"Who cares what kind of music it is?" Bonnie Raitt asked. "It's great music. ... It needs to be celebrated."
She made the comment Wednesday night (Sept. 12) in Nashville. In doing so, she managed to succinctly summarize the reason for the Americana Honors and Awards show.
Raitt received the Americana Music Association's lifetime achievement award for performance, one of a handful of awards presented during the event. Unlike other awards shows, the Americana event is more about the music and less about relishing anyone's individual achievements.
But awards were handed out, including album of the year honors for the multi-artist compilation This One's for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark and a song of the year prize to Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit for "Alabama Pines," a song he wrote and recorded with his band, the 400 Unit.
The soulful Alabama Shakes won in the emerging artist category, and the Civil Wars were named duo/group of the year. Artist of the year honors went to Gillian Welch, and her musical partner, guitarist David Rawlings, was named instrumentalist of the year. Welch and Rawlings were unable to attend the ceremony.
In addition to Raitt, legendary keyboardist and producer Booker T. Jones received a lifetime achievement award for instrumentalist. As leader of Booker T. & the MGs, Jones is known for his organ work on instrumental hits such as "Green Onions" and "Time Is Tight." Booker T. & the MGs also served as the house band for Stax Records in Memphis, playing on countless hits for Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and many others.
British singer-songwriter Richard Thompson was awarded the lifetime achievement award for songwriting. A former member of the folk-rock band Fairport Convention, Thompson's songwriting credits include "Tear-Stained Letter" (a Top 10 country hit for Jo-El Sonnier in 1988) and other songs recorded by Raitt, Elvis Costello, Robert Plant and other artists.
Dennis Lord, executive vice president of the performing rights organization SESAC, was presented the Jack Emerson Lifetime Achievement award for an executive. A longtime supporter of roots music, Lord was the first president of the Americana Music Association board of directors.
As for the music at the awards show, Raitt was 100 percent correct. It was great.
With guitarist Buddy Miller leading the house band, the night began with Jones highlighted on "Green Onions." The guitar solos on the song were in good hands with Thompson, who was brandishing a Fender Stratocaster.
Lee Ann Womack's performance of Tom T. Hall's gentle "I Love" was a standout. Patty Griffin sang the song on the 2011 album, I Love: Tom T. Hall's Songs of Fox Hollow, produced by singer-songwriters Peter Cooper and Eric Brace. The icing on the cake during the show was when Hall showed up onstage to perform the song with Womack and Cooper. (Womack's vocal was so good, you tend to wonder how she could be without a record deal at the moment, but maybe that will change in the near future.)
A particularly poignant moment came when Guy Clark performed "My Favorite Picture of You," a song he wrote about his wife -- songwriter and artist Susanna Clark, who died in June.
Hayes Carll and Cary Ann Hearst lightened the mood considerably with their comical duet on "Another Like You" and when Miller and awards show host Jim Lauderdale performed "I Lost My Job of Loving You," a track from their upcoming album.
Other highlights included performances by the Punch Brothers, Robert Ellis, Alabama Shakes, Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson, Sarah Jarosz, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Deep Dark Woods, Arlo Guthrie, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit and the Mavericks.
Despite the talent and enthusiasm of the younger musicians, two of the veterans -- Thompson and Raitt -- provided some of the night's most magical moments. In a solo acoustic performance, Thompson offered "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," an original ode about a motorcycle and violence that was popularized in recent years by the Del McCoury Band. Aside from the song itself and his vocal delivery, Thompson once again proved worthy of his reputation as one of the world's greatest guitarists.
Raitt was joined by guitarist Al Anderson for "Not Cause I Wanted To," a soft song from her most recent album, Slipstream. Then she cranked up the energy and the volume by grabbing her electric guitar and providing some greasy slide work on "Thing Called Love," a breakout track from her 1990 Nick of Time album. Since the song was written by John Hiatt, who presented her lifetime achievement award earlier in the evening, it was a no-brainer to bring him onstage to share the verses.
The show closed with a tribute to Levon Helm, a member of The Band, who died earlier this year. With his daughter, Amy Helm, opening "The Weight," the song ended up featuring Emmylou Harris and nearly everyone who had already appeared onstage -- Raitt, Thompson, Hiatt and Jones. And the fact that Alabama Shakes lead vocalist Brittany Howard more than held her own in that kind of musical environment is ample proof she's a singer worth paying attention to in the years to come.
The event included an impressive lineup of presenters, too, including Sam Bush, Brandi Carlile, Rodney Crowell, Allison Moorer, Bruce Robison, Kelly Willis, Sara Watkins, Drive-By Truckers singer-guitarist Patterson Hood, R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills and former Big Star drummer Jody Stephens.