Americana Awards Celebrates All the Roots of American Music
For all the talk one hears in Americana circles about this being music for old white guys, you’d have been hard-pressed to maintain that argument during last night’s Americana Music Awards. Unlike so many music industry events — which can be as much about the fashion and accolades as they are about any artistic accomplishments — the Americana Awards show was focused hard on celebrating the music that gave us all a reason to get together in the first place.
One of the most stunning performances of the night came from Valerie June, who rocked so hard, it felt like the Ryman audience didn’t even know what to do with her. There was Hurray for the Riff Raff’s remarkable delivery of their murder-ballad-flipped-on-its-head, “The Body Electric.” Cassanda Wilson sang like only Cassandra Wilson can, and Parker Millsap proved that you don’t have to have grey in your beard to unleash blues-rock with legitimate grit.
But, perhaps one of the most remarkable things about the Americana world is its allegiance to its own roots. Unlike almost any other musical genre, artists in the Americana realm don’t time out when it comes to hip factor. The older you are, the more seasoned, the more you are celebrated by those who are picking up your legacy and learning from it, and carrying it on. Keb’ Mo’ recognized this when he introduced the incredible Taj Mahal, painting the great bluesman among the most important cultural practitioners and storytellers of the African diaspora.
In a similar vein, Kacey Musgraves and Angeleena Presley did not miss the fact that their lives as women in country music were made easier thanks to the efforts — and remarkable talent — of Loretta Lynn, when they presented her with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Ry Cooder hurled praise onto Flaco Jimenez, and JD Souther remembered the burgeoning songwriting skill of his friend Jackson Browne — whom several artists namechecked at the mic, as an incredible influence. Browne was on hand to receive the Freedom of Speech Award and told the crowd that music was about telling the truth. He took the importance of truth-telling for granted, he said, having come of age during the rise of the civil rights movement. It was a stirring speech, but not as stirring as his two-song mini set, which kept the crowd silent and rapt.
In fact, it was the music more than the awards, which seemed most celebrated this year. And, rightly so. From Sturgill Simpson’s tornado of honky tonk sparks, to Taj Mahal’s earth-shaking, blues-pouding Lifetime Achievement Award-winning performance; from Parker Millsap’s impressive debut to the Sarah Jarosz’s impeccable instrumentalism, each performance seemed to outdo the last. Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal delivered an exquisite rendition of “A Feather’s Not a Bird” from her Album of the Year-nominated The River and the Thread. Milk Carton Kids (who won for Dou/Group of the Year) let rip a beautiful, if brief, spilling of their tight-knit harmonies.
But it was Isbell’s night, when all was said and done. He took home three sculptures (they’re not so much trophies, these Americana awards, as they are individual works of art): Artist of the Year, Song of the Year (for “Cover Me Up”), and Album of the Year (for Southeastern). It was likely a surprise to few in the room, considering the fact that Southeastern appeared on pretty much every year-end list in the field and earned praise from the whole Americana world, right on up to Bruce Springsteen. Then again, Isbell is an artist who has never shied from the kinds of things that make Americana music important to begin with. He summed it up nicely when explaining the impetus behind “Cover Me Up.” “Do the things that scare you,” he told the audience, which gave him a well-earned standing ovation in return.