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CHEERS AND TEARS AT THE AMERICANA MUSIC AWARDS

By the time the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band took the stage at The Ryman Auditorium Wednesday night (9/21) to celebrate 50 Years of Dirt and Will the Circle Be Unbroken—joined by an all-star cast of Margo Price, Bonnie Raitt, Lucinda Williams, Jim Lauderdale, Steve Earle, Parker Milsap and The Milk Carton Kids—it was clear that the future of roots music was now deeply planted and coming on strong. With Jason Isbell (below left) winning Album and Song of the Year for Something More Than Free and “24 Frames” and Chris Stapleton taking Artist of the Year, the next wave is grounded and punching through for the format some joke is where “legends go to keep going.”

If anything, the 15th Annual Americana Music Association Awards showed that song-driven music is in better shape than its ever been. Opening with a four-way tribute to Dr. Ralph StanleyAlison Krauss, Buddy Miller, Stuart Duncan and Melonie Cannon’s a capella “Gloryland” (below right); to Allen Toussaint with Joe Henry performing “Freedom for the Stallion”; to Guy Clark as Earle performed a tugging “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train”; and to Merle Haggard via Lifetime Achievement for Performing winner Bob Weir doing an almost Dixieland-basted “Mama Tried,” the power of the past set the tone for the night, a night that saw as much strength from the newcomers.

Price took home the Emerging Artist Award, in a glamorous persimmon velvet dress slit up to the bottom of her trunk, after performing a wailing “Back to Tennessee” that merged Memphis soul with a particularly gutbucket kind of country. Thanking Ben Swank, Third Man, Jack White and Ben Blackwell, she cheekily tossed out “and all the people in this room who passed on my record.”

The only truly “old guard” winner in the yearly categories saw Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell take Duo or Group of the Year—recognizing their two collaborative albums and very successful tour.

The Lumineers, sandwiching the Awards in between two sold-out nights at the Ascend Amphitheatre, played “Angela.” The always humble acoustic/alternative trio with the two consecutive #1 debuting albums was cited in AMA President Jed Hilley’s introduction as their landslide success being the reason Billboard finally added an Americana chart.

Beyond the performances, which—saving the Milk Carton Kids’ haunting “Memphis”—were jubilant, this year’s Americana Awards truly stressed the power and quality of the music these artists were making, Raitt spoke of being turned onto to Trailblazer winner Shawn Colvin’s Steady On by Jackson Browne, invoking Little Feat and Joni Mitchell along the way. Producer/songwriter/Americana 2015 Instrumentalist John Leventhal talked of seeing Lifetime Achievement for Songwriting William Bell’s name on record spines before hearing him on the radio in a speech that balanced erudite with a kid’s aw shuck adoration.

Unabashed reverence may be what sets Americana apart, in a night that saw John Prine, Bruce Hornsby and First Amendment Center President Ken Paulson as presenters. Giving Billy Bragg the Freedom of Speech Award “for the first time to an artist from overseas who did it without the protection of the First Amendment, something too many Americans take for granted.”

Bragg’s speech in this election year—which started off with the quip, “If Tom Hiddleston can play Hank Williams, then in cultural exchange Lyle Lovett should be the new James Bond”—spoke of what the responsibility of citizenship means. Without ever becoming charged, he left the room with a thought-provoking notion that “America is never as great as when it lives up to the principles on which it was founded.”

That award was followed by Bragg’s presentation of the President’s Award to Woody Guthrie. Lucinda Williams accepted on behalf of Guthrie’s daughter, reading from his papers on songwriting, citing his need to write songs that lift up the maligned and downtrodden.

George Strait—the unlikeliest presenter of the night—provided the evening’s most emotional moment. Presenting the Wagonmaster Award to 14-time AMA host Jim Lauderdale (top of page)the impossibly tan star recognized an often unseen by the mainstream songwriter/artist for his impact on Strait’s career and Lauderdale’s own prodigious output. Clearly overcome, the Grammy winner, who’s recorded and toured with or had his songs recorded by Elvis Costello, Dr. Ralph Stanley, Donna The Buffalo, Patty Loveless and Robert Hunter, spoke of a journey from North Carolina to Nashville to New York City, Los Angeles to Nashville and the road with a respect for creativity as its own path.

Dressed in cobalt-blue Manuel with white lightning bolts outlined in rhinestones, Lauderdale embodied the awards namesake’s flashy sartorial style. Introducing Strait’s “King of Broken Hearts,” inspired by Gram Parsons telling a roomful of people that’s who George Jones was, Lauderdale had tears in his eyes. Halfway through the song, former MCA Nashville A&R legend Tony Brown raced up the steps to both his men, making the circle complete.

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