The twin themes of the 20th Annual Americana Honors and Awards were clear from the buzzsaw opening guitar chords of the Rolling Stones classic “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” to open the simulcast three-hour show Wednesday evening at historic Ryman Auditorium:
— We honor the memory of good many musical heroes lost since last we gathered pre-pandemic two years ago, from recently deceased Stones drummer and lynchpin Charlie Watts to Justin Townes Earle (“Harlem River Blues,” performed by his father, roots rock star Steve Earle), John Prine (we’ll get to him in a moment), Nanci Griffith (“Gulf Coast Highway” a duet from Aoife O’Donovan and Joe Henry), Tom T. Hall (house bandleader Buddy Miller singing “That’s How I Got to Memphis”), and an evening-closing Everly Brothers medley of “Let It Be Me” and “Bye Bye Love” from Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell” in tribute to the recent death of Don Everly.
— Led by established young stars such as Brandi Carlisle, who captured her second Artist of the Year Award in the past three years, the state of Americana music survives and thrives despite ongoing challenges, thank you very much.
The Americana Awards helped kick off the 21st annual AMERICANAFEST, which continues through Saturday, Sept. 25 at various nightclubs and venues throughout the city. The festival and awards show took a hiatus last year due to the pandemic.
“To be Artist of the Year with the kind of year we’ve all had … there’s a weight to it,” said Carlisle in accepting her award.
The Washington State-based singer-songwriter popped up repeatedly during the typically star-studded show, whether: as an announcer; a performer as part of the supergroup Highwomen (with Maren Morris, Amanda Shires and Natalie Hemby, augmented by the addition of powerful singer Yola); performing her own hard-rocking anthem (“Right On Time”); or covering Prine’s Americana Song of the Year “I Remember Everything” (co-written by Nashville treasure Pat McLaughlin) along with Shires and Margo Price.
Prine was among the early victims of the pandemic, passing away at age 73 in April 2020 at Vanderbilt Medical Center from complications due to COVID-19. His widow, Fiona Prine, accepted the award accompanied by the couple’s sons Jody, Jack and Tommy Prine.
“I don’t remember ever being in this building without John,” an emotional Fiona said from the stage. “I was a little teary eyed earlier … but I think he’s here.”
She continued that her late husband was a “champion” of many women who appeared on stage over the course of the evening. Indeed, belying a continued battle for airplay on mainstream country music radio, the Americana world continues to welcome a promote a diverse array of female artists with open arms.
Highlights at the Ryman included Canadian singer-songwriter Allison Russell (“Nightflyer”), Amythyst Kiah (“Fancy Drones”), Sarah Jarosz (“I’ll Be Gone”), Margo Price (“I’d Die For You”) and Valerie June (“Call Me a Fool”), the latter accompanied by Inspiration Award honoree and Memphis soul legend Carla Thomas.
Thomas later covered her own early pop-soul classic “B-A-B-Y,” with thrilling backing vocals from the McCrary Sisters and in particular Regina McCrary, who traditionally are key components of Miller’s always-fabulous house band for the awards
Will the circle be unbroken, indeed: They’re the daughters a founding member of Nashville’s The Fairfield Four, Rev. Sam McCrary, a famed gospel group that traces its influences to Nashville-based Fisk University’s famed Fisk Jubilee Singers, who began in 1871 and remain a musical force after recently winning a Grammy Award for Roots Gospel Album for its 150th anniversary album.
On Wednesday night, The Jubilee Singers were honored with the Americana Legacy Award. Dr. Paul Kwami, in his 27th year directing the choir, accepted the award before his choir tore into a rousing version of “I Believe.”
The Fisk Jubilee Singers will make a return trip to the Ryman for a headlining show set for Nov. 11. Tickets go on sale this Friday at 10 am. GET YOUR TICKETS HERE.
2021 Americana Honors & Awards Winners, Honorees:
Album of the Year: “Cuttin’ Grass – Vol. 1 (The Butcher Shoppe Sessions),” Sturgill Simpson, Produced by David Ferguson and Sturgill Simpson
Artist of the Year: Brandi Carlile
Song of the Year: “I Remember Everything” John Prine, written by Pat McLaughlin and John Prine
Duo/Group of the Year: Black Pumas
Emerging Act of the Year: Charley Crockett
Instrumentalist of the Year: Kristin Weber
Legacy of Americana Award, presented in partnership with the National Museum of African American Music: Fisk Jubilee Singers
Trailblazer Award: The Mavericks
Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance: Keb’ Mo’
Lifetime Achievement Award for Producer/Engineer: Trina Shoemaker
Inspiration Award: Carla Thomas
The 20th Annual Americana Honors & Awards is the hallmark event of AMERICANAFEST week, which continues through this Saturday, September 25.
In August, event organizers shared a statement on its health and safety policy. For the Americana Honors & Awards and every AMERICANAFEST-produced event, attendees must present proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours in order to access a venue.