It is a truism at music awards shows that the performances matter more than the actual awards, and this year’s Americana Music Honors & Awards Celebration presented what were arguably the best group of performances ever gathered for such an affair.
The diversity and quality of sounds was such that even the entertainers, themselves, were wowed. “Let me just take a minute to say, ‘What a night!’” exclaimed Richey Furay.
“I want to say how much I have enjoyed the talent on this stage tonight,” said Rodney Crowell. “Sitting in the audience, the light went on for me: There’s a lot of talent under this tent.”
“I’m thrilled they’ve welcomed me under their tent,” said Duane Eddy. “Throughout my career, I’ve played with the greatest musicians in the world. And I’m going to do that again tonight.”
In addition to the guitar twang of Eddy, Wednesday’s three-hour show at the Ryman (Sept. 18) also featured soul-gospel, country-rock, folk, old-time string-band sounds, New Orleans gumbo, classic country, rockabilly and ‘60s rock.
“Tonight, we’ve heard from a wide variety of music traditions, which is what Americana is all about,” explained show host Jim Lauderdale.
The sonic excellence started before the awards show even began. Nashville’s divine McCrary Sisters serenaded the folks taking their seats with the coolest, most soulful arrangement EVER of Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind.” They were followed by Delbert McClinton doing a straightforward reading of the Hank Williams classic “Hey Good Lookin.’”
Since Williams earned the night’s first award, granddaughter Holly Williams offered an aching, deeply affecting rendition of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
All four Emerging Artist nominees performed, beginning with the thumping, folk-rocking poet John Fullbright doing “Jericho.” JD McPherson led his terrific and tight combo through the rockabilly yelp of “North Side Gal.” Winners Shovels & Rope — Carry Ann Hearst & Michael Trent — captivated with their harmonies and taut guitar-percussion instrumental work. The North Carolina duo also won Song of the Year for “Birmingham.”
But the show stealers of the Emerging Artists were the California old-timey twosome of The Milk Carton Kids, Kenneth Pattengale & Joey Ryan. They were enthralling, heart gripping and mesmerizing with just their brother-duet voices and rippling, vintage acoustic guitars on “Hope of a Lifetime.” “Got milk? Yes we do!” said a delighted Lauderdale after they finished.
Back to those Song nominees. In addition to “Birmingham” and “North Side Gal,” both of the other two contenders were sung. The superb Richard Thompson had rumble and dark twang throughout his dramatic, doomy and groove-drenched performance of “Good Things Happen to Bad People.” Sisters Lennon & Maisy Stella, the “Rayna James” kids on the TV drama Nashville, did their charming version of The Lumineers’ “Ho Hey.” They were introduced by the show’s “Deacon Claybourne” actor/singer Chip Esten.
All of the Group of the Year nominees also sang. All of them were duos, including the previously mentioned Shovels & Rope. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison offered their bopping, earthy, charming “Border Radio.” Buddy Miller & Jim Lauderdale were rollicking and rousing with “The Train That Carried My Gal From Town.” Winners Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell offered the bluesy, country rocking “Chase the Feeling.” Emmy and Rodney also won Album of the Year for their collaboration Old Yellow Moon.
Among the other musical highlights was Performance Lifetime Achievement winner Dr. John (Mac Rebbenack). Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys presented and joined the piano-master Louisiana legend as the latter led us into a deep bayou of soul.
The Trailblazer Award went to Old Crow Medicine Show, who romped through their “Wagon Wheel.” Lifetime Instrumentalist winner Duane Eddy led the house band through his sensational breakthrough hit “Rebel Rouser.”
Spirit of Americana Free Speech Awardee Stephen Stills sang a slightly lugubrious “For What It’s Worth,” highlighted by his still-vibrant guitar work. “That was an out-of-body experience,” commented Rosanne Cash.
Songwriter Lifetime Achievement winner Robert Hunter is a lyricist rather than a singer. But armed with just his acoustic guitar, he essayed “Ripple,” which is among the many Grateful Dead classics he helped create.
Before we wander away from our music emphasis, let me say that the “house band” was breathtaking. As usual led by Buddy Miller, this year’s ensemble included Musician of the Year winner, Woodstock’s Larry Campbell, plus Don Was, John Deaderick, Marco Giovino, Jim Hoke and The McCrary Sisters.
The lone Americana award that isn’t for a music creator is the Jack Emerson Lifetime Achievement Award for Executive. Lauderdale introduced presenter Ry Cooder by saying, “The word great seems inadequate.” I couldn’t agree more. “Along the way, I’ve been the recipient of his knowledge and his ears,” said Cooder of the honoree. “Let’s welcome him.”
Then roots-music icon Chris Strachwitz took the mic. “I just recorded the sounds I love,” said the Arhoolie Records founder who has preserved blues, Cajun, bluegrass, zydeco, klezmer, norteno, sacred steel, honky-tonk, traditional jazz and more. “Check us out – arhoolie.com,” he added with a delightful and shameless plug.
Here are a few of my favorite acceptance speeches. Songwriter Robert Hunter said, “I accept it in the name of those who pursue this vocation for the sake of the song. Imagination should be the center of your life.”
Emmylou Harris said, “Rodney and I feel like we were Americana before it had a name. Now we have a name, and we have an award.” She and Miller and Thompson lost Artist of the Year to Dwight Yoakam, who was not present.
“Get your own style and your own sound, and put your whole being into it,” advised Duane Eddy. “That’s how I made my records.”
“In the 16 years we have been Old Crow Medicine Show, I don’t believe we have blazed any new trails,” said the seven-man group’s spokesman Ketch Secor. “We just uncovered some old ones. But we are here tonight, so we must be doing something right.”
Well, not only that: The group was inducted into the cast of the Grand Ole Opry the previous night. “You all probably know that from 1943 to 1974, the Ryman was the host of the Grand Ole Opry,” said Lauderdale. “Tonight, we’re bringing the Grand Ole Opry back.”
Award presenters included Ken Burns, Jerry Douglas, Billy Bragg, Tift Merritt, Hangover comedy movie star Ed Helms, Sam Bush, Ken Paulson, Joy Williams of The Civil Wars, Alejandro Escovedo, Rosanne Cash, Jed Hiily, Pat Sasone and John Stirratt of Wilco and the BBC’s Bob Harris. This was the 12th annual Americana Music Honors & Awards Celebration and its first sold-out presentation.
Taking it all in were such fabulons as Terry Bulger, Gary Pacsoza, Barry Mazur, Barry Coburn, Brian Mansfield, Bill Wence, Billy Burnette, Billy Block, Jewly Hight, Dub Cornett, Tim Easton, Jody Stevens, John Hampton, Tracy Gershon & Steve Fishell, Geoff Himes, Steve Lowery, Peter Cooper, Holly George-Warren, Dana Strong, Mojo Nixon, Jessie Scott, Bob Santelli, John Swenson, Raeanne Rubenstein and Al Moss.
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