Americana Music Honors & Awards Celebrates Legends and Newcomers

Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton Are Top Winners … and George Strait, Bonnie Raitt Perform

Imagine a single musical gathering featuring performances by George Strait, Grateful Dead founding member Bob Weir and Stax Records great William Bell.

The 15th annual Americana Music Honors & Awards at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium celebrated the genre’s talented musicians who dedicate every day to being impeccable with their words in music.

In the awards ceremony portion of Wednesday’s (Sept. 21) show, the evening’s top winners were Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton. Isbell and producer Dave Cobb won album of the year for Something More Than Free, while Isbell’s “24 Frames” won song of the year.

Other winners included the duo of Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell along with singer, songwriter and instrumentalist Sara Watkins and newcomer Margo Price.

Stapleton was named artist of the year.

“Thank you to all the Americana radio stations out there,” he said. “It’s been a big part of what we’ve been doing. I’m nervous. There’s so many heroes out here in audience and up here on the stage. This is a remarkable thing.”

Price and Isbell each thanked their respective spouses when they accepted their awards for emerging artist of the year and song of the year, respectively.

In her acceptance speech, Price thanked her in-laws and those decision-makers in the music industry who passed on her debut album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter.

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“I want to thank my husband Jeremy Ivey who helped me write this record and who believed in me enough to sell our car to do it,” she said.

Isbell confessed that “24 Frames” wouldn’t be half as good if not for the input from his wife, singer, songwriter and musician Amanda Shires.

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“My wife helps me edit songs, and there were lines that didn’t need to be in there,” he said. “It wouldn’t be the same song if she hadn’t told me that they were bad. If you can, keep people around you who will tell you when you’ve done something awful, whether it’s in a song or in your personal life, and listen to them if at all possible.”

The Lifetime Achievement honorees Billy Bragg (Spirit of Americana/Free Speech in Music Award), Shawn Colvin (trailblazer), William Bell (songwriting), Bob Weir (performance) and Jim Lauderdale (Wagonmaster) each got turns in the spotlight.

Bell, whose songwriting credits include R&B classics such as “Born Under a Bad Sign,” was joined by Bonnie Raitt for a performance of “Three of Me” from his recent album, This is Where I Live.

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Bragg, a singer-songwriter and political activist, is the first foreigner to receive the AMA’s Spirit of Americana/Free Speech honor and started his acceptance speech on the Ryman stage with a funny cultural joke involving Taylor Swift.

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“I think it’s another example of Nashville’s generosity to a wayward Englishman,” he said. “Not only did you let Tom Hiddleston go out with Taylor Swift, you let him stand on this very stage and impersonate Hank Williams. For those of you who raised an eyebrow at such a concept, I understand it’s part of a cultural exchange that we’ll see Lyle Lovett become the new James Bond.

“I think for a genre that tends to capture an entire nation, particularly a nation that was built on the idea of e pluribus unum,” he added. “And that’s a great idea. If I may say something that does need to be said, America is never greater than when it strives to live up to that high ideal.”

Lauderdale got visibly emotional at least three times when he received the Wagonmaster award from George Strait, who gave him his first cut “King of Broken Hearts” on 1992’s multi-platinum Pure Country soundtrack.

“I like to make records,” Lauderdale said. “That gives me the structure that my brain really needs. I want to thank George, too, because … you know how you have a ballet or an opera and you’ve got to have a benefactor so you can do that kind of stuff? So really, George, you were the reason I could make a living.”

After Lauderdale wrapped his speech, the two shared the stage for a performance of the song that gave Lauderdale his big break. Midway through the song, producer Tony Brown left his pew in the audience for a brief moment to say something to the two artists onstage.

The three-hour Americana marathon featured at least 22 performances and kicked off with a reverent four-song tribute honoring the late Ralph Stanley, Allen Toussaint, Guy Clark and Merle Haggard.

Alison Krauss, Melonie Cannon, Buddy Miller and Stuart Duncan were the first to take the stage for a soul-stirring a cappella version of Stanley’s inspirational “Gloryland” while lights gleaming through the stained glass windows washed the hall in color.

Next, Joe Henry’s moving rendition of Allen Toussaint’s “Freedom of the Stallion” melted everyone in their pews. Then Steve Earle sang Clark’s “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train” armed with an acoustic guitar and wearing jeans that hung so low they threatened to fall off at any moment.

Guitar solos on Weir’s version of Haggard’s “Mama Tried” had the familiar looseness and fluidity of a jam by Weir’s old band.

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Other performance highlights included Harris slapping her “NOLA” tambourine to the second line shuffle of “Bring It on Home to Memphis” from The Traveling Kind, her 2015 album with Crowell, and Dwight Yoakam’s iconic knee swivel on the world premiere of “What I Don’t Know” from his upcoming bluegrass album Swimmin’ Pools and Movie Stars.

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The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band closed the show with an all-star performance of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” featuring the Milk Carton Kids, Steve Earle and Parker Millsap, plus solos by Margo Price, Timothy B. Schmit and the McCrary Sisters.

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Lauren Tingle is a Tennessean and storyteller who eats music for breakfast, lunch and dinner. When she’s not writing or rocking out, she enjoys yoga and getting lost in the great outdoors.