Americana Awards: Lifetimes of Achievement, But So Much More
You could spend several hundred words recapping who won, who played, who presented. It’s a laundry list of the best of singer/songwriter, root,s and other organic forms of music. Indeed, several hundred words wouldn’t do the night justice.
Or you could talk about what it means to see Booker T. Jones get a Lifetime Achievement Award, This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark winning Album of the Year or Gillian Welch being named Artist of the Year, and you would talk about lives committed to music. You would be right, but you would miss so much. And so much of what makes this week matter isn’t in the facts. Or even the between the lines. It’s in the hearts, and the souls of the music makers, the tangle of their lives…and the people who commit to these artists year after year, stringing their own journeys with this music.
That’s the thing about music when it matters, when it digs deep. It is always there, like a stain you can’t get out, like a habit you can’t quite quit. But it is more than that; even when it’s on the fringes, it’s a reason for being.
Look at Buddy Miller, leading the band, and show host Jim Lauderdale: old friends whose lives have circled and merged and diverged for years.
Buddy Miller was once in Lauderdale’s band back at North Hollywood’s Palomino Night Club, long past its prime as the go-to place for country acts working LA in the 60s and 70s, and then a bunker for roots/country acts trying to stake a claim post-Lone Justice/Blasters/X cowpunk. Even before that, folkie/bluegrassers in New York City with a pal named Shawn Colvin, who nobody’d ever heard of.
And nobody’s thinking about that right now, either. Buddy Miller has made acclaimed solo albums, played with Emmylou Harris, produced Solomon Burke and anchored the Band of Joy with Robert Plant and Patty Griffin. Heck, tonight he’s holding down a band of Don Was on bass, Wallflower/Foo Fighter Rami Jaffe on keys, Dylan vet/producer Larry Campbell on seemingly everything and Daniel Lanois vet/drummer Brady Blades.
And Jimmy, as we used to call him back when he stunt-sang for Dwight Yoakam in the studio and mimicked every 80s country star to perfection, has made records with the North Mississippi All-Stars, Donna the Buffalo and won a Grammy with his collaboration with Dr. Ralph Stanley, as well as written songs with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter and has provided George Strait, Patty Loveless and the Dixie Chicks with multiple Bakersfield/Carolina-steeped #1s.
No one thinks about where these folks come from. What they’ve seen, what they’ve done, what their late night conversations are strewn with. And yet, that’s who they are: an accumulation of all the miles they’ve traveled, people they’ve loved, lost, even betrayed or been betrayed by.
When you lose site of that, you lose site of everything that has value. But don’t tell it to the disposa-music-makers of today: the ones seeking fame, riches, Lear Jets and their own signature scent, liquor brand or clothing line.
When Bonnie Raitt walked onstage to accept her Lifetime Achievement Award – given by John Hiatt, who talked of how music infiltrated his own soul as a young boy – she spoke of he father, a man who died in his 80s still peforming. Because that’s what true artists, true players do.
Bonnie Raitt was once upon a time the blues girl with the heart-shapoed face who found FM-footing with Del Shannon’s “Runaway” and late night consolation with John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery,” a song so searing, its honesty it burned itself into the creative subconscious to emerge years later with Kristen Stewart – pre-“Twilight,” no less – singing it in the film of Jon Krakaur’s “Into the Wild.” Raitt made bumping blues/rock records that evolved from more folk leaning to outright West Coast rock in the vein of Lowell George and Little Feat, throttling records where the songs never took a backseat to the playing… and her voice was a Key West sunset bleeding out over a not too choppy sea.
There might’ve been a gold record back then, back when she was activisting with Jackson Browne. Or not. She was the secret handshake: you knew if people got it by what they said about Bonnie Raitt.
But life has to be paid for. The road takes a toll. Even record companies run as patronages – which Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker’s Warner/Reprise and David Geffen’s Elektra certainly tried to do – need to remember their bototm line.
So Bonnie worked with Prince, shelved the record. Left the label. Found Don Was. Made an album called Nick of Time that Capitol got — through careful tending — to gold, and a lot of Grammy nominations.
Nick of Time was a mid-career assessment of life in the middle. It was honest, vulnerable, wanting, thick with desire and rich her shiny-eyed bravado and the grown-up assessment of where you really are.
”Thing Called Love” threw down a gauntlet for love beyond lust. “I Can’t Make You Love Me” accepted the most painful truth – what is lost can’t be reignited through one’s best effort, yet the need remains. Or the quiet “Nobody’s Girl,” a ponderance of independence that ultimately finds the girl alone, and sad and lonely; not what she’d planned, but certainly what she’d created.
And, of course, the exquisite self-penned title track, about staying the course because that’s all there is — and seeing how decisions made, paths taken create realities you couldn’t have seen or asked for. It was the 30-something coming of age conundrum.
