There was no red carpet or phalanx of photographers to navigate as I slipped into the Mother Church of Country Music, the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville, making my way into the 13th annual Americana Music Honors and Awards ceremony. I guess they were all out back, photographing the stars from the TV show, ‘Nashville’. The event was held September 17th, to honor artists chosen by voting members of the AMA for six ‘best of’ categories, and five awards of merit for a lifetime of work. What was once called ‘Alt-Country’ music has been civilized and categorized into a genre called ‘Americana’, opening up a class of music that welcomes artists that may not have fit into existing radio formats.
Perhaps I’m jaded by having attended two previous years’ events but this wasn’t exciting or electric, it was ‘take your seat and wait for the show to begin’ business. I missed the 50,000 watts of curiosity and enthusiasm that always radiated from my husband prior to The Really Big Show -but I confess to indulging in a good look around the room to check out the industry notables sitting in pews about the room. Then the lights went down and we were On Air, live from the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
The evening kicked off with a pre-On Air number, ‘Can’t Judge a Book by Looking at the Cover’ as interpreted by Doug Seegers. Any show that kicks off with a Bo Diddley (okay, Willie Dixon) song is getting off on the right foot in MY book.
The House Band once again was comprised of Americana advocates and banner carriers: Don Was on upright bass, Buddy Miller on guitar, Jim Lauderdale on guitar, Tim Lauer on piano, the McCrary Sisters on backing vocals, Joachim Cooder and Greg ? on drums and percussion.
The first honor to be awarded, the Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting, was presented by Kasey Musgraves and Angaleena Presley to the great Loretta Lynn, who made her way up the steps at the center of the stage in a beautiful lavender gown. She accepted the award in her self-deprecating way, making a comment to the affect of, she would like to stick around but she had a gig to get to and needed to get on the bus. But this great southern lady didn’t leave without gracing the event with one of her famous compositions, ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’.
Next up, Rodney Crowell was joined by Ry Cooder on his song, ‘God I’m Missing You’ from his most recent CD, Tar Paper Sky
One of this year’s nominees for Best Emerging Artist, Parker Milsap, rocked out on his number, ‘Truck Stop Gospel’, wailing the blues and ably supported by upright bass and a fiddle players, with serious facial hair. Rootsy.
The Lifetime Achievement Award for Instrumentalist was presented to Flaco Jimenez. I have had the privilege of hearing Flaco play in various clubs in Minneapolis over the years and it delighted me to hear Ry Cooder (over several days in multiple events) wax poetic about the musical gifts and contributions of Flaco Jimenez. Any readers unfamiliar with his work, please You Tube this guy; you will see why he received this award.
The next nominees to play were The Devil Makes Three, followed by Hooray for the Riff Raff, doing ‘The Body Electric’. These two bands are getting a fair amount of air play on my local radio station and provide relief from the disco and arch-sounding EuroRock that dominates drivetime. Check them out; both bands have updated a retro sound and bring whimsy to the stage.
The award for Instrumentalist of the Year was presented by Carlene Carter and Vince Gill. It may feel to the other nominees like they were being ‘home-towned’ when AMA institution Buddy Miller was announced as the winner. (Buddy Miller, along with Jim Lauderdale are stalwarts of the AMA).
The next performance was from a very intriguing artist that, while she didn’t ultimately win the Best Emerging Artist award, is adding depth and distinction to the Americana sound – Valerie June. She doesn’t need the trophy to validate that she belongs on this stage, on the air and in a CD player near you. Check out the red guitar, yellow dress, and turquoise boots – she and Loretta Lynn just know how to dress.
Robert Ellis, one of Harry Gebibbe’s favorites (we’d seen him several times over the past couple of years) did a smoldering version of his, ‘Only Lies Can Comfort You’ from this year’s CD, Lights from the Chemical Plant. I admit I wasn’t crazy about his sound on the previous CD but after the performance on Wednesday I’m going to give him another listen.
