Americana music may be a fringe genre, financially struggling, lacking major media exposure and a complete mystery to most mainstream music consumers, but its awards show was a total celebration of its star power.
Presented at the Ryman Auditorium on Thursday (9/9), the event featured appearances by Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, John Oates, Robert Plant, Rodney Crowell, John Mellencamp, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Wanda Jackson and The Courtyard Hounds Martie Maguire and Emily Robison. And that doesn’t even count the star-studded “house band.”
Musically, we knew we were in for a treat when Sam Bush and Will Kimbrough led the festivities off with “Tumbling Dice,” featuring Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale, Emmy and Patty Griffin in support. Lauderdale has seemingly been institutionalized as the show’s host.
“Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends….on time,” he quipped. This annual gig is, indeed, renowned for punishing rear ends on the unforgiving wooden Ryman pew seats for four hours and more. Lauderdale promised that he would run this year’s event on schedule, and he nearly succeeded.
Rosanne was first up, presenting the Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting to Mellencamp. “Americana is the box they put you in when you take your art too seriously to fit in any other box,” she said. She described the honoree as “a quintessentially American artist” and as “the pride of Indiana.”
“A songwriter tries to write something that can become part of the fabric of the listener,” Mellencamp said. “This award shows that some people are still listening, and I appreciate that very much.” Performing solo with acoustic guitar, he sang “Save Some Time to Dream” from his new Rounder CD No Better Than This. Copies of the CD were handed out to all attendees upon entering.
Darrell Scott and Patty presented the Song of the Year prize to Ryan Bingham. His “The Weary Kind” has already won an Oscar, so he thanked everyone connected with the film Crazy Heart.
“What an amazing awards show,” said new-artist nominee Sarah Jarosz before performing “Song Up in Her Head” with Darrell on the harmony vocal and mandolin.
AMA Executive Director Jed Hilly announced that this is the organization’s 11th annual convention and its 9th annual awards presentation, stating that this is, “the most comprehensive and diverse music event in the city of Nashville.” He also noted that Americana music now has its own Grammy category. Again. (He said the same thing last year.) “Thank you for believing in Americana,” he concluded.
New artist nominee Corb Lund did a nice job on “Devil’s Best Dress” before Lucinda Williams gave the Jack Emerson Lifetime Achievement Award for Executive to Luke Lewis. “Danny Goldberg said I was a hippie disguised as an executive, and I took that as a compliment,” said Luke. He recalled befriending Americana godfather Gram Parsons in boarding school in 1962 and founding Lost Highway Records. Then Lost Highway’s Lucinda previewed her atmospheric ballad “Born to Be Loved” from her upcoming CD.
Bush presented the Lifetime instrumentalist honor to steel guitarist Greg Leisz. “I think the last award I won was when my high school garage band won a Battle of the Bands,” said Greg. “It’s been a long dry spell since then.”
New artist nominees The Carolina Chocolate Drops drew the evening’s first standing ovation for their performance. Spoken-word artist Minton Sparks was also outstanding. Gibson Guitar Foundation exec David Berryman and Mr. Plant presented the Instrumentalist of the Year award to Buddy Miller. Then intense new-artist nominee Joe Pug sang solo.
Emmylou and Rodney presented the Lifetime Achievement Producer award to Brian Ahern. After listing his accomplishments, Brian said, “I developed a motto: If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re working with the wrong people.” Then Em and Rod sang “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” as a salute.
The Avett Brothers and Grace Potter presented the New & Emerging Artist of the Year prize to Hayes Carll. “This is unexpected,” he said. “I remember when I was nominated for New & Emerging Artist five years ago. Thanks for supporting me all these years.”
Bingham sang a haunting, echoey “Hallelujah,” then Mary Gauthier and Oates gave the Avetts the Duo/Group award. “It’s such a pleasure being around a group of folks where it’s all about music and not about egos,” Oates said. Daryl Hall, are you listening?
Ray Wylie Hubbard sang a rumbling, powerful “Drunken Poet’s Dream.” Then Lauderdale “stalled for time” by doing his ditty “That’s Americana.” Rosanne returned to do “Ode to Billie Joe” with hubby accompanist/producer John Leventhal.
To the delight of one and all, Jack White appeared to present the Lifetime Achievement Performer award to Wanda Jackson. He has produced the 72 year-old legend’s upcoming comeback LP The Party Ain’t Over Yet. She got a standing ovation. She noted that she got a 2005 National Endowment for the Arts honor and was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. “This award is the icing on the cake,” she said. Jack, she said, “is pushing me right into the 21st century.” She sang her new Jack-produced single “Shakin’ All Over,” trembling the fringe on her white blouse.
First Amendment Center honcho Ken Paulson told us about the Free Speech award given to Mary Chapin Carpenter last April, then she joined him to give Rosanne the Album of the Year trophy to Rosanne for The List. “Wow,” said a choked-up Rosanne. “This was such an emotional project for me….Most of all, I want to thank my Dad for making this List for an 18 year-old girl who wanted to be a songwriter.”
After the Avetts sang their stately, punchy “I and Love and You,” The Courtyard Hounds (sisters Maguire & Robison) gave Bingham the Artist of the Year honor. “Man! I don’t’ know if I really deserve this,” said Oscar-winner Ryan. “Everyone [else] on the [nominee] list are people I’ve looked up to and admired….I really don’t know what to say except thank you.”
Buddy introduced the house band, which included Don Was, Leisz, Aaron Embry and Bryan Owings before Lauderdale joined them to do “Patchwork River.” That concluded the “official” show. Then Plant and his Band of Joy took the stage to do a “surprise” finale.
More than 2,000 attended, including Tony Brown, Barry Mazor, Tim Fink, Ken Levitan, Jon Freeman, David Macias, Mary Martin, Jerry Salley, Jon Grimson, my convention life-saver Joyce Simmons, Jody Williams, Bill Wence, Tom Roland, Pat Collins, Jim Mallet, AirPlay Direct’s Robert Weingartz, Don Cusic and Tim McFadden.