THROUGH THE LENS: A Weekend of All Things Ameripolitan
Kristina Murray - Ameripolitan Weekender 2023 - Photo by Kevin Smith
What is Ameripolitan? The Ameripolitan Awards Weekender website‘s list of nominees for the 2023 honors ends with a note defining the term as “a word that represents the different heritage of roots music that inform the artists that you see here. Much of the music is hard to define to a single genre and as musicians, we tend to draw inspiration from many things to create a unique voice or sound.”
The Ameripolitan awards are given in four categories: Western Swing, Outlaw, Rockabilly, and Honky Tonk. Artists in each category were well represented at last weekend’s event with showcases Friday and Saturday and the Awards show Sunday night.
Founded by Dale Watson in 2014 in Austin, Texas, the Ameripolitan nonprofit organization moved to Memphis, Tennessee, when he did in 2018. This year’s Weekender was held at the Guesthouse at Graceland, on Elvis Presley Boulevard. Coming back from a two-year COVID hiatus, and with the sights and sounds of the hit movie Elvis lingering in the air, this year’s event was a humdinger!
The column is fortunate to have had Kevin Smith there to report on the weekend. While his photos have frequently been featured in this column, his last full report was in 2019, when he highlighted the rockabilly fest Nashville Boogie.
The 2023 Ameripolitan Awards Weekender by Kevin Smith
This grand celebration of music involved so many wonderful performances that I simply can’t talk about all of them here, so I’m just going to mention a few highlights and takeaways. (You can browse the full schedule here — what a list of names!)
The singular highlight for me was the incomparable Sierra Ferrell, who took home the Western Swing Female Award. Part old-time mountain music, part honky-tonk, with a healthy dash of 1930s Django jazz thrown in, Ferrell played a highly exciting set to a packed house at the Graceland Theater. Truly a unique and creative soul, and at the top of her game, it’s no wonder that she has quickly become a beloved performer.
Other singer-songwriters who grabbed me included Texan Kaitlin Butts, and Nashville’s Kristina Murray and Emily Nenni. Also from Nashville, Melissa Carper and Brennen Leigh played a batch of western swing-inspired songs and were joined by Grammy-winning vocalist and fiddler Katie Shore from Asleep at the Wheel. Another highlight was India Ramey, who performed at a Hank Williams tribute.
Ultra-traditionalist Jake Penrod was a crowd favorite, playing honky-tonk the way it was done back in the golden era of country music, and he just may have the best Hank Williams vocal interpretation of anybody. Rockabilly was well represented, and it is always a thrill to catch Joey Simeone, frontman for The Bellfuries. True to form, his Sam Cooke-inspired vocals absolutely wowed the crowd.
Fans of country and rockabilly guitar had lots to rave about as well. Kyle Eldridge and Sean Mencher put on a performance for the ages featuring tributes to guitar greats Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, and Joe Maphis. Rising guitar star Mitch Polzak also dazzled with his instrumental interpretation of Sergio Leone’s theme music for spaghetti westerns. By far, though, the most popular band representing the rockabilly genre at the moment is The Hi-Jivers from Nashville. They are a husband-wife duo that focuses on a hybrid of rockabilly that’s steeped in the blues.
Complete with a fashion show, red carpet, and an afterparty, the awards ceremony closed out the weekend on Sunday night with performances by The Whitmore Sisters, Wayne Hancock, Brennen Leigh, and many more. In addition to the annual awards, listed below, some of the music’s legends received special awards for their lifetime contributions. This year’s recipients were country music trailblazer Johnny Rodriguez and honky-tonkers The Adams Brothers. Rodriguez was a popular star in the late ’70s and into the early ’80s. He’s well known as a superior vocalist, and he performed on this night, playing Lefty Frizzell’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” to a standing ovation. Perhaps best known as the touring band for both George Jones and Johnny Paycheck, The Adams Brothers’ roots run deeper still, as they backed up other legendary performers including Ray Price and Marty Robbins, Loretta Lynn, Little Jimmy Dickens, Merle Haggard, and Buck Owens.
What a weekender, my head is still buzzing.
Here’s a list of the 2023 Ameripolitan Award nominees and winners (in bold):
HONKY TONK FEMALE
HONKY TONK MALE
Garrett T Capps
HONKY TONK GROUP
Cory Grinder & The Playboy Scouts
Croy & The Boys
Scott H. Biram
Vincent Neil Emerson
Dallas Moore Band
Jenny Don’t & The Spurs
The Rhyolite Sound
The Whitmore Sisters
Sean K. Preston
The Phantom Shakers
WESTERN SWING FEMALE
WESTERN SWING MALE
A Jay Wade
WESTERN SWING GROUP
The Southwest Biscuit Company
West of Texas
Western Swing Authority
The Lucky Stars
Daniel Mason (banjo)
Katie Shore (fiddle)
Kullen Fox (trumpet + piano)
Mike Bernal (drums)
T. Jarrod Bonta (piano)
Celia Villagran – Texas Hellkitten Radio
Jimi Palacios – Country Du Monde
Kevin Martinez – Colonel Paco Chaos Pacobilly Hour
Marivi Yubero Garcia – Marivipolitan
Del Villarreal – Go Kat, GO! The Rock-A-Billy Show!
Knuckleheads, Kansas City
Rattlesnake Saloon – Munich, Germany
Roosters Country – Mesa, Arizona
The Southgate House Revival – Newport, Kentucky
Sagebrush – Austin, Texas
Michael Hearne’s Big Barn Dance – Taos, New Mexico
Western Swing Out – Tehachapi, California
Vintage Torque Fest – Dubuque, Iowa
Zoofest – Lincoln, Nebraska
Click on any photo to view the gallery as a full-size slideshow.