BOBBY KARL WORKS THE ROOM
At the Americana Music Awards, it’s always all about the music.
At nearly four hours in length, the show seems to go on forever. There are too many speakers. It is over-scripted. The temperature is uncomfortably warm. The seats are murder on your butt.
But when you’re being treated to music by Bonnie Raitt, John Prine, Elvis Costello, Yola, The Milk Carton Kids, Lori McKenna, Our Native Daughters, Delbert McClinton, Maria Muldaur, Rhiannon Giddens, Mavis Staples and a band led by Buddy Miller, all is forgiven.
At the registration table for this year’s Americana convention, there were buttons to designate first timers, five-year veterans, 10-year veterans and for those of us who have been with the organization throughout its 20 years of existence. I proudly picked up one of those.
So, yes, I have been to all 18 of the AMA awards shows. And, no, I still don’t know why it has to take so long to give out six awards and six Lifetime Achievement accolades.
Staged at the Ryman Auditorium on Wednesday night (9/11), this year’s top AMA’s went to John Prine & Pat McLaughlin for their “Summer’s End” as Song of the Year, to The War and Treaty as Emerging Act of the Year, to I’m With Her as Group of the Year, to Chris Eldridge as Instrumentalist of the Year, to Prine’s The Tree of Forgiveness as Album of the Year and to Brandi Carlile for Artist of the Year.
The show kicked off with a stately and powerful rendition of “I Can’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore” by the spectacular McCrary Sisters, who went on to provide backup vocals for a number of the eve’s other performers.
Then Our Native Daughters turned in a barn-burner performance of “Black Myself,” proving why they were Emerging Act nominees.
After show hosts The Milk Carton Kids – Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale – took the stage, their host forerunner Jim Lauderdale popped out to give them humorous “advice” and flashy Manuel jackets to wear.
Emerging Act nominee Jade Bird performed her “Lottery” in a folkie-with-a-kick mode. Best known for his work with The Punch Brothers, Instrumentalist winner Eldridge said, “I’m proud to accept this on behalf of everyone who loves music, but doesn’t want to be center stage.” Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle presented his award.
Album nominee Lori McKenna wowed us with her rolling and countrified “People Get Old,” one of the Song nominees. Emerging Act nominee J.S. Ondara, a native of Nigeria, was steamy and atmospheric on “American Dream.” Mumford & Sons teamed up with The Milk Carton Kids in a stunning, six-voice harmonized “Forever.”
Next, Jack Ingram presented the Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance to Delbert McClinton.
“I’m sure there are a lot of people who have no idea who I am. Because I’m from another time,” he began. ”Every record label that I was on between 1971 and 1984 went out of business. I was a mess.”
He thanked his wife, Wendy, crediting her because, “the last 35 years have been the best time of my life. I’m sittin’ on top of the world. And like the man said, I did it my way.” He and the band then powered through “Two More Bottles of Wine,” giving it a bluesy, funky vibe.
Dan Auerbach, who produced Album nominee Walk Through Fire, introduced its singer, Yola. She earned a standing ovation for her stormy, powerful, sophisticated, neo-soul performance of its “Faraway Look.” Yola’s fellow Emerging Act nominee Erin Rae was an ethereal, everyday troubadour on “Wild Blue Wind.”
Henry Hicks appeared to tout the 2020 completion of the National African American Music Museum, which will be across the street from the Ryman. He also presented the inaugural Legacy of Americana Award to Giddens and to the 19th-century black country fiddler Frank Johnson (1789-1871).
“Wow: This award is beautiful,” said Giddens. “It’s an honor to accept this for Frank Johnson and for thousands of unnamed African-American musicians.” She then sang a plaintive “Wayfaring Stranger” with her fretless banjo.
The War and Treaty lifted the roof off the joint with their electrifying, a cappella rendition of “Love Like There’s No Tomorrow.” Almost immediately afterward, the duo was presented with the Emerging Act honor. Both Michael Trotter and Tanya Trotter seemed genuinely overwhelmed as they accepted.
