One thing that sets the Americana Awards apart from other shows of its kind is that the performances are really excellent — and always live.
Along with all the awards and honors handed out at the 13th annual Americana Music Awards on Wednesday night (Sept. 17) at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, there were also a slew of those top-flight performances from the likes of Jason Isbell, Loretta Lynn, Jackson Browne and many more.
As always, a big part of what made it all so special was the house band. Led once again by Buddy Miller (music supervisor for ABC’s Nashville), the lineup this year included guitar legend Ry Cooder, his son Joachim on drums, Tim Lauer on keyboards, Don Was on bass, Brady Blade on percussion and the McCrary Sisters on backing vocals.
First up was Lynn, who had just received her lifetime achievement award for songwriting.
Escorted up to the stage by Vince Gill, she joked, “When they told me about this, I told them, ’You got the wrong woman.’ I was so proud when I found out they were right.”
Performing “Coal Miner’s Daughter” as the crowd stood with swollen hearts, it was a fitting way to begin the night’s proceedings. As soon as the song ended, the 82-year-old was whisked away to her waiting bus for an 800-mile journey to Iowa and a show the next day.
Artist of the year nominee Rodney Crowell and Cooder teamed up for a careful rendition of “God I’m Missing You,” and then it was time to hear from Flaco Jiménez, recipient of the lifetime achievement award for instrumentalist.
The accordion-playing wizard of norteño music first took the time to address his award, then sat with longtime musical partner Cooder for the Spanish-language classic “Ingrato Amor.”
“I didn’t write nothing down,” Jiménez laughed. “I just want to say thanks for Americana music and thanks for anyone who supported my accordion playing. I want to share this with my family and friends and, of course, my Jiménez family tree.”
One neat tradition that has developed at the show is to allow each of the nominees for emerging artist of the year to perform. The crowd got to experience Parker Millsap’s fire and brimstone on “Truck Stop Gospel,” Hurray for the Riff Raff and a lineup that included twin fiddles and cello on “The Body Electric,” St. Paul & the Broken Bones in a stunning send-up of white-boy soul, Valarie June with her medusa curls and a neon green dress on “You Can’t Be Told” and Sturgill Simpson, the man behind Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. Simpson is one of the genre’s biggest success stories of the year, who would go on to win the emerging artist trophy.
“Oh, man,” he said after accepting the award. “I could list off everybody’s name, but I’ll be up here for way too long. So I’ll just thank my family.”
“Taj Mahal was world music before there was such a thing,” he proudly proclaimed. He also made pains to mention, “The blues only seems simple. The blues is only easy to play badly.”
Mahal’s heartfelt speech was perhaps the most moving of the night.
“You can’t imagine how good it does my heart to know how far Americana music has come,” the roots-music pioneer said. “This is one of the most wonderful things that could happen in my life. This is a big one. Thank you.”
He then riled up Miller, the band and the whole audience with a version of “Statesboro Blues” that felt straight out of a Mississippi juke joint.
Speaking of Mississippi, Marty Stuart showed up later on with Jimmie Rodgers’ actual railroad lantern, calling Rodgers “the original troubadour” and exhorting his home state in general before sliding into a rendition of Rodgers’ “No Hard Times.”
Along with all the emerging artist nominees, the awards show has also gotten in the habit of making time for each of the song of the year nominees. The audience enjoyed “A Feather’s Not a Bird” by Rosanne Cash, “Ohio” by Patty Griffin (and Robert Plant), the intricate guitar work of “Only Lies” by Robert Ellis and, in what would prove to be a highlight of the night, Jason Isbell and his wife Amanda Shires performing Isbell’s passionate ode to turning one’s life around, “Cover Me Up.”
“Cover Me Up” would go on to win the song of the year honor, allowing Isbell to explain its loving origins.
“I wrote this song for my wife,” he said. “This was probably the hardest song I ever had to write because I wrote it for her, and then I sat down and played it for her. It was very difficult. Do the things that scare you. That’s the good stuff.”
Isbell returned later after winning album of the year for Southeastern, noting, “The folks in this room make the best music in Nashville, which means they make the best music in the world.”
The Milk Carton Kids collected the award for duo/group of the year just after showing off their dexterous vocal and guitar blend on “Snake Eyes” and seemed to have a blast as the comic relief earlier in the night, bantering with the crowd and inviting Browne and Plant backstage for a “hair-off” after the show. (Plant is already a lifetime achievement recipient, they dead-panned.)
In accepting their award, the duo thanked their close-knit families, remarking, “Each time you see us onstage somewhere, it’s because they let us go.”
Rounding out the night was Browne, the legendary singer-songwriter who accepted the Spirit of Americana Award, Free Speech in Music. He was presented the honor by longtime friend and fellow songwriter J.D. Souther and had much to say about his craft.
“I’m honored to accept the same award as Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson,” Browne began. “To try to get out the truth of what you feel, it’s almost looking into a crystal ball. You really don’t know it until you find it. … Writing songs is like saying something to the space in front of you and seeing if it sounds right. … Commercialism has never been the friend of free speech.”
A self-admitted perfectionist, he stopped the band to retune during his victory performance of “The Long Way Around” and then stuck around for a duet with Souther on “Fountain of Sorrow.”
As the night came to a close, nearly everyone returned to the stage for a spirited rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm.”
A rebroadcast of the 13th annual Americana Awards will air as a part of the upcoming season of Austin City Limits on PBS.