In a town that is accustomed to the warm blood of American music running through its streets and alleys, where so much history resides and is embedded in the collective consciousness cloistered in the walls and the electric air of its halls and venues, Wednesday night's 12th Annual Americana Honors and Music Awards was enough to give even the most seasoned Nashville music veteran pause.
While much of the 'product' that is emphasized through the Country Music Association, too often bears little resemblance to the 100 year history of music in this town, the Americana Music Association has resided over what has been referred to as a gathering place, or a tent for music that has been discarded by the mainstream, but remains a vital source of passion for millions of artists and fans.
In fact, for perhaps the first time in its short history, Wednesday night's awards show made this gathering appear to be more like a Mother Church, as the Ryman Auditorium has often been called. Americana music and the Association has become increasingly more inclusive over the last ten years, gathering young and old, forgotten artists, overlooked, and genres beyond the scope of the folk and country music originally embraced by early enthusiasts of the genre.
On Wednesday night, it was clear just how far this definition has come as representatives from gospel, rhythm & blues, blues, soul and jazz joined artists doing country, bluegrass, ragtime and Piedmont blues. Opening the show with a tribute to the legendary Hank Williams, who passed away at 29 in 1953, Delbert McLinton delivered a lively and faithful rendition of the familiar classic, "Hey Good Lookin." It was the appearance of Williams' granddaughter, Holly Williams, who has become a successful and promising singer-songwriter in her own right, that began the Americana theme of cross-generational continuity. Her lead vocal on "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," was touching and haunting.
Hosted by singer-songwriter, Jim Lauderdale, the performances of the honored reduced the actual awards to more of an afterthought than a feeling of anticipation usually felt at more high profile and competitive shows like the CMA Awards. The performances turned in by Shovels and Rope, Okemah, Oklahoma native, John Fulbright and the soft, near silent sound of The Milk Carton Kids, showed the passion for the roots of American music remains strong among young, new artists. Each were original, dynamic and innovative in what they brought to the older traditions they draw from.
In the competitive awards, the innovative South Carolina duo, Shovels & Rope, took two major wins with Song of the Year, for "Birmingham." They also scored Emerging Artists of the Year. The reminder of the awards were fairly unremarkable and predictable with Artist of the Year going to Dwight Yokam. There were was a bit of audience unrest when it was announced that Yokam couldn't make it to pick up his award due to schedule conflicts.
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell received nods for Duo of the Year and Album of the Year for Old Yellow Moon, an excellent album that is also the most commercially successful and familiar in a category that could have included dozens of other fine releases during the past year. While, it is a safe choice for this award, it is also not without its merits including a sometimes risky selection of material.
But, the awards were minor compared to the pleasure of hearing Robert Hunter softly whisper his way through his Grateful Dead classic, "Ripple," on his old weather-beaten guitar. He seemed like a wise old storytelling sage giving sound advice to future generations.
If a presenter of the year award could have been given out it surely would have gone to Ry Cooder both for his appearance and his obvious love for his old mentor, roots music entrepreneur Chris Strachwitz. Then came the durable, Old Crow Medicine Show, who were championed by the Americana Music Association more than a decade ago and have now been included in the Grand Ole Opry cast. They played their now classic, "Wagon Wheel," paying tribute as much to The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band as to the early country music artists they were compared to when they received honors as Americana Trailblazers from television and film star, Ed Helms.
By far, the most electric and exciting honors were to the remaining three artists, Duane Eddy, Dr. John and Stephen Stills. The much deserved honor for Lifetime Achievement for Instrumentalist to Duane Eddy was spine-chilling. After a rambling but engaging speech, he strapped on his guitar and played the opening riffs to "Rebel Rouser," a song that virtually defined rock and surf guitar for years to come. The result in the near-perfect acoustics of Ryman Auditorium was the ability to feel the clarity of Eddy's guitar voicing in a way that felt larger-than-life.
Dr. John's Lifetime Achievement Honor for was most fully realized when he played a solo intro to the concluding song of the evening, Rodney Crowell's "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight." His five minute solo cast a magic spell over the place that turned the old venue into a little bit of New Orleans for that few minutes. The same could be said of his earlier performance of "I Walk On Gilded Splinters," from his 1968 debut album, GRIS gris.
Stephen Stills, veteran musician of such classics bands as Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash, was presented the Freedom of Speech award by Ken Paulson, editor of the Americana online journal, Sun209, and president of The First Amendment Center, and former Springfield band mate, Richie Furay. Stills, unpretentiously decided not to speak about any current news stories, as he did when he wrote his 1967 classic song about the riots in Hollywood, "For What It's Worth." Instead, joined by Richie Furay and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, he performed the folk-rock song as a raging blues stomp with blistering solos from Shephard and himself. Furay good naturedly and energetically supported his friend making it two thirds of a Buffalo Springfield reunion. Stills clearly relished his role as a veteran blues front man and mentor to the dynamic playing of Shepherd. The jam brought the evening to a close followed by a group interpretation of Crowell's classic song about Louisiana.
If anything came clear as the evening drew to an end it was the continuity found in the diversity of music that draws from the broad landscape of American music. It is a musical geography that reaches out and touches people of all cultures around the world. It transcends political, religious, racial and cultural differences as it brings a unique kind of healing to the front of the stage. It was seen in the generations that reached back in time to a tragic 29 year-old Hank Williams to remember the soulful yearnings of a young southern man born in poverty, his life cut short by alcoholism.
The unity and the healing came clear at the end of the evening as Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell stood side-by-side singing one of Crowell's best loved songs. The two artists divorced many years ago.
It was also clear in the way this music community has embraced young artists who experiment with old traditions to create a new and unique sounds; artists like Shovels & Rope and The Milk Carton Kids.
As Wednesday night attests to, it would be hard to find a more positive and supportive awards show than this one. If this music is about community, continuity, diversity, integrity and love for both the song and its makers, then this awards show is exemplary in the way it continues to reach out to young and old alike for a place in the Mother Church we now not only call Ryman Auditorium, but also Americana music.