“In a town of writers, he really is our poet laureate,” Emmylou Harris said Friday night (Sept. 9) in presenting Guy Clark with the Americana Music Association’s lifetime achievement award for songwriting during the organization’s Honors & Awards show.
Clark was just one of the artists honored in a night of music and accolades at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. Buddy Miller and Mary Gauthier picked up their awards, but two of the other winners — John Prine and Sonny Landreth — were not present. The fourth annual awards ceremony is a main event of the Americana Music Association conference that continues Saturday in Nashville.
“Every good thing that’s ever happened in my career, I have Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle to thank for,” Miller said in receiving the album of the year trophy for his Universal United House of Prayer. Miller, who led the house band for the awards show, also accepted a song of the year award on behalf of songwriter Mark Heard, who died in 1991. Miller recorded Heard’s winning song, “Worry Too Much,” for Universal United House of Prayer and played it Friday night.
In accepting the emerging artist award, Gauthier noted her mother had traveled from south Louisiana to attend the awards ceremony. “I’ve made my mama cry for a while,” she said. “I hope that’s a different kind of tears now.” Later in the evening, Gauthier sang the title track from her album, Mercy Now.
Landreth, whose guitar work earned him the instrumentalist of the year nod, was in his hometown of Lafayette, La., for the first of a two-night hurricane relief benefit with zydeco musician Zachary Richard. Prine’s artist of the year trophy was presented — and accepted — by actor-musician Billy Bob Thornton.
Judy Collins and the late John Hartford were honored with special awards. Collins became the fourth recipient of the Spirit of Americana free speech award issued by the First Amendment Center and the Americana Music Association. After accepting the trophy, Collins led the audience in an a cappella version of “Amazing Grace.”
Jamie Hartford, son of the singer-songwriter, accepted the President’s Award on his father’s behalf before joining Arlo Guthrie to perform John Hartford’s best-known song, “Gentle on My Mind.” Banjo player Alison Brown performed on an open-back banjo in John Hartford’s unique style to add a subtle and touching element to the moment.
The Jack Emerson Lifetime Achievement Award for an executive went to Ken Irwin, Marian Leighton and Bill Nowlin, who founded Rounder Records in 1970. The company evolved into one of the nation’s most important independent record labels, preserving the music of traditional masters and launching Alison Krauss’ career.
In accepting the lifetime achievement award for a performer, Marty Stuart noted that it was exactly 33 years to the night that he first performed on the Ryman’s stage during a Grand Ole Opry performance with Lester Flatt & the Nashville Grass. Reflecting on his career, Stuart said, “There’s the chart — and there’s the heart. And it’s great when they both line up. But you better follow your heart, ’cause that’s where it’s at.”
Stuart and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, played two songs from his new gospel album, Souls’ Chapel. After offering his original song, “It’s Time to Go Home,” he picked up the late Pop Staples’ Fender Telecaster guitar to perform Staples’ “Somebody Saved Me.”
The undeniable highlight of the evening involved gospel music, too, when 65-year-old minister and soul music legend Solomon Burke roared through his interpretation of Hank Williams’ “Wealth Won’t Save Your Soul” and a gospel medley that included “I’ll Fly Away.” Dressed in a cowboy hat and a black suit with silver sparkles, Burke sat atop a throne while turning in a performance that was truly a religious experience for some in attendance.
Earlier in the night, Harris performed Clark’s “Old Friends” before introducing him for his lifetime achievement award. She also joined Clark on “Dublin Blues.”
Singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale, who hosted the show, delivered “Paint and Glass,” a song he wrote with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. The show also included performances by Todd Snider, Raul Malo, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen, Radney Foster, Hayes Carll and the Duhks.
Rather appropriately, considering the plight of the victims of Hurricane Katrina, Guthrie closed the evening by leading all of the night’s performers and presenters in singing the Steve Goodman classic, “City of New Orleans.”