Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. Their latest album is The Nashville Sound. (Danny Clinch)

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. Their latest album is The Nashville Sound. (Danny Clinch)


Lindale native Miranda Lambert has scored more Country Music Association Award nods than anyone with five nominations, including one for Album of the Year. Arlington native Maren Morris added to her already impressive total of award nominations with three, including one for Female Vocalist of the Year.

But you have to hand it to Jason Isbell. The independent Alabama-born singer has long shown a knack for rattling the cages of the mainstream by simply doing what he wants, when he wants. And as evidenced by yesterday's CMA nominations, the key-holders of those pop-country cages are loosening their grips. Shocking pretty much everyone, Isbell earned one CMA nomination, in the Album of the Year category, for his stellar The Nashville Sound LP.

Up until a couple of years ago, the annual announcement of the nominations for CMA awards was a rather anticlimactic affair. The new millennium had seen only the best-selling, most-radio-friendly artists gathering truckloads of noms while so-called critical favorites and popular independent artists were more or less shut out in an all-too-expected fashion.

But that began to change in 2015 with Chris Stapleton not only receiving several nominations for his Traveler album, but then winning three of that year's biggest awards, including Album of the Year. That was notable for a number of reasons, but the fact that the record, also produced by Dave Cobb, had yet to yield any significant radio hits or rack up the millions in sales made the victory a modern trailblazing moment.

But in some key ways, the Isbell nomination is more noteworthy than even Stapleton's big night two years ago. Traveler was a major-label album, released by Mercury Nashville, and Stapleton had long been a trusted Music City insider, writing hit songs for plenty of mainstream stars including Luke Bryan. 

Meanwhile, though he has lived in Nashville for years, Isbell owns his own record label and has retained his outsider status through releasing killer albums featuring the kind of literate, insightful storytelling that pop-country execs and fans typically veer from.

In June, Isbell released The Nashville Sound, immediately drawing unanimous rave reviews and selling more copies than any of his other records had done in their first weeks. Similar to his 2015 album Something More Than Free, the new record topped the Billboard Country Albums sales chart. 

All this is to say nothing of how Isbell is as much of a rock artist as he is a country one. His albums have landed on rock, Americana and country charts in the past. Though this record is a bit less traditionally country than his past couple of albums, if there's one thing Nashville suits like, it's big sales and bigger headlines.

You would have to go back a ways to find a more credible group of Album of the Year nominees than this one. Other than the minivan-approved Lady Antebellum, it's easy to view the nominations for Little Big Town, Lambert and yes, Stapleton, as encouraging signs for those of us who cry involuntary tears anytime we hear Sam Hunt's "Body Like a Backroad" playing anywhere within earshot. Of course, Hunt's abomination of a song was nominated many times, just to keep us from getting too hopeful for a cheese-free future.

With only the single nomination, it's unlikely Isbell will win the award, but this is one of those rare cases where Isbell can offer the cliché that "simply being nominated is victory enough," and have it be resoundingly true.

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