Americana Gala Honors Tried And True

Pictured (L-R): Brandi Carlile, Irma Thomas, Courtney Marie Andrews, Tanya Blount and Michael Trotter, Jr. of The War and Treaty, Ann McCrary of The McCrary Sisters. (Photo credit: Getty Images for the Americana Music Association)

The 2018 Americana Music Honors & Awards celebration at the Ryman Auditorium on Wednesday night (Sept. 12) honored the genre’s established favorites while giving special recognition to legendary music figures.

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit took home the Duo/Group honors and the Album of the Year prize for its collection The Nashville Sound. Isbell’s “If We Were Vampires” was named Song of the Year. He previously won the Americana Album award in 2014 and 2016. His songs earned additional top honors from the organization in 2012, 2014 and 2016.

John Prine repeated as Artist of the Year, an award he also claimed at the last Americana ceremony.

“I believe I got this last year – it’s Groundhog Day,” Prine quipped. “Every year, it gets better and better. I’d like to thank the whole Nashville music community for all the support over the years.”

Prine won yet another Artist of the Year accolade in 2005, and he was given an Americana Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting in 2003.

Molly Tuttle won Guitarist of the Year at the 2017 IBMA Awards for bluegrass music. Last night, the Americana Music Association (AMA) echoed that by giving her its Instrumentalist of the Year honor.

Singer-songwriter Tyler Childers was named the AMA’s Emerging Artist of the Year.

“Best I can tell, you left the back door open and now there is a stark, raving ‘hill-jack’ in your living room,” said the hard-core country stylist. “I’m an Appalachian artist, and I play country music,” he added, defiantly.

All of the winners performed outstanding music. They were matched by the veterans who garnered Lifetime Achievement honors – Buddy Guy, Irma Thomas, k.d. lang and Rosanne Cash. In the Industry/Executive category, Cris Williamson and Judy Dlugacz were saluted for their Olivia Records label.

The three-hour-plus ceremony was marked by standing ovations for performances in a variety of styles.

Fantastic Negrito, Nathaniel Rateliff and Lukas Nelson kicked off the show with a torrid performance of “Fortunate Son,” in honor of the 50th anniversary of Creedence Clearwater Revival.

During their opening monologue, show hosts The Milk Carton Kids delivered a funny, wry tune called “What Even Is Americana,” which poked good-natured fun at Isbell’s awards dominance. The Kids – Kenny Pattengale and Joey Ryan – were dryly humorous throughout the ceremony, somewhat in the manner of The Smothers Brothers of the ‘60s. They were also adept ad libbers.

John Hiatt introduced his daughter, Emerging Artist nominee Lilly Hiatt, who delivered the frothing rocker “Trinity Lane.” Jerry Douglas presented the Instrumentalist honor to Tuttle.

Mary Gauthier and Beth Nielsen Chapman harmonized on the topical “The War After the War,” which they co-wrote with military spouses. It is from Gauthier’s nominated CD Rifles & Rosary Beads. Its songs are all co-written with military personnel.

Emerging nominee Anderson East was soulful on “King for a Day.” Texas songwriting royal Robert Earl Keen is another Americana towering wordsmith. His “Feelin’ Good Again” was lilting and sweet. Emerging nominee Courtney Marie Andrews lifted the roof with her plaintive, gospel-styled wail of “May Your Kindness Remain.”

MTSU’s Ken Paulson introduced Don Was, who presented Rosanne Cash with the Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award. Her acceptance drew cheers and repeated standing ovations.

Cash’s remarks made three main points. First, “We are the premier service industry for the heart and soul. Music creates community. Look at us here.” Second, “Women are not small, inferior versions of men. We deserve respect. We deserve equal representation in government and equal pay.” Third, “Children are more important than the right to own a personal arsenal of military-style weapons. The killing of children in schools should not be collateral damage for the Second Amendment.

“Today is the 15th anniversary of the day my dad left this planet. He left it a better place than he found it. And that’s what we all hope for.

“This award will give me the courage to speak up more. I didn’t give up my First Amendment rights when I picked up my guitar. I learned that from the first person to get this award [Johnny Cash, 17 years ago].”

