James McMurtry Wins Two Americana Awards

Nashville Event Featured Crowell, Gill, Costello, Toussaint and Others

Singer-songwriter James McMurtry accepted two trophies at the fifth annual Americana Honors & Awards show during an evening highlighted by a performance from Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint. Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Rosanne Cash and Charlie Daniels were among the other performers during the Friday night (Sept. 22) event at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.

McMurtry received the album of the year award for the Compadre Records project, Childish Things, and the song of the year award for the politically-charged track, “We Can’t Make It Here.” In accepting the first award, McMurtry thanked a long list of people, including each member of his band, John Mellencamp “for sticking his neck out and getting me my first record deal” and his father, novelist Larry McMurtry for lending him a jacket to wear to the show.

When his name was announced for the second honor, there was a long delay before he made it to the stage. “Usually they come and get you a little while before you win,” McMurtry told the crowd. “That’s how you know.” Referring to the bar across the alley from the Ryman, McMurtry then added, “I highly recommend Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.”

Three of the year’s winners were not present to accept their awards, including Neil Young (artist of the year), Drive-By Truckers (duo/group of the year) and the Greencards (new/emerging artist of the year).

Kenny Vaughan, currently a member of Marty Stuart’s band, the Fabulous Superlatives, picked up the instrumentalist of the year honor and a lifetime achievement award as instrumentalist. Born in Oklahoma and raised in Denver, Vaughan moved to Nashville in 1987 and has recorded or toured with a long list of artists, including Lucinda Williams, Rodney Crowell, Patty Loveless, Kim Richey and Mindy Smith. Vaughan’s playing was showcased at the awards show when Stuart and his band played “Streamline.”

The late Mickey Newbury was honored with the Americana Music Association’s President’s Award. The singer-songwriter, who died in 2002, was a mentor to numerous songwriters, including Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. In addition to songwriting credits such as “Sweet Memories” and “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” Newbury was responsible for compiling and arranging “An American Trilogy.” Newbury’s mother accepted the award on his behalf.

Outspoken conservative Charlie Daniels was presented the Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award from the First Amendment Center and the Americana Music Association. After accepting the award, Daniels referred to the oak pews in the historic Ryman Auditorium when he said, “The song they asked me to do tonight is older than the first row.” He then performed his 1973 hit, “Uneasy Rider.”

Vince Gill offered a stunning solo acoustic version of Rodney Crowell’s “‘Til I Gain Control Again” before presenting his longtime friend with the AMA’s lifetime achievement award for songwriting. Recalling they first met in the mid ’70s when Gill’s band was appearing at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles, Gill said, “For the past 30 years, I continue to be blessed and continue to be taught by Rodney Crowell.” Following his acceptance speech, Crowell proved he’s still a vital songwriter by performing one of his new compositions, “A Moving Work of Art.”

Other performances throughout the evening showcased the variety of music celebrated under the Americana banner. Starting with the R&B sounds of the Dynamites, the list included Sam Bush, Delbert McClinton, Kim Richey, RobinElla, British singer-songwriter James Hunter and the trio of Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch and Fats Kaplin. Some of the most inventive music came when a turbo-powered acoustic version of “Hey Joe” was delivered by a band featuring Jerry Douglas (Dobro), Tim O’Brien (mandolin), Bryan Sutton (guitar) and Byron House (bass). Other highlights included songs by Alejandro Escovedo (who received a lifetime achievement award as a performer) and Rosanne Cash (who sang “House on the Lake,” a track from her Black Cadillac album).

Sugar Hill Records founder Barry Poss accepted the AMA’s Jack Emerson Lifetime Achievement Award, an honor presented to a music industry executive. Poss launched Sugar Hill in 1978 from his apartment in Durham, N.C., and built it into one of the world’s most respected independent labels.

Costello arrived in Nashville several days earlier to appear during the Leadership Music organization’s tribute to Emmylou Harris, but he was at the Americana awards show to present New Orleans music legend Allen Toussaint with the AMA’s lifetime achievement award for a producer/engineer. In country circles, Toussaint is best known for writing the Glen Campbell hit, “Southern Nights,” but Costello cited his classic recordings with artists such as Irma Thomas, Ernie K-Doe, Chris Kenner, the Band and LaBelle. First hearing the tracks in his native England, Costello said, “They were like mysterious messages from a different place and time.”

Although Costello and Toussaint had previously worked together, they rekindled their musical collaborations when Toussaint moved to New York following the loss of his New Orleans home in Hurricane Katrina. In June, they released the album, The River in Reverse.

Anchored by Toussaint’s quirky New Orleans piano style, the two sang one of the album tracks — “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?” — before turning the Ryman back into its origins as a church with “The Sharpest Thorn.” With Costello leading the crowd in a singalong to the gospel melody, it was a vibrant way to end the show, but the energy level picked up as nearly everyone who presented awards or performed returned to the stage for a rousing version of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

The awards show was hosted by Jim Lauderdale. The house band was led by 2005 album of the year winner Buddy Miller.

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.