One year ago, Mr Gebibbe and I had ringside seats at 3rd & Lindsley, the night Roseann Cash premiered her CD ‘The River and the Thread’ at the 2013 AMA Festival. The CD wasn’t released until February and I counted the days until I could buy it and re-live that night – my God, what a show she and her outstanding band put on! On Wednesday she performed the opening song from the CD, ‘A Feather’s Not a Bird’, with John Leventhal and Ry Cooder exchanging simmering guitar licks in the bridge, and once again I thought of that show a year ago, sitting with my baby at 3rd & Lindsley. This was worth the 875 mile drive to get here.
Keb Mo’ presented the Lifetime Achievement Award for performance to Taj Mahal, and following his acceptance speech, Taj and Ry Cooder performed together (years ago they had been in the band, ‘The Rising Sons’).
Next up, Patti Griffin and none other than Robert Plant joined up on her number, ‘Ohio’. The young man sitting two seats down from me made an audible gasp when Mr. Plant emerged on stage – perhaps I did, too. There was a whole lotta love in the room at that moment.
Here’s where I need to confess some ambivalence the Biggest Winner of the night – I LOVE Jason Isbell. I loved him from his first two songs on ‘Decoration Day’. I loved seeing him and the 400 Unit swing through Minneapolis about every six months for two and a half years following his departure from the DBTs. I applauded him and sent him earnest telepathic support when I learned that he ‘got sober’, and felt joy at his union with Amanda Shires. I listened to ‘Southeastern’ for nearly the first three hours of our drive back from the AMA festival last year. But godallmighty, did he have to win Album of the Year, Artist of the Year, and Song of the Year??? Damn, Roseann Cash should have gotten at least one of these awards. But you can’t argue with the brilliance and sincerity of ‘Southeastern’. He winning streak this night reminded me of when Paul Simon was giving his acceptance speech for one of his Grammy’s and the first person he thanked was Stevie Wonder, for NOT putting out an album that year…. I hope someone re-uses that line at the AMAs next year.
The gritty, thumping rockers, The Hardworking Americans, did a number from their nominated eponymous album – Todd Snider could have been mistaken for Kid Rock – well, maybe only by me. He did a ‘Kanye West’-style walk off at the end of the number, which felt like the first Outlaw moment of the night, a ripple in the ‘peaceandlove’ vibe that had filled the room until that point.
Peace and Love returned, along with some ‘good hair’ commentary, when the Milk Carton Kids introduced their pal Sarah Jarosz. They mentioned the good hair of Rhett Miller, Robert Plant, and the still-not-gray Jackson Browne but failed to recognize Marty Stuart – best hair of the festival in my estimation. After Ms Jarosz performed her number she returned the favor and introduced the ‘Duo or Group of the Year’ nominees, the Milk Carton Kids, who performed Everly Brothers style, sharing a mic.
Along with Valerie June, the other great new artists that I enjoyed hearing for the first (surely not last) time live at the AMA awards was the R&B dynamos, St Paul and the Broken Bones. These guys are in good company with a number of other new-ish groups, revitalizing the joyful, jet-fueled Memphis R&B sound – if you haven’t already, you MUST hear this band.
Skipping forward (sorry, I’m leaving some acts out) to the Spirit of Americana/Free Speech in Music Award – JD Souther presented Jackson Browne with the award and then joined him on the song, ‘Fountains of Sorrow’. I had forgotten how beautiful that song is (I had secretly been pulling for him to do ‘Red Neck Friend’ but when you are receiving and earnest award you really should chose one of your beautiful songs I suppose).
The winner of the Emerging Artist of year was Sturgill Simpson; the award was presented by Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent (Shovels and Rope). I bought his ‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music’ upon its release in May and listened to it probably a dozen times as I traveled out and back to visit folks in McLeod County one Saturday. It didn’t stick with me and I haven’t listened to it since. But his live performance on Wednesday was rockin’ outlaw, better than I expected, and so if I haven’t sold the CD back to The Electric Fetus I will give it a dozen more listens. His presence on stage was more invigorating than what I got from the recorded music and encourage anyone reading this to see him when he comes to your town. After all, he’s a Winner.
The finale of the show was a rousing hootenanny version of Johnny Cash’s ‘Get Rhythm’. This made me think of NRBQ, which made me think of my beloved Harry Gebippe. I think he would deemed it, ‘a really great show’.