The capper was her delivery of a new, riveting, heartfelt ballad, “Everyone But Me.”

Anti-establishment country parodist Wheeler Walker Jr. introduced Emerging nominee Tyler Childers. Tyler transfixed the crowd sitting alone on stage and delivering a searing “Nose on the Grindstone.”

Artist, Song and Album nominee Margo Price offered the country rocker “A Little Pain.” Her fellow Artist, Song and Album contender Brandi Carlile blasted out her survival power ballad “The Joke.”

The War & Treaty presented the AMA Lifetime Achievement Performance award to Irma Thomas, “The Soul Queen of New Orleans.”

“I’m never at a loss for words, but tonight I have to think before I speak,” said Thomas. “I feel very honored, because I’m among country stars, and I’m an r&b singer. I’m going to sing a song that I’ve really learned to appreciate, because Time has really been on my side.”

But her performance of “Time Is On My Side,” was sabotaged by a complete sound-system failure. “Bring her back!” screamed the crowd. So she was given a do-over.

Elizabeth Cook and Tyler Mahan Coe presented Isbell with his Song honor. “This is an exciting thing for me,” said the winner. “Everybody in this category had beautiful stories to tell and beautiful songs.”

Duo/Group nominees Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats ripped the Ryman to shreds with their “Hey Mama.” This was easily the best performance by any of the nominees in their category.

AMA executive director Jed Hilly appeared to cite his genre’s growth. When he took his post 12 years ago, there were 800 AMA members, and there are now 3,000. This year’s convention has attendees from 49 states and 14 countries. More than 250 artists are showcasing. The awards show has added CMT, which will air it on Nov. 18, in addition to its usual PBS home (airing in February).

Duo/Group nominees Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real were an audio revelation on “Forget About Georgia,” giving the tune a faintly Latin tinge, crisply forceful tenor vocals and tasteful electric-guitar filigrees.

Their fellow nominees I’m With Her embellished “Overland” with flawless trio harmonies.

“Women making music changed my life,” said NPR’s Ann Powers. “Their music spoke different truths.” Thus began her presentation of the Jack Emerson Lifetime Achievement for Executive to the Olivia Records founders. This was the first 100% female-run record label and also the first to embrace LGBTQ people.

“We helped change the way women were seen in the music industry,” observed Dlugacz. “This is the first time we’ve been acknowledged,” added Williamson. “An honor like this makes me feel like I made a difference in the world.”

Big winner Isbell offered a swirling, lush “White Man’s World.” The Lone Bellow said of Prine, “No one has been a bigger influence on us….He’s responsible for this community. He still leads this community.” Proving their point, Prine brought his laconic drawl to “Come on Home” with wistful, acoustic accompaniment.

Nicki Bluhm and Candi Staton teamed up to present the Album of the Year award. “It’s such an amazing opportunity to work with this family,” said producer Dave Cobb of The 400 Unit. “And it’s an honor to be part of this music community, the best community in the world.” Added Isbell, “I’m very grateful for this, and I believe in all of the work that all of us are doing together.”

Keb Mo presented the Lifetime Achievement Instrumentalist award to Buddy Guy. “Better late than never, especially if you’re a blues player,” said the honoree. “They quit playing the blues because the lyrics came too close to what you thought. But after hip-hop came out, I can say what I want. Don’t be the best in town, be the best around. Thank-you very much.”

Guy then plugged in and showed ‘em how it’s done with “Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues.” Like many of the others who performed, he was rewarded with a standing ovation.

After Alejandro Escovedo and Fantastic Negrito presented Prine with his big award, Brandy Clark gave the Trailblazer Award to k.d. lang.

“I am honored to be in this temple of music,” said lang of the Ryman. She then filled the hall with her swaying and dreamy “Trail of Broken Hearts.”

In honor of the late Aretha Franklin, the show’s finale was “Chain of Fools” with Brandi, Irma, Courtney and The War & Treaty trading verses. Buddy Miller and the house band, plus the always fabulous McCrary Sisters pumped out the power.



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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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