The jangly, melodic folk-rocker “Mockingbird” was delivered by Ruston Kelly. It was a Song nominee, as was “By Degrees,” penned by Mark Erelli and performed by him with J.S. Ondada, Shawn Colvin, Lori McKenna and Josh Ritter. Next came Joe Henry & Rodney Crowell, teaming up on Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country.”
Bonnie Raitt received a standing ovation before she spoke a word. “How very sweet,” she said. “It’s so nice to be back in this hallowed place.” She was there to present Maria Muldaur with the Trailblazer Award.
“I don’t think of myself as a trailblazer, but as a trail follower,” said Maria. “I owe my deepest gratitude to the artists who came before,” she added, citing Doc Watson, Victoria Spivey, Sippie Wallace, Ralph Stanley, Hank Williams and Kitty Wells. “Tomorrow is my [76th] birthday, and I can’t think of a better present.” Maria then treated us to a rump-shaking r&b romp through “I’m a Woman (W-O-M-A-N).”
Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show and Colvin presented the Song honor to Prine and McLaughlin. The wafting harmonies and minor-key loveliness of “Call My Name” came from the femme trio I’m With Her.
“Absolutely beautiful,” exclaimed Brandi Carlile. “That was amazing,” She then introduced Amanda Shires as “my butterfly from outer space.” Which she was, on the cacophonous “Parking Lot Pirouette.”
Ritter and Andrew Bird presented the Group of the Year award to I’m With Her. The Milk Carton Kids saluted the late songwriters Felice & Boudleaux Bryant with a gorgeous rendition of “Sleepless Nights” in presenting them with the President’s Award.
John Seigenthaler Jr. introduced Freedom Rider Dr. Ernest “Rip” Patton, who spoke of the Civil Rights Movement and of The Staple Singers role in it. The group was honored with the Inspiration Award.
“All the trials and tribulations we went through, but we’re still here, still carrying on and still singing our Freedom Songs,” said Mavis Staples. “Because it’s more relevant today than ever….I still share everything with Pops. So he’s walking around [in Heaven], talking to the Elders and the Angels.”
Carlile was wry, piquant and loving on “The Mother,” on which she was backed by a string quartet. Raitt and Prine were bluesy, drawling and languid on “Angel From Montgomery.”
Tanya Tucker announced the AMA’s first all-female slate of contenders for Artist of the Year — Giddens, Staples, Carlile and Kacey Musgraves — and then presented the honor to her producer, Carlile. The winner praised her fellow nominees, dubbing Mavis, “the Artist of a Lifetime.”
T Bone Burnett suggested another title for Elvis Costello, “the true King of America.” Costello won the Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting and demonstrated his mastery with “Red Cotton” and the rocking “Blame It On Cain.”
Celebrated thespian John C. Reilly made a surprise appearance to present Album of the Year to Prine. Mavis wrecked the house with “Change.” And then came the big gang-bang finale of “I’ll Fly Away.”
Cheering the whole thing on were Del Bryant, Dane Bryant, Dave Cobb, David Macias, Dave Pomeroy, Pat McMaken, Patrick Clifford, Tom Osborn, Tom Roland, John Beiter, John Strohm, Jim Zumwalt, Geoff Himes, Gary Nicholson, Jewly Hight, AMA board prez Mark Moffatt, Bob Delevante, Bonna Delacruz Johnson, Holly George Warren, Karen Leipziger, Craig Havighurst, Sally Williams, Barry Mazor, Steve Lowery, Tracy Gershon, Regina Joskow, Rachel Whitney, Tony Brown, Ann Powers and AMA executive director Jed Hilly.
All hail Buddy Miller’s superb house band – Jim Hoke, Ian Fitchuk, Don Was, Brady Blade, The McCrary Sisters, Dirk Powell and Shannon McNally. The show was executive produced by Martin Fischer and directed by Michael McNamara. It streamed live visually, was broadcast live on radio and will be edited to become an episode of Austin City Limits on PBS on Nov. 23.