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Americana Awards Spread The Love, Especially To Billy Strings

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - SEPTEMBER 20: Artists join in for a group performance onstage at the 22nd Annual Americana Honors & Awards at Ryman Auditorium on September 20, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images for Americana Music Association )
ERIKA GOLDRING/Getty Images for Americana Music Association
Getty Images North America
NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - SEPTEMBER 20: Artists join in for a group performance onstage at the 22nd Annual Americana Honors & Awards at Ryman Auditorium on September 20, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee.

For the second year in a row, bluegrass guitar innovator and live roots phenom Billy Strings was named Artist of the Year at the 22nd annual Americana Honors and Awards. Unlike last year, Strings was on hand to accept his custom trophy and then join the night's huge cast of assembled artists to play a snapping guitar solo on the show finale jam on "Cripple Creek," a salute to The Band's great songwriter and singer Robbie Robertson, who died in August.

“I moved to Nashville in 2015 not really knowing what I’d find or what would happen, and I found the most colorful and vibrant musical community that I could ever imagine,” Strings said. “I want to say thank you to my band who’s there by my side running up and down the highway, kicking ass.”

No artist collected more than one award on a night that spread a lot of love around over a three-and-a-half hour ceremony at the Ryman Auditorium. Kentucky songwriter Tyler Childers, whose award was accepted on his behalf by writer Silas House, won Album of the Year for his three-volume concept record Can I Take My Hounds To Heaven?. Bonnie Raitt won Song of the Year for her composition "Just Like That,” the title track of her 2022 album. Raitt, who was there to accept, praised the Americana community as she has in past appearances and performed a different song, “Made Up Mind” originally by the Brothers Landreth.

The most emotional award of the night was probably the first one conferred, when Sista Strings, the beloved violin and cello playing sisters Chauntee and Monique Ross, won Instrumentalist of the Year to ecstatic applause. They’ve been on tour with Brandi Carlile and been key to the sound of Allison Russell’s recent projects, among other pursuits, and they were ebullient in their acceptance speech. Chauntee celebrated Americana’s “beautiful spirit of inclusion in seeing folks for who they are.” They also acknowledged their parents who were in attendance, and they got stage time on their instruments as well, opening a duo performance of “Dear Insecurity” by Brandy Clark with Carlile.

The War and Treaty, the duo of Michael and Tanya Trotter, capped another big year of touring by winning Duo/Group of the Year for the second straight year. They were also named Emerging Act of the Year in 2019. This year’s Emerging Act is Kentucky’s S.G. Goodman, whose two albums so far have painted a complex, empathetic picture of modern rural America. "A lot of folks oftentimes ask me why I do this. And there's a lot of people back in my home state, particularly in Western Kentucky who I love,” she said. “I'm doing my best to carve out all the places that were meant for them."

Veteran soul singer Bettye Lavette stole the show as the recipient of this year’s Legacy of Americana Award, which has in recent years been granted in partnership with the National Museum of African American Music. Presenter Steve Jordan, the acclaimed producer and drummer, told the story of Lavette’s ups-and-downs and “buzzard’s luck” in that she seemed on the cusp of fame for decades before finally breaking through to wide acclaim in her 60s. LaVette, looking lithe and beautiful at age 77, made a warm and funny speech, concluding "I want you to know that it feels so good after 62 years (in the music business) to have - after being hidden in plain sight for so long - to finally be acknowledged." Then she delivered a hot version of “In The Meantime” from her new album LaVette! in one of the night’s many stellar performances.

Among the night’s celebrity presenters was comedian Sarah Silverman who offered a personal and affectionate tribute to Patty Griffin, as the Austin veteran was given a Lifetime Achievement Award for songwriting. “I owe everybody so much for getting me here,” she said. “I love music and I just have been very lucky to get to have it and to make songs up and to have people like them.”

Two Trailblazer Awards were granted this year, and both bands were on hand to offer rousing performances. The Avett Brothers were tributed by a wide-eyed Brandi Carlile who recounted how close she’d grown to the band after much touring together. She called them “a band of the people.” Seth Avett noted how being tagged in a genre or style often makes artists reflexively wish to distance themselves from that box. "But every question about Americana leads me back to the fact that we're lucky to be called that. We don't ever want out,” he said. “And thank you for letting us in." The band won Duo/Group of the Year in 2007, 2010 and 2011.

It was quite a double take when Kacey Musgraves walked on stage to introduce Nickel Creek for their Trailblazer award. She spoke of being a super-fan from the time she heard the band’s self-titled mainstream debut in 2000. She called them a “perfect blend of the future meeting traditionalism.” And the trio was gracious and enthusiastic as they set up to perform “Where The Long Line Leads,” a vocal feature for Sara Watkins from the new album Celebrants.

The Jack Emerson Executive award went to George Fontaine Sr. for his stewardship over 25 years of New West Records. Buddy Miller, a longtime artist on the label, presented the award with praise for Fontaine’s belief in art and fairness. Fontaine, a self-professed behind-the-scenes guy, said "If I'm remembered for one thing, I hope it's that I’m a champion for the underdog artist. If they have compelling music and I think it deserves to be heard, then I'm in."

The night’s big surprise though was an unannounced Spirit of Americana Award for Allison Russell. First came its presenters, the “Tennessee Three,” state legislators Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones, and Justin Pearson. They told the story of how Americana star Allison Russell had quickly organized this spring’s Love Rising benefit concert that drew thousands and a coalition of artists to protest the state’s new anti-trans and anti-drag laws. Jones called it “an amazing act of resistance” and Russell “a good trouble maker.” Russell said “We are not afraid. And we are not divided. We are united. I f***ing love you all so much.”

Then, resplendent in a flowing gold gown, Russell performed “Eve Was Black” from her bold new album The Returner.

Many other excellent performances elevated the night. Logan Ledger opened the show with “Come Monday” in honor of songwriter Jimmy Buffett’s recent passing. The War and Treaty’s “Stretch Out” was huge with the backing of the McCrary Sisters. Rufus Wainwright delivered a rapturous “Ol’ 55” to note the 50th anniversary of Tom Waits debut album Closing Time. Adeem The Artist, in a Kentucky Colonel’s white suit and dark blue lipstick, sang his knee buckling song “Middle Of A Heart.” Also on stage were contemporary Americana standouts Sunny War, Hermanos Guttierez, 49 Winchester, Angel Olsen, Margo Price, The Milk Carton Kids with Noah Kahan, and William Prince.

PBS will broadcast ACL Presents: The 22nd Annual Americana Honors, a special episode of Austin City Limits featuring performance highlights on November 25, 2023. Check your local listings here.

2023 Honors & Awards Winners:Album of the Year: Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven?, Tyler Childers; Produced by Tyler Childers

Artist of the Year: Billy Strings

Duo/Group of the Year: The War and Treaty

Emerging Act of the Year: S.G. Goodman

Song of the Year: "Just Like That," Bonnie Raitt; Written by Bonnie Raitt

Instrumentalist of the Year: SistaStrings

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