Strings Wins Top Artist, While Russell and Carlile Shine At Americana Awards
A bluegrass artist won the Americana Music Association's Artist of the Year award for the first time, as guitarist, singer, songwriter and bandleader Billy Strings took the final prize of Wednesday night at the 21st Honors and Awards. As with his 2021 IBMA Entertainer of the Year Award, Strings was on the road entertaining, but bluegrass star instrumentalist Jerry Douglas presented and accepted on his behalf.
By contrast, much of the energy of the evening inside the Ryman Auditorium came from two women who've dominated the Americana conversation for the past couple of years, Allison Russell and Brandi Carlile.
In one of the night's less surprising moments, Nashville-based folk singer Allison Russell won 2022's Album of the Year for the acclaimed and thrice Grammy-nominated Outside Child. "I feel so honored to be part of this community," Russell said at the podium. She credited her husband JT Nero who wrote nine of the record's 11 songs. Russell broke down a bit during her grateful acceptance speech as she thanked Carlile for championing her music. "I wasn't lucky with the family I was born to, fostered by, adopted by, but I have been unbelievably lucky because music saved me; this community saves me every day."
Earlier, Russell performed "You Are Not Alone," with Carlile, the AMA's 2019 and 2021 Artist of the Year. Their recent release of the song as a single directed Bandcamp proceeds to gun violence and choice charities. All the members of their all-women band took vigorous solos, and when the song had to be repeated to solve a technical problem, nobody seemed to mind.
For her part, Carlile won Song of the Year for "Right On Time," written by the artist with Dave Cobb and her longtime partner musicians Phil and Tim Hanseroth. "What an honor to have this song seen by you guys," Carlile said. "I really love the chill and challenge I get every time I sing this song. It says basically sometimes the shit's just got to hit the fan."
Larissa Maestro, who plays cello with Allison Russell, won the first award of the night when she was named Instrumentalist of the Year. She emphasized the progress for people of color in the category in recent years, including drummers Jerry Pentecost and Megan Coleman. "It is so important. I'm 39 years old and I didn't see anybody who looked like me in this category for many years," said the self-identified Filipinx multi-instrumentalist. She's also made music with Margo Price, Hurray for the Riff Raff and pop stars including Lauryn Hill and Eminem.
Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig of Lucius introduced the Duo/Group of the Year category in perfect vocal unison before announcing the winner as Michael and Tanya Trotter, The War And Treaty. The powerful soul couple emerged as instant stars at AmericanaFest 2017 with a last-minute showcase set, and they won the Emerging Artist award two years later. "Our road has been long. It's been hard, but it's been worth it," said Tanya. While Michael said, "Americana is the sound of family" before thanking Brandi Carlile, Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris, Keb' Mo' and other artists who've had the Trotters perform or tour with them. They offered "That's How Love Is Made" earlier in the evening.
In keeping with tradition, the Emerging Artist of the Year nominees performed - Adia Victoria, Morgan Wade, Neal Francis and Sierra Ferrell (Brittney Spencer was not on hand). But in the end, it was Ferrell who took the award. She made only a brief, cryptic acceptance remark, but her performance of "At The End Of The Rainbow" wearing a bejeweled white mask and gown was enchanting. Other performances included James McMurtry, playing his nominated "Canola Fields" from his 2021 album The Horses And The Hounds, Carlile bringing "You And Me On The Rock" with Lucius, hosts the Milk Carton Kids paying tribute to Jackson Browne's debut album of 50 years ago with "Something Fine," and a show closing ensemble throwdown on "I'll Take You There," written by lifetime honoree Al Bell.
This night's lifetime achievement awards went to a variety of contributors to American music, from Stax Records to Music Row and beyond. Presenting the President's Award for a posthumous hero, record producer Garth Fundis paid tribute to Don Williams, with whom he worked extensively, as his recording engineer and then co-producer. "Don would tell you that he wasn't special," Fundis said. "But one listen to that voice and you could tell that he was." He cited the many great writers who Williams recorded and noted his international fame in England, Europe, Australia, and Africa. He cited his decency and kindness and "the strength it takes to remain gentle in the face of all life kicks up. That's what Don would want you to remember - decency." In tribute, Lukas Nelson sang "Lord I Hope This Day Is Good," a chart-topper from 1991.
Texas titan Lyle Lovett was on hand to present the Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance to Chris Isaak, lauding him as "a remarkable artist and a remarkable human being." Isaak focused his gratitude on his decades-long bandmates in The Silvertones. The award "has my name, whatever, but it's my band," he said before naming them all: drummer Kenney Dale Johnson, bassist Rowland Salley, and guitarist Hershel Yatovitz. "If you don't have a great band, it's no fun," Isaak said. After Lovett sang a dry, funny new song inspired by their recent tour together (and Covid), Isaak plugged in his green Gibson acoustic and sang "Somebody's Crying" with the always awe-inspiring house band.
Michael Mauldin, former Columbia Records president and Chairman of the Black American Music Association, presented Al Bell with the Jack Emerson Lifetime Achievement Award for Executive, crediting him, among other things with saving Stax Records, "not once, but twice." Bell took the podium with deep emotion. "I don't have the words in my grasp to express how I'm feeling right now," he said. "I've received numerous awards, but nothing like this." Bell said for almost 60 years he's been focused on spotlighting the music of Black Americans. "We have to make sure that we come together and save our authentic music and art that comes from our culture."
Perhaps the biggest emotional charge of the night came from Brandi Carlile's eloquent and personal tribute to the Indigo Girls as she presented Amy Ray and Emily Saliers with the Spirit of Americana Free Speech In Music Award. While she made it clear that she's a lifelong fan of their music and a proud beneficiary of their out status as lesbian pop and folk artists, Carlile emphasized their service to marginalized people and worthy causes of many stripes, including their co-founding in 1993 of Honor The Earth with Winona LaDuke, supporting indigenous environmental justice. Their example "birthed me and it informs every step I take as I walk through the world," she said. "The Indigo Girls go where they are needed, and we need them."
"No one does activism alone. It's a collective effort," said Amy Ray before acknowledging a list of people who've supported the duo's activism from the start of their career. "I really don’t have anything to add to that. Except I love you," said Saliers. "You're the f***king greatest." They stepped to center stage to perform "Galileo" from their 1992 album Rites of Passage.
The Fairfield Four sang "Rock My Soul," a centuries old song, immediately after receiving the Legacy of Americana Award, presented by the AMA in partnership with the National Museum of African American Music. The band did not comment. But the McCrary Sisters, daughters of iconic Fairfield Four leader Rev. Sam McCrary were there all night singing as they have for years with the house band. They took a moment later in the show to acknowledge the passing in June of sister Deborah McCrary. Regina offered beautiful words before the group sang "Amazing Grace." Also remembered was Americana songwriter Luke Bell, who was celebrated in song and word by his friend J.P. Harris.
For those looking for a rebroadcast, Circle Network will air the Honors & Awards on Wednesday, November 23, 2022 at 9pm CT. PBS is set to broadcast ACL Presents: The 21st Annual Americana Honors, a special episode of Austin City Limits featuring performance highlights in 2023.