Fitting that young neo-bluegrass guitar slinger Billy Strings was out on tour in New England when he captured the top prize as Artist of the Year at the Americana Music Association’s 21st Annual Americana Honors & Awards ceremony Wednesday night at the historic Ryman Auditorium.
Like most arts and entertainment experiences worth our while, Americana is a musical dish best served live. And Strings has been one of the most successful touring acts of late.
Thankfully, though, the other winning Americana honorees each performed at the always-entertaining award show, including Allison Russell (Album of the Year), Brandi Carlile (Song of the Year), The War and Treaty (Duo/Group of the Year) Sierra Ferrell (Emerging Act of the Year) and Larissa Maestro (Instrumentalist of the Year).
And, thankfully, there are scores of acts to be seen and heard at 50 or so venues across the city through Saturday for the remainder of this year’s AMERICANAFEST.
The awards show at the Ryman annually provides the capstone of the week, and this year’s edition didn’t disappoint. Artists were greeted with a red carpet outside the venerable structure, and the venerable Ryman glittered throughout the night.
You want stars? Perhaps only in Nashville can the phrase, “Robert Plant is just hanging out in the hallway,” be uttered so matter-of-factly at one point by your returning balcony aisle mate, albeit he’s a Nashville-based writer for Rolling Stone magazine and thus used to name-brand personalities.
Plant, a Certified Rock God and legendary former Led Zeppelin singer, has been out on tour with Nashville bluegrass queen Alison Krauss supporting their long-awaited second album, Raise the Roof. Locals are used to seeing Plant around town by now. He makes frequent forays into Music City, whether to work with Krauss, producer T Bone Burnett, or just to hang out. He loves this place and its music and musicians.
There’s no Plant pal more beloved than Buddy Miller.
Singer-songwriter/guitarist/producer extraordinaire Miller once again served as bandleader for the awards show’s superlative house band that included the vocals of the McCrary Sisters, bass playing from famed producer Don Was, multi-instrumentalist Jim Hoke, drummer Brady Blake, guitarist Larry Campbell, and keyboardist Jen Gunderman.
At one point, Plant walked to the podium — “I come from the land of the ice and snow,” he grinned, quoting some of his most famed Led Zep lyrics — to present the surprised Miller with the first-ever, guitar-shaped award he dubbed “The Buddy.”
As the Ryman crowd stood and applauded, the always-humble Miller stepped to the mic to say, “I have no idea why I’m getting this,” expressing the same emotions as much of the audience. You learn to expect the unexpected at the Americana Awards.
As well as the expected. In what amounts to a parlor game at this point, a goodly number of performers and presenters can’t help but give their take on just what the heck is this strange musical creature known as Americana.
“I still don’t know what Americana is,” Miller offered, “but I know it when I hear it.”
Brandi Carlile, as big of a star as any in the Americana heavens, offered her humorous take: “What in the world is Americana? Is it a genre? Is it a philosophy? Is it country music for liberals?”
And, getting to the heart of the question, The War and Treaty’s Michael Trotter Jr. explained, “If you want to know what the sound of Americana is, it’s the sound of family.”
Never were the family ties more present than during the performances of the Fairfield Four, the revered a cappella gospel quartet that received the Legacy of American Award as one of the AMA’s latest crop of Lifetime Honorees, and the McCrary Sisters.
The Fairfield Four dates back several generations in Nashville but began its ascension in 1935 when then 22-year-old tenor Sam McCrary joined the group. His daughters now compose the McCrary Sisters, much-in-demand vocalists who have become ubiquitous on tours and in Nashville studios.
Before introducing the Fairfield Four, who performed the gospel classic “Rock My Soul,” presenter Shannon Sanders led a moment to honor Dr. Paul Kwami, the longtime leader of the original gospel quartet, Nashville’s own Fisk Jubilee Singers, who passed away recently.
The Jubilee Singers, frequent Ryman headliners through the years, begat the Fairfield Four and so many other influential gospel outfits. And the McCrary sisters carry on the legacy minus dep-voiced sister Deborah McCrary, who passed away in early June at age 67.
The surviving McCrary sisters — Ann, Regina and Alfreda — closed the show with a heartfelt “Amazing Grace” done in a dirge-like tempo inspired by the folk and rock standard “The House of the Rising Sun.”
At least for this night, that’s as defining a sound of Americana as any.
Americana Music Association’s 21st Annual Americana Honors & Awards
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Allison Russell accepts an award during the 21st Annual Americana Honors & Awards at Ryman Auditorium on September 14, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images for Americana Music Association )
Here are the award winners at The Americana Music Honors & Awards ceremony Wednesday night at the Ryman Auditorium:
Album of the Year:
Outside Child, Allison Russell, Produced by Dan Knobler
Artist of the Year:
Song of the Year:
“Right On Time,” Brandi Carlile, written by Brandi Carlile, Dave Cobb, Phil Hanseroth and Tim Hanseroth
Duo/Group of the Year:
The War And Treaty
Emerging Act of the Year:
Instrumentalist of the Year:
Jack Emerson Lifetime Achievement Award for Executive
Al Bell of Stax Records
Legacy of Americana Award
Spirit of Americana/Free Speech in Music Award
Lifetime Achievement for Performance
For the second year as broadcast partners, Circle Network will air the Honors & Awards during a later broadcast on Wednesday, November 23, 2022 at 9pm Central Time. For additional details on how to watch visit www.CircleAllAccess.com/Watch. PBS is set to broadcast ACL Presents: The 21st Annual Americana Honors, a special episode of Austin City Limits featuring performance highlights in 2023. Check your local listings here.