Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, the Milk Carton Kids, hosting the 17th Americana Honors and Awards at the Ryman Auditorium, made a joke early in the evening about Jason Isbell’s propensity to win the annual prizes of late, and indeed the Alabama-raised songwriter continued a strong streak with three trophies.
Isbell won Album of the Year for 2017’s The Nashville Sound, Song of the Year for the counter-intuitive love song “If We Were Vampires,” as well as the first Duo/Group of the Year for himself and his “buddies” in The 400 Unit. Isbell previously won Artist of the Year in 2014, as well as Song and Album of the Year in 2014 and 2016.
Yet it was 71-year-old John Prine who took Artist of the Year for the second consecutive time (he also won in 2005). “I want to thank everybody who bought my record or who didn’t buy my record.” said a winsome Prine of his acclaimed 2018 Tree of Forgiveness. “We’ll get you sooner or later.” He also tipped his hat to Oh Boy Records, the indie label he co-founded in 1981. “I want to thank the whole Nashville music community for the support they’ve given Oh Boy over the years,” he said, deflecting the abundant admiration for a legendary musician who won the association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting in 2003.
In accepting Album of the Year, Isbell called producer Dave Cobb to the podium, where the rarely seen, widely-credited record man called Isbell and Amanda Shires "family." “They always include me in everything," he said. "It’s also an honor to be part of this community, the best music community in the world.” Isbell echoed the sentiment, saying, “I believe in the work that all of us are doing together as a group.”
The night began with the charismatic vocal trio of Fantastic Negrito, Lukas Nelson and Nathaniel Rateliff singing “Fortunate Son,” in recognition of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 50th anniversary. Ryan and Pattengale, hosting the show for the first time, brought dry wit and a Smothers Brothers style folk duet that cheekily posed the question “What Even Is Americana?”
Molly Tuttle won the first award of the night for Instrumentalist of the Year. Already the first woman to win International Bluegrass Music Association Guitar Player of the Year last Fall, as well as a songwriting prize at February’s Folk Alliance, Tuttle took a trophy that’s tended to go to studio pickers and sidemen. She is a California raised bluegrass flatpicker and a singer songwriter who’s only released one EP for a label. That company, Compass Records, is planning a full album in the coming months. Her thanks to her father “for teaching me to play music” was particularly special given that Jack Tuttle is a long time Bay Area educator who gave early lessons to a fellow category nominee, the fiddler Brittany Haas.
Kentucky songwriter Tyler Childers arrived on the scene with a huge impact last year with his album Purgatory. That, plus dozens of riveting live performances, earned him Emerging Act of the Year. He expressed some perhaps feigned disbelief at arriving at the podium and exuded an aura of rural roughness. "Ya'll left the door open and now there's a stark raving hill jack in your living room," he said. As a performer, he hit the stage seated and solo in a white Kentucky Colonel suit and sang a devastating, raspy “Nose On The Grindstone.”
The Sprit of Americana Free Speech In Music Award had extra resonance as this year’s recipient was the daughter of its first grantee in 2002, Johnny Cash, who died fifteen years ago to the day of this year’s recognition. Rosanne Cash was brought on by Americana long-time house band bassist Don Was, who noted “there’s no disconnect between her feelings, her words and her deeds.” Cash was received with several standing ovations, and she told the audience that artists are not trivial figures in society but “the premiere service workers for the heart and soul.” Her remarks also noted her passion for women’s equality and her campaign for gun control.
Irma Thomas was understated and charming in accepting her Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance. The duo of Michael and Tanya Trotter, known as The War and Treaty, presented, citing the New Orleans legend as “one of the great American voices.” "This was a big surprise for me," Thomas said. "You receive lifetime achievement awards when you get old, and at 77, I’m only 14.” Her live performance of her 1964 B-side “Time Is On My Side,” with the McCrary Sisters singing heart-pounding call-and-response support, was given a full do-over when her vocal mic failed to pass through to the main PA on the first try. The audience was delighted, and it was the night’s only technical glitch.
Blues songster Keb’ Mo’ brought grad school level nuance to his introduction of Buddy Guy, as the great Chicago blues man took his Lifetime Achievement Award for Instrumentalist. “Think about a young boy hearing a sound he would follow his whole life,” he said, evoking Guy’s rural upbringing in Louisiana in the 1940s. Guy strode on stage wearing a shirt with his trademark polka dots and charmed the house with brief remarks about the need for more blues on the radio and some worldly wisdom earned in his 82 years. “If you think you got too old to learn, you better stay at home,” he said. Then Guy picked up his Stratocaster and performed the self-descriptive title track to his 1991 album Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues.
NPR’s Ann Powers presented the executive lifetime award to Olivia Records founders Cris Williamson and Judy Dlugacz. At the podium, the collaborators recognized the whole collective of women who built a record label that delivered Williamson’s vital The Changer And The Changed to the world in the 1970s and ultimately sold several million records overall. “We helped changed the way women were seen and included in the music industry,” an emotional Dlugacz said.
Between awards, annual and lifetime, came the now-expected sequence of stunning single-song performances by nominees. Courtney Marie Andrews did not win Emerging Act of the Year, but her performance of “May Your Kindness Remain,” an album title cut from early this year, brought the house down with her sky-scraping voice. Brandi Carlile had a similar effect, singing the mighty Song of the Year nominee “The Joke” with its copious empathy and uncanny high notes. Anderson East delivered “King For A Day,” calling up musical spirits of Muscle Shoals.
Other performers taking the Ryman stage included the acoustic trio I’m With Her, Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen and East Nashville folk rocker Lilly Hiatt (introduced movingly by her father John). Prine sang “Summer’s End” from his acclaimed Tree of Forgiveness album. Isbell, with wife Amanda Shires, offered “White Man’s World” from The Nashville Sound.
The three-and-a-half-hour show neared its close with a performance of “Trail of Broken Hearts” by 2018’s Trailblazer Award recipient k.d. lang. The Canadian born mega-star thanked Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt “for showing me the light” in her early years. She closed brief remarks by saying “I’m flattered and so honored to be in this temple of great music. The trailblazers have left their sweat on this stage, and that’s where it’s at.” Following that, Thomas, Carlile and Andrews, along with The War and Treaty and the McCrary Sisters, reprised the night’s opening motif “Chain of Fools,” in honor of the late Aretha Franklin.
Several blocks from the Ryman, the City Winery hosted a jam packed viewing party via a webcast over NPR Music’s website. The show will be edited for broadcast on CMT in November and on public television next winter.