If Americana music has a reigning king and queen, it would certainly be Jason Isbell and Rhiannon Giddens.
While neither walked out of the Ryman Auditorium with an award Wednesday night — Isbell up for Artist of the Year; Giddens for Album of the Year — they both stood at center stage in complete command of an audience whose respect for them was palpable.
From the moment each emerged from stage left for their performance, a hush came over the crowd. If silence sounds like something, it might be, “This is gonna be good.” And it was. Great, even. Isbell with Amanda Shires, she a triumphant winner in the Emerging Artist of the Year category, performing the gorgeous “If We Were Vampires,” from his CMA-nominated album with his band, The 400 Unit, “The Nashville Sound”; Giddens on banjo accompanied by a fiddle player playing a powerful rendition of “Julie,” from her early 2017 release, “Freedom Highway.”
The performances by Isbell and Giddens were just two of many at the 16th Annual Americana Music Association Awards & Honors show, the centerpiece of the week-long AmericanaFest: Americana Music Festival and Conference. Like past shows, it highlighted what the AMA does best: presenting the best in contemporary American roots music while connecting the dots back to where it all came from. It’s the living musical embodiment of that oft-used and paraphrased William Faulkner quote from “Requiem for a Nun:” “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In fact, it’s very much alive!
Other performance highlights of the night — and really, they were all notable and too numerous to cram in here — included a raucous cold open with Old Crow Medicine Show performing Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35” from their just-released live DVD celebrating 50 Years of Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde”; Lori McKenna’s perfect delivery of the wrenching “Wreck You” (nominated for song of the year); Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, nominated for Duo or Group of the Year, paying tribute to the late songwriter John Hartford and performer Glen Campbell by performing “Gentle on My Mind”; Sam Outlaw, an Emerging Artist nominee, performing “Diamond Ring” from his latest, “Tenderheart”; Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives burning through “Time Don’t Wait” from this year’s “Way Out West” album; and a charming performance by Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award recipient Graham Nash with The Milk Carton Kids on the The Everly Brothers’ “So Sad.”
And then there was John Prine, who got a standing ovation simply for walking out on stage. As Juli Thanki pointed out in the Tennessean this week, Prine has become the Godfather of Americana, and the outpouring of love from the audience made that apparent. He joked that he was going to tell the audience who he was, but would just be whoever they thought he was. Ever self-effacing, he redirected that love toward Trailblazer Award recipient Iris Dement, whom he said had a voice “out of a John Steinbeck novel,” but also the voice of a friend. After Dement performed her own, “Morning Glory,” the two performed Prine’s “In Spite of Ourselves,” a song they sang together on Prine’s album of the same name in 1999. Prine and band then followed with a blistering version of “Lake Marie,” from his 1995 album, “Lost Dogs + Mixed Blessings.” The Godfather then capped off his evening by winning the Artist of the Year Award.
Van Morrison took home the final award of the night, Lifetime Achievement for Songwriting. Presented by Emmylou Harris, Morrison didn’t bother with an acceptance speech, but instead headed straight to the mic to perform “Transformation” from his upcoming album, “Roll With The Punches.”
Hosted by Jim Lauderdale, many of the night’s performances were backed by The Americana All-Star Band, led by 2008 Lifetime Achievement honoree and 2013 Instrumentalist of the Year, Larry Campbell, who was filling in for an under-the-weather Buddy Miller.
A full list of winners is below. Look for more performances and highlights when Austin City Limits presents a special AmericanaFest edition later this year.
Americana Music Honors & Awards 2017 Winners and Honorees:
Album of the Year: “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” Sturgill Simpson, Produced by Sturgill Simpson
Artist of the Year: John Prine
Group/Duo of the Year: Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives
Song of the Year: “It Ain’t Over Yet,” Rodney Crowell (feat. Rosanne Cash & John Paul White), Written by Rodney Crowell
Emerging Artist of the Year: Amanda Shires
Instrumentalist of the Year: Charlie Sexton
Spirit of Americana/Free Speech in Music Award co-presented by the Americana Music Association and the First Amendment Center: Graham Nash
Lifetime Achievement Award, Trailblazer: Iris Dement
Lifetime Achievement Award, Songwriting: Van Morrison
Lifetime Achievement Award, Performance: Robert Cray
Lifetime Achievement Award, Instrumentalist: Hi Rhythm Section
Lifetime Achievement Award, Executive: Larry Sloven and Bruce Bromberg
The Honors & Awards show anchored the 18th Annual Americana Music Festival and Conference that runs through Sunday, Sept. 17 in Nashville.