BOBBY KARL WORKS THE ROOM
At the Americana Awards, it’s not about who wins; it’s about great music performances.
This year’s event, staged at the Ryman on Thursday night (Sept. 13), was characterized by one standing ovation after another. In fact, if you didn’t earn an S.O., you were practically a failure.
For me, the musical highlights included The Drive-By Truckers incendiary, snap-crackle-rock delivery of “What It Means;” the crystalline, trio-harmony rendition of The Everly Brothers’ “So Sad” by Graham Nash with The Milk Carton Kids; the kick-ass, country-rocking “Time Don’t Wait” by Marty Stuart & The Fabulous Superlatives; the ethereal meditation on mortality by Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires on “If We Were Vampires” and the folk-rock gem “Cleopatra” by The Lumineers.
In between, they handed out the 2017 Americana Music Honors & Awards to both newcomers and legends.
Host Jim Lauderdale kicked things off with the honky-tonker “Sweet Time.” Next up was Emerging Artist nominee Brent Cobb with the rousing, outlaw-style “Ain’t a Road Too Long.”
Allison Moorer and sister Shelby Lynne presented the Instrumentalist of the Year award to Charlie Sexton. “I’m still in shock to be here,” he said.
Lori McKenna offered her stately, somber, downbeat ballad “Wreck You.” It was a nominee for Song of the Year, and she was a nominee for Artist of the Year.
You could argue that the night belonged to John Prine. He drew a standing ovation the moment he walked on stage. In presenting the Trailblazer Award to Iris DeMent, he said, “To me, her voice was right out of Heaven, so original, yet at the same time, it sounded like an old friend.”
She wept as she accepted the honor from her pal and sometime duet partner. “It’s been a pretty good life,” she stated, before sitting at the piano to perform the sweet, pastoral waltz “Morning Glory.”
Then DeMent and Prine sang their 1999 duet “In Spite of Ourselves.” It drew another standing ovation, and Prine earned yet another when he sang “Lake Marie” with his band. There was another s.o. in store when he was later named Artist of the Year.
“I’d like to thank the little record company that could [his own] Oh Boy Records,” Prine said on that occasion. “And I want to thank the people who come to see us every weekend, ‘cause that’s the beautiful part.”
The Jack Emerson Lifetime Achievement Award for Executive went to Bruce Bromberg and Larry Sloven, the co-founders of Hightone Records. “We deeply thank all of the Hightone artists for allowing us to participate in their careers,” said Sloven. Among Hightone’s illustrious alumni are Joe Ely, Rosie Flores, Tom Russell, Dale Watson, Robert Cray, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Buddy Miller and Dave Alvin.
Following the Fabulous Superlatives fabulous performance, Lee Ann Womack and John Oates presented the Song of the Year trophy. It went to “It Ain’t Over Yet” by Rodney Crowell. He was sidelined by illness and wasn’t present to accept.
Emerging Artist nominee Sam Outlaw did his wailing, earthy “Diamond Ring.” Then the droll Milk Carton Kids introduced Rhiannon Giddens singing her stark, minor-key “Julie.” This striking song is an imagined dialogue between a slave and her mistress during the Civil War.
Emerging Artist nominee Amanda Shires offered her languid ballad “Harmless.” Joe Henry and Billy Bragg dedicated their acoustic version of “Gentle on My Mind” to the late Glen Campbell and John Hartford.
Ken Paulson presented the Spirit of Americana Free Speech in Music Award to Graham Nash. Then came that magical “So Sad” trio moment. Nash still sings sublimely.
John Paul White introduced that relentless Drive-By Truckers performance. Emerging Artist nominee Aaron Lee Tasjan did a swampy, dark number called “Ready to Die.”
Brandy Clark and Valerie June announced that Shires was the Emerging Artist winner. “Thank you, Americana fans, because there would be no other place for me,” said Shires, who also thanked her husband, “Mr. Shires” (a.k.a. Jason Isbell).
Following The Lumineers performance, Boo Mitchell and Steve Jordan presented the Lifetime Instrumentalist award to The Hi Rhythm Section of Memphis. “We recorded something like 26 Gold and Platinum records, one behind the other,” recalled Rev. Charles Hodges in accepting for the group. “It is an honor to be receiving this. We thank you. We love you.”
“One of the great virtues of this tent called Americana is that it honors music without borders,” said Vince Gill in presenting the Lifetime Performance award to Robert Cray. Then Cray teamed up with the Hi Records gang to perform a horn-punctuated, blues blaster called “You Must Believe in Yourself.”
The Mavericks presented the Duo/Group award to Stuart and his band. “I want to say that I am so proud to be going up and down the road with these three guys,” said Fabulous Superlative Harry Stinson. “I’d like to thank my family – my mother, Gail Davies, who I inherited this [love of music] from,” added Chris Scruggs. “Every single show is always fun,” said Kenny Vaughan.
“Forty-five years ago on Labor Day weekend, I got off a Greyhound Bus,” recalled Stuart. “I went around the corner and saw this building. I wanted to be in this place.”
Album of the Year nominees Hurray for the Riff Raff performed the politically charged, third-world rocker “Pa’lante.” It had challenging shifting time signatures more suited to fist pumping than dancing.
But the Album award was presented by Elizabeth Cook and Lukas Nelson to Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. He was touring in Europe and not present. Cook then brought out Margo Price to sing “Do Right By Me.” It was frisky and countrified and boosted by stellar backup vocals by The McCrary Sisters.
Jed Hilly introduced Isbell and Shires. Mike Judge announced Prine’s big win. Then Emmylou Harris presented the Lifetime Songwriter award to Van Morrison. “It’s good to be part of this gathering,” Van said tersely before launching into “Down in Your Soul.” His performance was soaked in r&b with his distinctive jazz phrasing. Following it, he walked off briskly.
The finale was dedicated to the late Don Williams as Larry Campbell and Danny Flowers led the assembled artists in singing Danny’s iconic song “Tulsa Time.”
Cheering and schmoozing were David Macias, David Ewing, Patrick Clifford, Pat Embry, John Beiter, John Milward, Jim Rooney, Jason Moon Wilkins, Martha Moore, Mojo Nixon, Mark Brown, Tom Roland, Terry Bulger, Beth Laird, Byron & Aleta Trauger, Barry Mazur, Bullethead, Kacey Chambers, Connie Smith, Gary Paczosa, Geoff Himes, Holly George-Warren, Tony Brown, Web Wilder, Shannon McCombs, Erika Wollam-Nichols and Sherod Robertson.