge to live inside my telephone." There's a sprightly acoustic guitar figure that's perhaps a distant cousin to Piedmont blues; and Isbell's relaxed vocal phrasing is evidence of subtle rhythmic smarts not nearly as celebrated as his literary chops. It adds up to a real country-rock keeper. —JH

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Song
Something More Than Free
Album
Something More Than Free
Artist
Jason Isbell
Label
Southeastern Records
Released
2015

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