Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell claimed top honors at the 15th annual Americana Music Awards at the Ryman Auditorium on Wednesday night (Sept. 21).
The ceremony marks the official kick-off of the Americana Music Association’s convention and festival, which continues through the rest of this week in Nashville. An estimated 2,000 are registered for “Americanafest.”
At the nearly four-hour ceremony, the much-awarded Stapleton won the Americana Artist of the Year honor. The singer-songwriter has been embraced by both the country and Americana genres.
“I don’t know what to say,” he said bashfully. “I’ve been sitting here, watching my heroes play…and it….means a great deal to me. I’m nervous. There’s so many heroes in the audience.”
Isbell won both the Song and Album of the Year honors. In 2014, he claimed the same two awards, as well as Artist of the Year. He is a “homegrown” Americana favorite, who has blossomed along with the genre.
“This community has given us a place,” he said. “I was not one of the first, second, or even third generation of Americana musicians. We never expected to get out of the bars. This group of people, they helped pull all of us up, together. I feel like I can go any place in the world to make this kind of music, now.”
Isbell’s winning song was “24 Frames,” from his winning Americana album, Something More Than Free.
The Duo/Group of the Year award went to Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, both of whom are prior Lifetime honorees at this convention.
“It’s amazing what Americana has become,” said Harris. “We were kind of ‘field hippies,’ and now we’re ‘Americana.’”
“Hat off and hearts out to the other nominees in this category,” added Crowell. Among those he was saluting were the nominated Milk Carton Kids, who were standout performers on the show.
The Emerging Artist of the Year award was won by Margo Price. She is a Nashville country singer-songwriter who is on Jack White’s rock label Third Man Records.
“I’m very, very thankful to the Americana Music Association for presenting honest music,” she said. “Some of the people who passed on my record might be sitting here tonight. I’d like to thank my husband, Jeremy Ivey, who believed in me and this record enough to sell our car.”
The Instrumentalist of the Year award went to Sara Watkins. The former Nickel Creek fiddler was not present. Brother and fellow Nickel Creek alumnus Sean Watkins accepted on her behalf.
The AMA honors always balance contemporary-artist accolades with salutes to veteran music makers. The latter are annually recognized via Lifetime Achievement presentations.
This year, those were the Lifetime Achievement Performer award to Bob Weir, Lifetime Achievement Songwriter award to William Bell, Trailblazer Award to Shawn Colvin, President’s Award to the late Woody Guthrie, Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award to Billy Bragg and Wagonmaster Award to Jim Lauderdale, who is the show’s longtime host.
All of the honors were punctuated by live performances. Indeed, the show’s music always outshines its actual award presentations.
Before the event even started, the divinely gifted McCrary Sisters favored the crowd with gospel harmonies as a benediction. They then sang backup for the other artists on the bill.
Then came a segment honoring some greats who passed away during the past year. Alison Krauss led an awesome quartet featuring Stuart Duncan, Buddy Miller and Melonie Cannon on “Glory Land” to salute Ralph Stanley.
Joe Henry gave deep, blue-eyed soul to “Freedom for the Stallion” honoring Allen Toussaint. Steve Earle saluted Guy Clark with “Desperados Waiting for a Train” with the house band thundering righteously behind him. Bob Weir’s dusty vocal — backed by the kick-ass, Bakersfield-fired band — offered “Mama Tried” in honor of Merle Haggard.
For the first Lifetime salute, Bonnie Raitt introduced Colvin, who accepted her honor by saying, “This award is proof that if you never give up…and…fight like hell, you can wind up here.” She then delivered a slinky and tough “Diamond in the Rough” with John Leventhal joining the house band on lead guitar. Colvin has a current duo CD with Earle. Presenter Raitt capped this segment with a vampy, bluesy, sensuous “Gypsy in Me.”
Winners Harris & Crowell delivered “Bring it on Home to Memphis” in a rollicking, romping arrangement with a swampy backbeat. Isbell presented his bopping “It Takes a Lifetime” with wife Amanda Shires by his side on fiddle.
Bragg was on stage for his award as well as for the Guthrie honor. He sang a moody and downcast version of Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home.”
“I think this is another example of Nashville’s generosity,” he said of his own award. “I want to pay tribute to the AMA for their inclusiveness about what Americana music is. E Pluribus Unum – America is never greater than when it strives to live up to that.”
Of the Guthrie salute, Bragg added, “All of us stand on the shoulders of a great American songwriter and activist. He wrote the truth.”
Emerging Artist winner Price sang her country stomper “Tennessee Song.” Performer winner Weir, best known for his work in The Grateful Dead, read a prepared speech.
“How could a guy be more truly blessed?” he asked. “I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to think. I have dedicated my life to performing and honoring this art form.” His Dead songs have included “Sugar Magnolia,” “Truckin,’” and “Jack Straw.”
Lifetime Songwriter winner Bell is responsible for “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” “Born Under a Bad Sign,” “I Forgot to Be Your Lover” and more. He brought out Raitt to sing with him on his “The Three of Us,” which is on his new Stax Records CD.
“William is the foundation – He was there when soul music started,” said presenter Leventhal. “He has written standards. He is a soul poet.”
Lauderdale’s award was presented by superstar George Strait, who has recorded many of the songwriter’s works. Strait also punctuated the honor with a profoundly country performance of Lauderdale’s “The King of Broken Hearts.”
“This means so much to me,” said Lauderdale. He listed such influences as Ralph Stanley, Marty Stuart, Roland White and Dwight Yoakam, as well as Strait. “They gave me something to aspire to. I’m trying to catch up with those guys.” He has a new CD, too.
Other standout performances came from 2016 AMA nominees. The Milk Carton Kids cast a spell with interwoven guitars and innocence-lost vocals on the dreamy “Memphis.” John Moreland’s “American Flags in Black and White” was rolling folk-rock. Miller and Earle did a rocked-up version of The Delmore Brothers chestnut “I Let the Freight Train Carry Me On.”
The Lumineers were stirring and anthemic on the enthralling “Angel.” Parker Millsap presented his tempo-shifting lament with the topical lyric of brotherhood, “Heaven Sent.” Lucinda Williams was chiming and echo-y and Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats were rousing and rootsy.
Dwight Yoakam wasn’t nominated, but was a sensation with his new funky-bluegrass sound on “What I Don’t Know.” It’s on his new CD, Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars.
Presenters included John Prine, Wynonna, Larry Campbell, The Indigo Girls, Ken Paulson, Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes, Jed Hilly, Timothy B. Schmit, Jack Ingram, Sam Palladio and Bruce Hornsby. Miller’s All-Star Band this year included Duncan, the McCrarys, Steve Fishell, Matt Rollings, Dave Cobb, Fred Eltringham and Chris Wood.
“If you’re looking for The Rosetta Stone of Americana Music, you can point to this album,” said Hilly referring to 1971’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The show finale was that album’s title tune, an all-star “group sing” saluting the 50th anniversary of its creators, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
The Americana Music Honors & Awards show was carried live on Nashville’s WSM, WRLT and WMOT, and also on Sirius/XM’s Outlaw Channel. It was taped for a later telecast as an Austin City Limits episode on PBS.