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Brandi Carlile Is Americana Artist Of The Year For The Second Time

Jason Kempin / Getty Images for AMA

The Ryman Auditorium was especially heavy with the spirits of the departed Wednesday night, as the Americana Music Association returned from a year silenced by a fatal pandemic to unveil its 2021 Honors and Awards. But there were oceans of joy all night, through striking performances and lifetime honors, capped off when songwriter and change agent Brandi Carlile was named Artist of the Year.

"To be artist of the year in a year like the one we have all had has a weight to it. It's profound and I don't take it for granted," Carlile said. "Because it was hard to be an artist this year - a year full of love and loss and debilitating empathy. People died, and people were born, and we were just trying to love each other." Carlile is the only woman to have won the prize twice, having collected it in 2019. Her supergroup The Highwomen won three awards in 2020, which were granted without a ceremony. Wednesday, she sang "Right On Time," the opening track to her upcoming album In These Silent Days, just prior to winning the honor.

Song of the Year came as a posthumous honor for John Prine, last year's Artist of the Year. He and Pat McLaughlin shared credit for "I'll Remember Everything," Prine's last recording, which was released after his April 2020 death from complications of Covid-19. His widow Fiona Prine said, "I don't think I was ever in this building without John. I was down there feeling a little teary tonight. But I think he's here." The song was then performed by Carlile, Margo Price and Amanda Shires.

For the first time, a bluegrass project won Americana's Album of the Year, as Sturgill Simpson's Cuttin' Grass - Vol. 1 (The Butcher Shoppe Sessions) took the prize. Simpson, who had won four Americana awards before this night, was not on hand. Charley Crockett was named Emerging Artist of the Year just after he performed new music. "Lord have mercy, I don't know what to say. I'm ten records in," he said from the podium. "I guess emerging is whenever they see you, right?" His fellow nominees Amythyst Kiah, Joy Oladokun, Allison Russell and Waxahatchee have had high profiles in the last two years, something Crockett noted. "In a category of so many amazing women, it's hard to accept this award," he said. He also observed that it was his first time in the Ryman Auditorium.

In a show with no host but numerous presenters, tributes flowed for artists who had passed away since the last time the Americana Association gathered in September of 2019, including the show-opening song, a fiery "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" sung by Aaron Lee Tasjan and the house band for the late Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts. Band leader Buddy Miller sang "That's How I Got To Memphis" for its author Tom T. Hall. Aoife O'Donovan and Joe Henry sang "Gulf Coast Highway" for Nanci Griffith. Deeply poignant was Steve Earle singing his son Justin Townes Earle's "Harlem River Blues." And the show ended not with its usual multi-artist chorale (for safety reasons) but with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell singing Everly Brothers songs in honor the recent passing of Don Everly.

The first award of the night, Instrumentalist of the Year, went to fiddler Kristin Weber, who has played in support of The Dave Rawlings Machine, Lee Ann Womack, Kacey Musgraves and a range of artists from various genres. Then bluesman Keb' Mo' came to the stage to accept the evening's first lifetime achievement award, one for a performing career that extended from the band of Papa John Creach through his commercially successful interpretations of old and original blues to a Grammy-winning collaboration with Taj Mahal. "I'm grateful to be still doing work that inspires me," he said. "So I'm just going to keep doing what I always do - fake it til' I make it!"

Sherly Crow presented the lifetime achievement award for engineering and producing to Trina Shoemaker, who produced three breakout albums for Crow and who was the first woman to win a Grammy Award for engineering. "Trina Shoemaker is a badass," she said. "I was blessed to be able to work with someone who knew every record I knew. She was patient. she was creative. She's not like anyone else I've ever known in my life."

"Every record that I've ever made accompanies me on this stage," Shoemaker said. "They number in the hundreds and they span three decades of a life spent in front of a pair of speakers in the service of songs."

Musician and producer Shannon Sanders presented the Legacy of Americana Award, co-presented by the National Museum of African American Music, to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the longest-running musical group in Nashville and the one that established the Negro spiritual in the American canon. Longtime director Paul Kwami expressed his gratitude, saying the award "help us, it encourages us, it inspires us because people know what we are doing." Then the current group of Fisk students performed "I Believe Just What He Says" with grooving band backing and lead vocal by singer/songwriter Leon Timbo.

Valerie June paid tribute to Carla Thomas with delightful remarks bestowing Thomas's Inspiration Award for lifetime achievement. "I am so overwhelmed," Thomas said, as she remembered performing on the Ryman stage in honor of WLAC DJ John R many years ago. "I am so grateful," she said before performing "B-A-B-Y" a top five R&B single from 1966.

The Mavericks collected the Americana Trailblazer Award for their radical blend of Latin grooves, country storytelling and outstanding musicianship. "Signing this band gave me a set of balls," joked famed A&R man Tony Brown, who discovered them in Miami in 1991.

"Musicians have guardian angels through their life, and they'll always be there, and they have been there for us from the beginning," said lead singer Raul Malo. "Our fans have always been there, no matter what curve ball we throw at them."

Texas soul rock band Black Pumas was not on hand to accept its Duo/Group Of The Year award, which was presented by actor/musician Kiefer Sutherland.

Also performing in the course of the evening were Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah, Jason Isbell with Amanda Shires, Charley Crockett, Sarah Jarosz, Yola guesting with The Highwomen, Margo Price and Valerie June with honoree Carla Thomas.

The show will be broadcast as a special episode of Austin City Limits on Feb. 22, 2022.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org