Outspoken in his opposition to the war in Iraq, singer-songwriter Steve Earle was presented the Sprit of Americana Free Speech Award during the third annual Americana Honors & Awards ceremony in Nashville. The Friday night (Sept. 24) awards show at the Nashville Convention Center highlighted this year’s Americana Music Association Conference.
Loretta Lynn was the leading winner of the night, taking artist of the year honors and an album of the year nod for Van Lear Rose, her critically-acclaimed project with Jack White of the rock band, the White Stripes. Lynn was unable to attend because of concert appearances this weekend in North Carolina, but she offered pre-recorded video acceptance speeches.
Rodney Crowell accepted song of the year honors for “Fate’s Right Hand.” Newcomer Mindy Smith was named new/emergent artist of the year. Guitarist Will Kimbrough, who later performed at the awards show with both Crowell and Mavis Staples, won in the best instrumentalist category.
Additionally, Lifetime Achievement awards were announced in three categories. Cowboy Jack Clement, a visionary songwriter and producer who has worked closely with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charley Pride, U2 and many others, was honored for his songwriting. Clement’s credits include Cash’s “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” and “I Guess Things Happen That Way,” Lewis’ “It’ll Be Me” and Pride’s “Just Between You and Me.”
Music executive Jack Emerson, who died in November 2002, was also cited for his lifetime achievements. Emerson started his music career as co-owner of Praxis International, an independent record label and artist management company. Singer-songwriter Jason Ringenberg presented the award Emerson’s longtime business partner, Andy McLenon. Ringenberg benefitted from Emerson’s adventurous creative spirit during his days in Jason and the Scorchers, a legendary Nashville band that combined country music with the energy of punk rock. During his career, Emerson also worked with numerous other artists, among them the Georgia Satellites, John Hiatt, Sonny Landreth, Steve Forbert, the Del McCoury Band and Earle.
Country-rock pioneer Chris Hillman received the Lifetime Achievement award for his contributions as a performer. After working with Vern Gosdin in the Gosdin Brothers during the early ’60s, Hillman became a founding member of the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and, later, the Desert Rose Band. After accepting the award, Hillman performed “Wheels,” a song he wrote with fellow Burrito Brothers co-founder Gram Parsons, with two surviving bandmates — Al Perkins on Dobro and Bernie Leadon on guitar. Former Desert Rose Band member Herb Pedersen provided the lead guitar fills, and his son, Jesse, played acoustic bass.
The Americana Music Association’s President’s Award went to the Carter Family and was accepted by Janette Carter, daughter of A.P. and Sara Carter and niece of Maybelle Carter. The 81-year-old singer traveled from her home in Hiltons, Va., to attend the awards show.
“Mommy and Daddy and Maybelle are gone,” she told the crowd. “Just about all of them are about gone. And I’m a tryin’ — and I’m a doin’ it, too — to preserve and keep alive their music and the old time traditional music. But I’ve enjoyed this music [tonight]. I like all music. I’m just trying to preserve one kind. … I’m so happy to be a child of these famous people, my parents and Aunt Maybelle.”
After accepting the award, she joined a younger family member — June Carter Cash’s daughter, Carlene Carter — and the Nashville Bluegrass Band to perform the Carter Family classic, “Keep on the Sunny Side,” with others who performed on the awards show.
Most recently, Earle’s social concerns have leaned toward the war in Iraq. However, he has never been reticent to offer his opinions — in interviews and on his albums — on a variety of issues, including his opposition to the death penalty. Earle recently released the politically-charged album, The Revolution Starts … Now, and he previously created controversy when he wrote and recorded “John Walker’s Blues,” a song about the “American Taliban,” John Walker Lindh.
The Spirit of Americana Free Speech honor was previously bestowed upon Johnny Cash in 2001 and Kris Kristofferson in 2003. In accepting the award, Earle said, “We’re living in really scary times. An award like this shouldn’t be necessary. Nobody should get an award for saying anything they want to say in a democracy. I’ve heard some pretty frightening things lately, but I’ve actually found more to be optimistic about in the past few months. I think people are starting to get it. It remains to be seen whether either [presidential] candidate gets it, but the people are starting to get it.”
Aiming his comments at other artists who were in the audience, Earle continued, “Make no mistake, you can say anything you want to say because this is a democracy. Nobody’s gonna hurt you because of that. People may try to intimidate you. But you know what? I’ve lived through the last couple of years, and it was kinda fun. And no one seriously threatened me at any point during the past few years. I tell people that — and I especially tell that to people outside this country — and they don’t believe me. They assume that I’ve had death threats and people coming to my house. There are people that maybe don’t buy my records anymore, but they’re people that I’d just as soon not have at my shows, anyway.”
Earle then performed “Rich Man’s War” from his latest album. Later in the show, Rodney Crowell also took on a sharp political tone with the performance of his song, “Don’t Get Me Started.”
Problems with microphones and sound monitors marred the awards show as a concert event. However, the most memorable performance came when Staples sang “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” accompanied by a buffet of tasty guitar riffs from Kimbrough. Staples is best known for her work in the Staple Singers, an R&B and gospel group that scored major pop hits in the early ’70s with “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.”
Tony Joe White and Shelby Lynne opened the show with the sultry “Can’t Go Back Home.” Others performances were provided by Ringenberg, Smith and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, in addition to Texans Slaid Cleaves and Ray Wylie Hubbard.