Brandi Carlile and John Prine Win, But Many Voices Rise At The Americana Awards
Brandi Carlile, who won three Grammy Awards in the American Roots and Americana categories last February, continued a career-defining and culture-shaping year by being named the Americana Artist of the Year Wednesday night at the Ryman Auditorium. The Washington State songwriter, who’s been releasing albums since 2005 as a folk circuit favorite, has this year spearheaded the collaborative country quartet The Highwomen, produced a comeback album by Tanya Tucker and led a massive multi-artist triumph at the Newport Folk Festival complete with a surprise walk-on by Dolly Parton.
Besides thanking Shooter Jennings and Dave Cobb, her Tucker co-producers, as well as her mother who was in the crowd, Carlile lifted up her fellow nominees just as she’s been supporting fellow female artists of late. “Rhinanon Giddens is one of the most important artists in the genre and of our generation,” she said. “I want to say Kacey Musgraves did something new, and it’s really hard to do something new. And Mavis Staples is not the artist of the year. She is the artist of a lifetime. She gave me the new nickname Baby Gangster. And my nickname for her is Love Bomb. Thank you so much to everybody. I’m just so proud.”
John Prine, Americana Artist of the Year in 2017 and 2018, received the Album of the Year Award for his acclaimed The Tree of Forgiveness and Song of the Year for “Summer’s End,” a prize he shared with co-writer Pat McLaughlin. The audience was overjoyed to see Prine, who recently postponed some tour dates for surgery, and his awards seemed seemed a minor event compared to his duet with Bonnie Raitt on “Angel From Montgomery,” a song he wrote and that she released as a career-defining record in 1974.
The night spoke to a strong run for female star collaborations in general. I’m With Her, the trio featuring Sara Watkins, Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz won the award for Duo/Group of the Year. And the quartet Our Native Daughters, assembled this year by Rhiannon Giddens, featuring Allison Russell, Leyla McCalla and Amythyst Kiah, opened the show. Kiah sang lead on “Black Myself” in a stunning, propulsive celebration of the diversity of voices and backgrounds that has distinguished Americana music recently and that was on the Ryman stage from open to finale.
Michael and Tanya Trotter, the married duo known as The War and Treaty, blasted onto the Americana scene two years ago thanks to an invitation from Buddy Miller to perform and their joyful, titanic voices. On this evening, they were named Emerging Artists of the Year, an honor they received with deep emotion, as Tanya noted the connection between the night’s 9/11 anniversary and her husband’s service in Iraq that led to his music career. In keeping with awards tradition, all of the nominees in the category - Jade Bird (UK), J.S. Ondara (Kenya), Erin Rae and Yola (UK) performed, pointing to a vibrant and international future for the format in both songwriting and outstanding vocals.
Early in the evening, Chris “Critter” Eldridge, son of Seldom Scene banjo player Ben Eldridge and acoustic guitar player in Punch Brothers, was named Instrumentalist of the Year. The prize was presented by fellow flatpickers Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle, spotlighting a return of lead acoustic guitar virtuosity to the roots music scene.
Lifetime Achievement awards provided the most emotional and appreciative moments of the night, as they have been since the celebration began 18 years ago with a performance by Johnny and June Carter. Delbert McClinton, a certified godfather of Americana thanks to his distinctly Texan blend of blues, country and R&B, accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance from his fellow Texan Jack Ingram. The veteran credited his wife Wendy with helping him get his life back on track in the 90s, saying “because of her, the last 35 years have been the best time of my life.” And he quoted song titles to express his feeling: “I’m sitting on top of the world,” he told the Ryman crowd. “Like the man said, I did it my way.”
T Bone Burnett delivered an extravagant and affectionate tribute to his friend Elvis Costello in presenting the Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting. “I have learned more about music and freedom and autonomy from my brother Howard (Coward, a nickname in their duo The Coward Brothers) than from any other source.” In an otherwise lighthearted speech, Costello remembered how his song “Ghost In This House,” which his manager pulled off his debut album because it was too country, opened the door for him to come to Nashville, sing with George Jones and launch some of the most cherished parts of his wide-ranging career.
Bonnie Raitt celebrated her long time friend and collaborator Maria Muldaur, whose 40 years of prolific recording and performing have been oft overlooked among roots music masters. The award was called Trailblazer, but Muldaur said she felt like a “trail follower” in her lifelong quest to know and interpret and preserve the pioneering work of early blues artists.
A passionate and fiery Mavis Staples accepted a new Inspiration Award, a carryover from her 2007 First Amendment Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award. She couldn’t attend that year, but she was certainly there in 2019. “We’re still here and still singing our freedom songs,” she said after accepting the honor from Civil Rights activist and Freedom Rider Ernest “Rip” Patton. Her trophy was a wooden icon fashioned after a bus from the Freedom Rides of 1961. “The bus is going home with me!” she proclaimed before taking the stage to lead an ensemble cast in the finale “I’ll Fly Away.”
The Milk Carton Kids, the duo of Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, hosted the show for the second year and paid honor to President’s Award winners Felice and Boudeleaux Bryan with the intricate and intimate “Sleepless Nights.” It was the 18th award show in the 20th year of the Americana Music Association, which has advocated for authentic country and roots music since starting as a small group of professionals in 1999.