It is often said that people don’t remember who won or lost at awards shows, that only the great performances linger.
For me, that is abundantly true at the annual Americana Music Awards. The honors seem beside the point when the music being made in between them is so fantastic.
At the top of the list of great performances on Wednesday (9/12) at the Ryman Auditorium was Richard Thompson, who offered a master seminar in songwriting, singing and guitar playing during a solo outing of “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” that dwarfed all others that night. Another of the most compelling performances of the show was the jangling, country rocker by Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit. Isbell is a new Nashvillian, by the way.
Legendary Bonnie Raitt was there to smolder on the magical acoustic ballad “Not Cause I Wanted To” with sideman/songwriter Al Anderson. She brought out John Hiatt and her electric guitar for his “Thing Called Love.” Booker T. Jones sat in with Buddy Miller’s house band for a cookin’ rendition of his classic “Green Onions.”
Lee Ann Womack offered “I Love” backed by Peter Cooper and featuring a walk-on by its Hall of Fame composer, Tom T. Hall. Guy Clark, backed by Shawn Camp and Verlon Thompson, sang a poignant “My Favorite Picture of You,” which he wrote for his late wife Susanna. Aussies Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson were haunting and so cool on their mournful wail, “Rattlin’ Bones.”
Hayes Carll & Cary Ann Hearst were very sassy, witty and cute on “Another Like You,” which Carll called, “a song about the growing political divide in America, physical attraction and alcohol.” Show host Jim Lauderdale gave a preview of his upcoming duets album with Buddy Miller, the sublimely country “I Lost the Job of Loving You.”
Of the newcomers, I was particularly taken with Houston’s Robert Ellis. His “Westbound Train” began in folk territory but soon kicked up some country-rock dust. The Deep Dark Woods, hailing from Saskatoon, Alberta, were echoey and atmospheric on their folk-pop gem “The Place I Left Behind.”
Okay, okay, who DID win? The show began with the aforementioned “Green Onions,” after which Patterson Hood of The Drive-By Truckers presented Booker T. Jones with the Lifetime Achievement Instrumentalist award. Hood is the son of legendary Muscle Shoals session musician David Hood, and he’s also worked in the studio with Jones. He recalled Jones’s Memphis playing on hits by Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Carla Thomas and Booker T. & The MGs.
“’Green Onions’ sounds as vital today as when it was released 50 years ago this week,” said Patterson, adding that Jones is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has won four Grammys.
“I’m honored to be here tonight and in such great company,” said Jones. “It’s the music of our people, the roots music.”
Sam Bush and Amy Helm (of Olabelle, and the daughter of the late Levon Helm) presented Instrumentalist of the Year to an absent Dave Rawlings. Rawlings and Gillian Welch are in L.A. taking care of a family situation. Paul Kennerley accepted.
Rodney Crowell and Brandi Carlile presented Album of the Year to producers Tamara Saviano and Shawn Camp for the creation of This One’s for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark. “It takes a village,” said Saviano, noting that there are 33 artists on the collection. “All of this happened because of our brilliant friend, Guy Clark.”
“We’re often asked to define Americana,” commented host Lauderdale. “We often say, ‘It’s the Good Stuff.’” Following The Punch Brothers instrumental performance of “Flippin,’” he added, “I’m flippin’ over all the great music tonight.”
Raitt presented the Lifetime Achievement Songwriters Award to Thompson, noting that Elvis Costello, Nanci Griffith, Johnny Cash, Delbert McClinton, Jo-El Sonnier and Alison Krauss have all recorded his tunes. “He’s simply magnificent, and he’s my good friend,” she concluded.
“And me, a foreigner,” quipped the British Thompson. “I know we’ve had our differences, a little falling out in 1776. But musically, we’ve always been very close. I’m deeply honored.” Dave Berryman of Gibson Guitars presented him with an SJ-200.
Performances by The Alabama Shakes and Sarah Jarosz led us to the Song of the Year presentation by Joy Williams & John Paul White (The Civil Wars). The winner was “Alabama Pines” by Jason Isbell. “I want to thank the terrible hotels of northern Florida for inspiring me to write the song,” quoth Jason.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops did “Country Girl,” followed by Carll & Hearst. Hiatt presented the Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance to Raitt. “As much joy as there is in playing the blues, it is also sometimes a hard road,” he noted.
“Who cares what kind of music it is?” said Raitt. “It needs to be celebrated. This is my first time here. It means the world to me. It’s an exciting time to be alive. I‘m the daughter of a performer who went until he was 87 years old and made every night an opening night….And I’m going to be out there until I drop, hopefully many, many years from now.”
Justin Townes Earle performed. Then Sara Watkins and Jakob Dylan (of The Wallflowers) presented the New Emerging Artist trophy to The Alabama Shakes. Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis presented Artist of the Year to Gillian Welch with Kennerley again accepting on the absent star’s behalf. Jody Stephens and Mike Mills presented the Group/Duo award to The Civil Wars. “To be here and to accept this award in the Mother Church is such an honor,” said the duo’s Joy Williams.
Alison Moorer presented the Lifetime Achievement Executive award to a surprised Dennis Lord. He was the founding president of the Americana Music Association. “Without him, we wouldn’t be here,” she said.
“I have to accept this on behalf of all of us who started this,” said SESAC executive Lord. “We did it because of the Movement.”
Many of the artists were wearing yellow ribbons. Raul Malo of The Mavericks explained that this was in honor of AMA publicist Jayne Rogovin, who died of breast cancer earlier this year. “She was a fighter, a lover of music and an advocate,” said Malo. “Jayne, tonight we celebrate you.” The group turned in one of its typically incendiary performances.
AMA executive director Jed Hilly noted that this 11th annual Americana show was airing live on AXS TV and pointed out that the convention was due to the work of the organization’s volunteers.
Following Raitt’s outstanding performances, the finale was an all-star salute to the late Levon Helm. Let me add at this point that just about everyone on stage received a standing ovation from the enthralled, sold-out Ryman crowd.
I remember that the first time I went to the Americana awards, I wore a suit. This was a fashion faux pas. This is strictly a blue jean crowd, with enough facial hair to fill a convention of anthropology professors. Scruffy they may be, but you won’t find a more enthusiastic audience than this Americana bunch.
The attendees were mainly fans, but I did spot a few Music Row fabulons schmoozing in their midst. Working the room were Katie Gillon, Dan Hays, Denise Stiff, Kay West, Mary Martin, Joanne Gardner, Sally Williams, Tracy Gershon, Dave Paulson, Geoff Himes, Ken Levitan, Holly George Warren, Steve Lowry, Bobby Cudd, Marion Kraft, Greg Brown, Chuck Mead, Darrell Scott and Doug Howard.
The AMA convention continues, at various venues, through Sunday.