Jason Isbell, Gillian Welch Lead Americana Music Awards Nominations

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Jason Isbell

The noms announcement included a mini-concert featuring Lucinda Williams, Shelby Lynne, Buddy Miller and Robert Ellis. Steve Earle also is a multiple nominee.

“Thank you all for coming out so early,” singer-host Jim Lauderdale told the assembled media assembled at the Grammy Museum’s theater Thursday morning. The occasion: an announcement of the nominees for the 2012 Americana Music Awards – and an all-star mini-concert. “I’ll tell you what,” Lauderdale said, standing beside an only slightly bedraggled-looking Lucinda Williams and Shelby Lynne. “This is way past our bedtime!”

In recent years the Grammy Awards have announced their nominations in conjunction with a live concert special, and the idea has trickled down to lesser-heralded awards shows, too. The AMAs’ version of an “announcement concert” took place in a far smaller venue (the museum, instead of the neighboring Club Nokia), with a more intimately scaled broadcast (on the web, instead of CBS), at a different time of day (11 a.m. instead of primetime) and with a hundred-times better lineup (Buddy Miller instead of The Black Eyed Peas).

The AMAs are even more about the live performances and even less about the actual nominees and winners than the Grammys -- if that’s possible. With so few categories, and with only four nominees in each category, there’s a random quality to the AMA nods that tends to favor niche-ier performers in a genre that’s already pretty niche. Williams and Lynne, the two biggest names performing Thursday, weren’t put up for any nominations. The Civil Wars, arguably the biggest thing happening in Americana music right now, only got one nomination, for best duo or group.

So who’s the “front runner” in this nonpopularity contest? How about Jason Isbell, Americana superstar? The former member of Drive-By Truckers -- which the duo/group of the year AMA in 2006 with Isbell aboard -- is up for four awards, along with his sidemen, the 400 Unit: artist of the year, album of the year (Here We Rest), song (“Alabama Pines”) and best duo or group. Gillian Welch got three nominations, and Steve Earle trailed with two.

“I'm honored to be in such great company and surprised that so many folks appreciated our work this past year,” Isbell said Thursday. “Looking forward to seeing some of my traveling friends at the show.”

No sweeps in store here – which, you get the feeling, is just the way the determinedly modest AMAs like it. One of the artist of the year nominees, Justin Townes Earle, didn’t get put up in any other category. Among the buzziest of the other nominees is the Alabama Shakes -- but they’re only up for emerging artist of the year.

John C. Reilly (“Now there’s an Americana actor, right there!” exclaimed Lauderdale) read the list of nominees, despite describing himself as “very, very sick” and “vertical for the first time in 24 hours.” The famous bluegrass fan and Dewey Cox impersonator said he expected to be part of the bigger proceedings in September, which drew a big whoop from Jed Hilly, executive director of the AmericanaMusic Association, who was in the audience. Rather than the Americana Awards, Reilly said, “We should just say the All-the-Good-Bands-That-Are-Out-There Awards, in my opinion.”

But the main reason to tune in to the 11th annual AMAs when they’re broadcast Sept. 12 from Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium will be for the always unassailable show, which traditionally features the revered Miller as band leader.

But that kudocast will have a hard time beating the miniaturized version offered Thursday in L.A., also with Miller leading the band. Don Was, Don Heffington and Greg Leisz offered instrumental support behind a quick revolving door of Americana luminaries. Williams sang two of her more recent numbers, “Blessed” and “You Are Loved,” while Lynne did one from her (shockingly shut-out) album Revelation Road. Miller and Lauderdale also took a lead vocal each, as did Robert Ellis, who soon was revealed as a nominee for emerging artist. At the hour’s end, most of the musical cast reassembled for “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” in honor of the recent passings of Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Donald “Duck” Dunn and Levon Helm.

A year ago, there was a similar announcements concert at the Gibson Showroom in New York City -- and the band leader on that occasion was Helm, making what would be one of his final appearances.

Hilly said he was happy to have the Americana Music Association establish a beachhead in L.A., whose roots community sometimes has to fight for notoriety alongside Nashville’s and Austin’s “I love this Grammy room,” Hilly said afterward. “If they’ll have me, I’ll come back. My job is to bring Americana to the greater community.”

He added: “Every step is a step, and I think the Americana community is really growing. Americana is part of the mainstream, for lack of a better phrase. You see it with Mumford and Sons and The Civil Wars.”

Mumford and Sons was another act that picked up zero nominations, though, in an example of the awards’ contrarian nature. Hilly doesn’t make any apologies for spotlighting lesser-known acts, though. Just as The Civil Wars went on to considerable notoriety after performing at last year’s nominations webcast, “I’m hoping Robert Ellis has the same fortune this year.”

Perhaps the oddest nomination -- in a good way -- was the one belonging to Tom T. Hall for writing song of the year nominee “I Love,” thanks to a version recorded by Patty Griffin on a tribute album. “After what, 39 years?” said the tribute album’s producer, Peter Cooper, who was on hand at the occasion, referring to Hall’s original country-smash version. Cooper said he expected the country legend to show up for the awards and noted that Hall was in the studio when Griffin recorded her remake “with a tear in his eye.”

Bonnie Raitt had been previously announced as a winner of the lifetime achievement for performance, so she’ll presumably play a big part in September at the Ryman, and Hilly said there were two other lifetime honorees yet to be announced whose presence will also shape the show in a big way.

Here is the full list of nominees:

Album of the Year


Here We Rest, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit


I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive, Steve Earle


The Harrow & The Harvest, Gillian Welch


This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark, Various Artists

Artist of the Year


Gillian Welch


Hayes Carll


Jason Isbell


Justin Townes Earle

Emerging Artist of the Year


Alabama Shakes


Dawes


Deep Dark Woods


Robert Ellis

Song of the Year


“Alabama Pines,” written by Jason Isbell and performed by Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit


“Come Around,” written and performed by Sarah Jarosz


“I Love,” written by Tom T. Hall and performed by Patty Griffin


“Waiting on the Sky to Fall,” written and performed by Steve Earle

Instrumentalist of the Year


Buddy Miller


Chris Thile


Darrell Scott


Dave Rawlings

Duo/Group of the Year


Carolina Chocolate Drops


The Civil Wars


Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings


Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit


Punch Brothers


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