Tenth Annual Americana Music Association Awards: Nashville’s Night of Joy
by Terry Roland
If the streets of heaven are paved with gold, the soundtrack may be the music heard along the streets of Nashville last week during all hours of the day and night. The center of the score was heard on Thursday night when the Americana faithful gathered at the historic Ryman Auditorium to honor the highlights of what has been a gold standard year of Americana music. Opening with Buddy Miller, Allison Krauss, Emmylou Harris and Jerry Douglas paying homage to the roots of the music and the auditorium itself with the gospel classic, Albert Brumley’s “I’ll Fly Away,” the evening was well-paced, entertaining and even, at times inspiring as the show reached across generations and continents to honor such groundbreakers and standard bearers as Greg Allman, Lucinda Williams, Jerry Douglas,, Justin Townes Earle, The Avett Brothers, Robert Plant, Buddy Miller and Bob Harris.
For this writer, it was a feeling of familiarity and continuity to be at the live venue that is considered the holiest of concert halls in America by those of us who love this music and its history. The continutity was found in the distinct feeling of the spirit of the generations of great music that has streamed through the hall and the fact that it was once a gospel temple designed as a permanent home for the old-time religous tent revivals of the day. On this night it was home to those devoted to honoring the finest in American music, old and new. It was a tent revival, a dusty honky-tonk, a coffee house and a rock and roll palace all embraced in one evening of diverse and imaginative music.
During the Achievement Awards, if anyone stole the show by going off script and enjoying spontaneous storytelling it was Jerry Douglas, who was awarded a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement trophy for Instrumentalist. Lucinda Williams followed her Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting with a beautifully rendered, “Blessings,” from her latest album, a sentiment that was reflected in her touching, emotional speech. BBC broadcaster Bob Harris’ nod for Trailblazer acknowledged the importance of the community that has thrived between the UK and America in recent years to help expand this form of music beyond cultural borders. But, it was Greg Allman who quietly reigned with a low-key speech and a beautifully understated version of the classic Allman Brother’s Song, “Melissa.”
While no fan of this genre of music can possibly argue with any of the nominees or winners this year and the awards seem secondary to the celebration itself, the highlights of the show came when newcomers to the awards and to this music scene were honored. To see Justin Townes Earle nearly fly across the stage as he accepted his award for Song of the Year for “Harlem River Blues,” was a welcome addition to a growing community of new, young talent. Although Mumford and Sons were not present due to touring obligations, their Emerging Artists Award was also deserved reflecting, along with Robert Plant’s inclusion in recent years in the AMA Awards, the desire to reach out across our shores to expand our musical boundaries. It was a clear upset that Civil Wars went home empty handed in this and other categories, but judging from award patterns of previous years, they will be back and they remain important emerging artists to watch. The Avett Brothers, who won Duo/Group of the Year, delivered a performance that clearly demonstrated why they took the trophy in this category.
In the major categories, Justin Townes Earle’s “Harlem City Blues” was no surprise, but still remained an adventurous choice considering Earle’s strongest competition came from The Decemberists with Gillian Welch, an Americana favorite who has been inactive in the studio until this year. Hayes Carll’s nomination for “Kmag Yoyo” was a curiosity considering the field of fine songs available while this song was merely a clever re-write of the Dylan classic “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
The choice of Robert Plants’ Band of Joy as album of the year reflects the leaning toward Buddy Miller who continues to represent the established Nashville artist’s stronghold on the awards. Although the award for Band of Joy is about Robert Plant and the British blues-rocker’s successful turn toward Americana; it’s hard to imagine the album taking this award without Buddy Miller’s involvement. This may explain why Buddy was chosen for Artist of the Year after previously winning in this category in 2009. It would have seemed that Plant had a lock on this category. Buddy Miller himself may even have been surprised at being given the award this year. As the Americana Music Association grows in its membership and influence outside of Nashville, the trend toward inclusiveness shown in the Lifetime Achievement and New Artist categories will hopefully continue to grow. So, although it may have been a kind of upset(if such a word is possible when talking about these awards), to see Buddy Miller outrank Robert Plant in the Artist of the Year area, it is no surprise.
Robert Plant and Band of Joy performed the folk-psychedelic, “Monkey,” from the Band of Joy album. The performance transformed the old Opry house into something feeling more like a late 60’s club on the Sunset Strip. Plant showed why his instrument could be considered his mic stand as much as his voice. It was a near breathtaking moment to witness how far Americana’s branches reach out by inlcuding Robert Plant’s great peformance of this song with band members Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin, Marco Giovino, Byron House and Greg Leisz(who was sitting in for Darrell Scott).
The remainder of the show included a excellent performances from Civil Wars, Elizabeth Cook and Buddy Miller and Regina McCrary. Veteran soul singer, Candi Staton, provided the finest reminder of the R&B’s roots in American music with a well-performed, “Heart on String.” We look forward to hearing more from her in the world of Americana music.
Overall, like this emerging genre, the feeling of the evening was much less about competitive awards than about this gathering community coming together in one of America’s holest musical temple to celebrate the spirit of the music, its history and roots along with the ever growing branches that keep us in the present with a vision toward our common future as musicians, artists and passionate lovers of this music and its makers.
Part two of my interview with Jim Lauderdale will be published this week along with interviews with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Warren Hellmen, Michael Martin Murphy, Pokey LaFarge, Chris Pickering, The New Country Rehab and reveiws of the various showcases and events around town during the Americana Music Assocation Conference in Nashville during the week of October 12th.