When the woman who’d championed Sippie Wallace and John Lee Hooker found herself up for – then winning – an armload of Grammys, Nick of Time went platinum, twice, three times, four times and kept going, seeming unstoppable.
Cinderella’s slipper fit. Excellence and musicianship was recognized. All was right with the world.
Heck, she was in love. Married the caddy from “Caddyshack.”
But that’s a moment. This, too, shall pass. And it did. The sold-out tours in sheds gave way to smaller halls. Radio got more urban, more hot dance, more teen pop.
The conglomerates who own radio stations don’t care about art or life, they care about numbers, demographic focus realities, maximizing the ad rate base. Whatever works, triple it. Less is more, and worse is better. Let the rats hit the feeder bar… and let the more evolved figure it out for themselves.
Until they’er exhausted. And then let those with the stamina – or stupidity to not find an easier, more profitable way – rise.
For Bonnie Raiit, for Buddy Miller, for Richard Thompson who was devastating in the cascading shower of acoustic guitar notes, there is no choice.
Watching Raitt come out to play “Did What I Had To Do” with once-upon-a-time NRBQ guitarist/massive country hit writer Al Anderson, the circle turned over. It was gentle, it was burning. It was broken, it was strong in its falter.
Raitt has weathered much: the loss of her father, mother and brother, the break-up of her marriage. Radio and quick hit public fancy eroded her superstardom and she took time to grieve. Slipstream, largely self-produced, harvested those things with her usual grace under the heaviness of life.
Even Don Was, who was there and agent of the supernova part of Raitt’s ascendancy, was moved, texting me, “Bonnie’s so amazing… It was ultra-deep to play those songs with her.”
It was. It is.
Music sustains us, even or especially in loss.
At the end of the nearly three-hour show that also featured the future in the Alabama Shakes, Justin Townes Earle, the Deep Dark Woods, as well as Guy Clark singing a song for his recently deceased wife Susanna and Lee Ann Womack offering of “I Love…” with tribute album producer Peter Cooper in her crystalline soprano before bringing “the guy who wrote this, Mr Tom T Hall to the stage” for a moment of genuine awe in an evening of exemplary musical connection, there was Amy Helm.
Helm, an anchor of the no longer roots/folk/gospel Ollabelle, is also the daughter of Levon Helm, the rasp-voiced groove-digging drummer of the Band. Her father was a man who made his mark through humility, love and making the music what was important.
Even with throat cancer, radiation bills and the wolf at the door, he kept playing, kept moving towards the songs and the solidarity playing provides. His Midnight Ramble concerts at his farm in Woodstock were the stuff of magic and legend, an event that never left one’s spirit… and there was Dirt Farmer, the album made two years ago that was as true and real as anything ever recorded.
Like Bonnie Raitt, he had to keep making music.
Like Bonnie Raitt, the light he shed keeps shining even when he’s not in the room.
Amy Helm and Emmylou Harris and too many of the artists on the show to mention poured onto the stage. Doing one for Levon, but indeed it felt like he was there with them in some cosmic way, the players and singers leaned into a ruminatively joyful version of “The Weight.” It was a prayer for getting through, a reminder of how music brings you, a sense that in this community, there will always be someone to help you carry on.
Which isn’t to tell you another fairy story. Earlier that day, in a panel I was moderating about Activism, Music + Cancer, Americana Executive Director Jed Hilly spoke of losing three dear friends to cancer within six months – and how he couldn’t grieve, couldn’t get there or let himself…
Until he went to Levon’s funeral, and found himself pouring into the street with a 30-person drum corps, the assembled mourners and Amy. They let go with a euphoric version of “Ophelia” and marched straight to the town square. It was perfect: music saves, music heals, music delivers in the end.
Life keeps coming at you. It’s what you do with it that matters.
On the same panel, Matraca Berg, who lost her mother to cancer before the songwriter turned 20, spoke of an equally exuberant spirit: Tim Krekel. The King of Louisville, a broker of joy, a long time Jimmy Buffett Coral Reefer on and off, a songwriter and man who knew how to bring his soul to songs.
Krekel fell through the system. There was no net for him when he got cancer. He knew it, he put off the doctor for child support payments and getting by… and then it was too late.
He played right up until the end. Friends finished his last record for him. They played his wedding, played his wake and danced in the streets.
It is like that. Watching Bonnie Raitt be so moved; Amy Helm be so gracious in her loss.
In these moments, it’s not win or lose, chart-position, tickets-sold, but life – and what we give to others. If only we engaged more, supported these acts who don’t have nearly the audience they deserve… remembered to show up, to not get so caught up in the run-around, the daily grind, the what matters least.
In that, those lifetimes of achievement mean a whole lot more than just the songs or credits given. They mean the quality of our lives, and that is – truly – more precious than platinum or Lear Jets.