Veterans of roots music fared well at the 2017 Americana Music Honors & Awards, with John Prine and Marty Stuart accepting hand-made trophies for Artist and Group of the Year respectively. The 16th annual ceremony again offered resonant performances and speeches at the Ryman Auditorium on a night that showcased the diversity and mutual admiration of the musical format and its community.
An ensemble cast featuring songwriter Danny Flowers paid homage to the recently deceased Don Williams with a nightcap performance of “Tulsa Time,” moments after Northern Irish rock and roll legend Van Morrison accepted a lifetime achievement award with only a song.
Emmylou Harris, a fellow career award winner, presented the award to Morrison, saying “he has always been a poet, a spiritual seeker, a magical interpreter.” She added that “he has produced a stunning variety of music daring to explore an emotional landscape that we probably didn’t know existed.” Morrison appeared briefly at the podium but then handed off his award and slipped over to center stage to perform his new song “Transformation.”
The Americana Music Association voters opted for experience over contemporary heat in giving the Artist of the Year to John Prine, who offered emotional thanks to his touring band, family and “the little record company that could, Oh Boy Records.” The revered songwriter, who launched his career in 1971 with a classic self-titled album, cheekily told the Ryman Auditorium crowd that “I’ve been waiting for this award a while.” Though he did win the songwriting Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003.
Earlier, Prine offered an emotional tribute to Trailblazer Award winner Iris DeMent. After she performed “Morning Glory” solo at the piano, the two joined forces for the witty and naughty “In Spite of Ourselves,” which they released in 1999.
The coveted Album of the Year prize went to the elusive Sturgill Simpson, who was elusive enough to be overseas in Europe and unable to receive in person. A Sailor’s Guide To Earth was one of the most widely acclaimed albums of 2016 overall; it earned a nomination for the same category at the Grammy Awards.
The show opened with Old Crow Medicine Show emerging from the crowd to perform “Rainy Day Women.” The first award of the night, that of Instrumentalist of the Year, went to Charlie Sexton, wide-ranging sideman, producer and recording artist who’s worked with Bob Dylan and Lucinda Williams among many others.
Emerging Artist of the Year winner Amanda Shires shared memories of crashing on friends’ couches as she was coming up and credited her husband Jason Isbell with “reminding me that I’m good at music.”
Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives had already delivered a superlative performance of “Time Don’t Wait for Nobody” by the time they were called to the stage to accept the group award. Stuart, whose only Americana award prior to this evening was a 2005 lifetime honor for performance, recalled arriving in Nashville at age 13 to join Lester Flatt’s bluegrass band at the Ryman. “It has been a blur since then. It’s gone by so fast,” he said.
One highlight performance combined two lifetime achievement award winners. Robert Cray, who was celebrated by Vince Gill as being a great guitarist who’d learned from Albert Collins and “as soulful a singer as you’ll hear,” performed “You Must Believe In Yourself” from his new collaboration album with the historic rhythm section from Hi Records, recipients in the lifetime instrumentalist category. Producer and drummer Steve Jordan said the members of Hi Rhythm, as they’re known, “sound better today than they’ve ever sounded.”
Graham Nash was granted the Spirit of Americana Freedom of Speech in Music Award for what its creator and grantor Ken Paulson said was his role in “perhaps the most socially engaged rock group of all time,” Crosby, Stills & Nash. Nash reached to a personal memory rather than one of his activist anthems like “Military Madness” for his performance. He told a story of getting invited by surprise to sing a third part with his idols the Everly Brothers in Toledo years ago. Then he reprised that night by singing “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)” with The Milk Carton Kids.
Record executives Larry Sloven and Bruce Bromberg took the 2017 Lifetime Achivement Award for Executive for their founding and 25 years leading the innovative HighTone Records, which launched the career of Robert Cray.
Song of the Year was “It Ain’t Over Yet” by Rodney Crowell. Other performers included Hurray For The Riff Raff, Rhiannon Giddens, Jason Isbell, the Drive-By Truckers, Margo Price, Brent Cobb with the McCrary Sisters, Lori McKenna and The Lumineers.
Photos by Getty Images via Americana Music Association.
Correction: The original story noted Sturgill Simpson as the only recipient not present. Rodney Crowell was also unable to attend.