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ROOTS MUSIC’S PAST & PRESENT INTERSECT
AT THE AMERICANA AWARDS

In a lot of ways, the 14th Annual Americana Awards felt like just another cozy night in the dressing room at Ronnie Mack’s Barn Dance at North Hollywood’s legendary Palomino. With Jim Lauderdale as host, Buddy Miller as musical director, Lucinda Williams in the wings and Los Lobos (shown above) on the front row at the iconic Ryman Auditorium, it was a coming-of-age party for the roots/rock/almost punk music of another time.

Jed Hilly kicked off the AMA's 16th Conference + Festival with aplomb, as Robert Randolph was joined by The Fairfield Four and The McCrary Sisters for “Rock My Soul.” Then Lauderdale took the stage, welcomed the audience and wasted no time bringing out Grammy-winning roots-country songwriter Rodney Crowell to present the night’s first award—the Lifetime Achievement Trailblazer Award—to Don Henley.

Henley, recognized for his activism as well as thumbprint on modern American music, has been leaning hard to the world of honest songwriting with his latest, Cass County. His poignant “Prayin’ for the Rain”—featuring guitarist and longtime Eagles hired gun Steuart Smith—emphatically flexed his bona fides as a populist writer and a dusty-voiced Texan who understands the plight of those in the small towns.

Also moving into the Americana realm from the mainstream, pure country vocalist Lee Ann Womack scorched Julie Miller’s “Don’t Listen to the Wind” after being introduced by Buddy as “someone who’s been on this stage several times, but this is her first as a nominee, for Artist and Album of the Year for The Way I’m Livin’.”

But it was not merely a night of veterans showing off their best selves. Newcomer nominee Shakey Graves (at left) charmed as the third performer with “Dearly Departed;” Rhiannon Giddens earned a standing ovation with a high-intensity, banjo-driven “Waterboy”; Houndmouth found a pop-place for their roots; Nikki Lane, decked out in a crotch-grazing Roy Rogers’ cowgirl suit, slunk through “Right Time” with the spunk you’d expect from a young woman opening for Social Distortion.

The rest balanced Lifetime Achievement Awards—recognizing careers well-realized—and the best of its current awards cycle. John Hiatt brought out his equally talented daughter Lilly and offered the contemplative “Long Time Coming,” while Doug Seegers, homeless three years ago,  offered his tender hope’n’love paean for a junkie paramour “Angie’s Song,” looking like Hank Williams in a cobalt blue Western suit.

First Amendment Center prexy and former USA Today editor-in-chief Ken Paulson joined “Born to Be Wild”er John Kaye to present the Spirit of Americana/Free Speech Award to Buffy Sainte-Marie. Visibly moved, she offered “I’ve been Buffy Sainte-Marie for a long time,” then tendered a full-force “Universal Soldier.”

The show was low on production values—Ken Ehrlich would’ve died—as Austin City Limits maven Terry Lickona kept the focus on music without surrendering to tedium. The Lone Bellow performed with strings and a French horn, and Ry Cooder, Ricky Skaggs and The Whites took the Southern gospel “Over in Gloryland” into a clean intimate space, while Lucinda Williams’ throaty “East Side of Town” had the gut punch of Chrissie Hynde.

Jason Isbell (right) whose Something More Than Free was released too late for this awards cycle, thrilled with a muscular but restrained take on the title track. Selling the Ryman out for four nights in October, he proves the genre’s strength is word-of-mouth and the commitment of fans to music that’s got a little meat, life and insight on its bones.

Dressed in primary color rico-suave glamour, The Mavericks used horns and accordion for a deep-groove “Pardon Me,” then were visibly stunned when they won Duo/Group of the Year later in the night. Leader Raul Malo blurted, “Holy shit! We won something,” prompting a roar of affectionate laughter.

The night’s big winners were Sturgill Simpson—in absentia—for Song (“Turtles All the Way Down”) and Artist of the Year, Graves as Emerging Artist and Williams, producers Tom Overby and Greg Leisz for Album of the Year for the jarring Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. In the Lifetime Achievement category, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings received the honor for Songwriting, Ricky Skaggs was named Instumentalist in a speech written and delivered by Ry Cooder, and Los Lobos were recognized for Performance, then tore it up with a particularly sweet “Will the Wolf Survive.”

Two performances stuck out in a night of ridiculously high-quality music. Keb Moe gave a heartfelt speech for BB King’s President’s Award, name-checking Bukka White, both Sonny Boy Williams, Sam Phillips, The Tonight Show, U2 and, yes, “The Thrill Is Gone.” As Lucille sat beside him, he then launched into “How Blue Can You Get,” turning his voice inside out and playing with a passion that reminded everyone just what the blues can do.

Miller was joined by Marc Ribot (below, left) for a bare yet breathtaking version of “Cold, Cold Heart” that showed the depths of Miller’s soul and beyond-this-world musicality. Quiet, refined and dignified, yet raw as a bone, this performance possessed the veracity of emotion laid bare, where Americana excels. Los Lobos returned for a romping, all-star show-closer “One Time, One Night in America” that illuminated the joy, sweep and passion that informs this music. It was a celebration of America at its roots—and as the Republican debates blathered and bloated on, five guys from East L.A. painted a whole different picture of makes this country great on the stage of what remains the Mother Church of Country Music.

Streamed live at NPR.org, broadcast on SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country and Nashville’s WSM-AM, The 14th Annual Americana Awards will be broadcast on PBS Nov. 21 as part of this season’s Austin City Limits.

 

Photos by Rick Diamond and Erika Goldring/Getty Images

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