(Straight From Nashville is a weekly column written by CMT.com managing editor Calvin Gilbert.)
Sturgill Simpson was the big winner when the Nashville Scene’s 15th annual Country Music Critics Poll was released Thursday (Jan. 22), and God bless the weekly newspaper for giving music critics a voice.
The Kentucky-born Simpson was named best male vocalist and best songwriter of the year, and his Metamodern Sounds in Country Music was chosen album of the year.
On the more mainstream side, Miranda Lambert was selected artist of the year and best female vocalist, and her Platinum project placed second in the album of the year category. Others landing in top spots included Eric Church (live act), Little Big Town (duos and groups category) and Angaleena Presley (new act). Maddie & Tae, who trailed Presley and Sam Hunt as the best new act, claimed the single of year for “Girl in a Country Song.”
The Scene’s poll was once again spearheaded by veteran music journalist Geoffrey Himes and reflects the opinions of contributors to newspapers, magazines and websites from throughout the nation. Himes seems extremely thorough and tenacious in reflecting the widest cross section possible in inviting writers and critics to participate each year.
At this point, I consider myself more of a writer or reporter rather than a critic. Having written concert and album reviews for daily newspapers in the past, however, I can vouch for the fact that being a music critic can be a thankless job. Complaints and hate mail from fans is part of the job description.
And in Nashville, those complaints can come from the artists themselves. I recall a story about a reporter from a local newspaper writing an unflattering concert review and later receiving a funeral wreath at his office from the performer. Years later, I asked the singer-songwriter if the story was true, and he explained he had now been sober for many years. But he said, “Yeah, I probably did it. It sounds like something I would have done back then.”
However, any of us who ever gravitated toward a so-called career involving music was probably something of an oddball to begin with or, at the very least, totally obsessive about music.
By the very nature of that obsession, music journalists are opinionated and can get into long-winded discussions about artists and topics so obscure or arcane, it would drive an average person crazy. But the good ones have a keen knowledge about music history, so they can usually back up their premise with solid evidence — even if you don’t agree with them.
Music critics are often accused of not liking anything that’s popular while praising those who will probably never be embraced by mainstream America. That’s not the case with the Scene’s poll when it comes to the Top 10 country albums of the year — a collection of mainstream country and Americana.
Here’s the list:
1. Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Sturgill Simpson
2. Platinum, Miranda Lambert
3. The Way I’m Livin’, Lee Ann Womack
4. The River and the Thread, Rosanne Cash
5. American Middle Class, Angaleena Presley
6. The Outsiders, Eric Church
7. Riser, Dierks Bentley
8. Pain Killer, Little Big Town
9. Remedy, Old Crow Medicine Show
10. Tarpaper Sky, Rodney Crowell
While the sales totals were not included in the Scene’s editorial coverage, I still thought it was interesting to look at the numbers to contrast critical acclaim versus commercial appeal.
Only Lambert and Church have sold more than 500,000 copies of their album. Bentley and Little Big Town have each sold more than 100,000 copies. Simpson, Cash and Old Crow Medicine Show have broken the 50,000 level, but the remainder have sold less than 50,000 copies.
Some of my favorite albums ever have gone multiplatinum and others have sold a few thousand copies, at best. As always, the bottom line is that the best albums are always the ones you choose yourself to listen to over and over.