Americana Music Awards recap

Music Features

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, it is possible to put on a music awards ceremony that is a brisk, inspiring, entertaining show. These events don’t have to be tedious affairs full of commercial breaks, tacky production numbers, publicity stunts, lame jokes and laundry lists of thank yous. The best example is the annual Americana Music Awards, which was especially good this year when it was held last Wednesday in Nashville.

This show does so many things right. It is held in a venue with a long history and a strong personality: the Ryman Auditorium. It limits the categories to six contemporary awards and four lifetime awards—a good ratio because the latter are always so much more emotional, for they celebrate not just a momentary success but an entire career of triumphs, failures, doubts and comebacks. The low number of categories keeps the talking to a minimum and the performing to a maximum. Instead of having two presentations between songs, the AMA schedules two songs between presentations.

The best things about this awards show are its music director and emcee: Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, the Martin Scorsese and Steve Martin of roots music. Like a film director, Miller is casting the players for their parts and creating the settings to make other people shine. Like Martin, Lauderdale is a smart pro portraying a goofy innocent, thus draining the show of poisonous pomposity.

When the lights came up on the Ryman stage Wednesday, Miller’s house band featured bassist Don Was, drummer Brady Blade, Wallflowers keyboardist Rami Jaffee and a row of five all-star guitarists: Robert Plant’s Miller and Darrell Scott, Marty Stuart’s Kenny Vaughn, Bob Dylan’s Larry Campbell and Richard Thompson. Sitting behind the B-3 organ was Booker T. Jones, and he kicked off the evening with a version of Booker T. & the MGs’ 1962 hit “Green Onions,” which climaxed with Jones and Thompson trading nasty licks.

The Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood came out and read a passionate speech he had written about Jones and his Lifetime Achievement Award for Instrumentalist. A half hour later, Bonnie Raitt took the podium and proved equally heartfelt in giving Thompson his Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriter. A half hour after that John Hiatt walked out and did the same for Raitt’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance.

But it wasn’t just a bunch of old folks. Performance slots were given to three of the nominees for New/Emerging Artist of the Year—Alabama Shakes, Deep Dark Woods and Robert Ellis—as well as such recent nominees as Sarah Jarosz, Hayes Carll and Justin Townes Earle. The musical highlight of the evening, in fact, was a bellowing, soulful “Be Mine” by the category-winning Alabama Shakes—with Jones playing organ behind them.

Nonetheless, for anyone with a sense of musical history, there was something special about Raitt singing the heartfelt ballad, “Not ‘Cause I Wanted To” with the song’s composer Al Anderson and then trading verses with Hiatt on her hit and his composition, “Thing Called Love.” The evening wrapped up with a tribute to the late Levon Helm (who recorded his Ramble at the Ryman album at the 2008 Americana Music Festival). Raitt, Hiatt, Emmylou Harris and Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard each sang a verse while Miller, Thompson and Jones played brilliant little bits behind them.

Throughout the evening there were various attempts to define Americana—humorously on Lauderdale’s part but more awkwardly by others. Raitt claimed that Americana was “all the good stuff,” which is, of course, utter nonsense. The ratio of excellence to mediocrity in Americana is no better or worse than the ratio in any genre—whether it be Tejano, ska or indie-rock. The Americana Music Festival’s four showcase nights provided many examples of both. I won’t list all the mediocre acts; suffice it to say that hollering at a piercingly loud volume is not the same thing as catharsis and aping the mannerisms of old hillbilly bands is not the same as tradition.

Still there were many memorable moments. Phil Madeira, the longtime keyboardist for Miller and Harris, celebrated his four-years-in-the-making album, Mercyland: Hymns For The Rest Of Us, a project inspired, in Madeira’s words, by his reaction to all “the vitriol spewed by so many people of faith in the wake of Barack Obama’s election” and aimed at providing hymns “for the rest of us, those who wonder about the possibility of God and Love being the same thing.” Most of the all-star cast was on hand, including Miller, Harris, the North Mississippi Allstars, the Wood Brothers and Kasey Chambers. It all took place in the Downtown Presbyterian Church, one of Nashville’s architectural jewels decorated with Egyptian-themed stenciling and stained-glass windows. The music was as gem-like as the setting.

Thompson seemed to be everywhere all week: at the awards show, at Nashville’s bluegrass club the Station Inn, at a taping in the SiriusXM Studio for Mojo Nixon’s Outlaw Country show and at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s 213-seat theater. At the latter, he took questions on guitar technique, Cajun music and the Byrds, and illustrated his answers with such rarities as “Persuasion” and “Matty Groves.”

The highlight of the week, though, was Kevin Gordon’s performance of “Colfax (Step in Time),” this year’s best song from this year’s best album. Though I’d heard him do it many times solo and with a trio, I had never heard him do it as part of a quintet, and that gave the story a new cinematic scope. Gordon was performing as part of the Red Beet Records Showcase in the Nashville Crossroads, a tourist bar on Lower Broadway, and it was noisy when this most self-effacing of performers began. But as the 10-minute song about Gordon’s own adolescence gathered power, the room quieted to a hush. And when Gordon sang of his middle-school marching band encountering the Ku Klux Klan, his own rockabilly guitar licks seemed to collide and ricochet with Fats Kaplin’s hillbilly pedal steel and Anne McCue’s bluesy slide guitar, till the stage seemed as ready to blow apart as that main street in Colfax, Louisiana.

Postscript: Driving home from Nashville to Baltimore, I stopped on Sunday afternoon at the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion, a music festival on both the Tennessee and Virginia sides of State Street as it runs through downtown Bristol. This is the town that has every right to its claim as “The Birthplace of Country Music,” for it was on State Street that Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family made their first recordings in 1927. This 12th annual edition of the festival boasted three days of music on 24 different stages in parking lots, inside temporary tents and in renovated movie theaters. The music reflected the acoustic end of the spectrum at the Americana Music Fest, and several artists played both events, including Sam Bush, Tift Merritt, Billy Joe Shaver, Jim Lauderdale, Della Mae and the Steep Canyon Rangers.

For me the highlight was the David Wax Museum, playing songs from their terrific new album, Knock Knock Get Up. Performing on a temporary stage in the public library’s parking lot, the quartet drew from their twin fascinations with Appalachian string-band music and rural Mexican folk music. David Wax sang in both English and Spanish and played both a Telecaster and the jarana, an eight-string miniature guitar. Greg Glassman played both an electric bass and a leona, a four-string acoustic guitar; Suz Slezak played both fiddle and piano accordion, while Philip Mayer sat behind a drum kit and later on top of a rhythm box.

The glue that cemented all this together was Wax’s terrific mainstream-pop instincts. Songs such as “Big Heart of Yours” and “Harder Before It Gets Easier” boasted spring-loaded dance rhythms and ear-grabbing chorus melodies. The folkloric instruments added a strange twinge to the hooks, much as a bizarre synth sample might.

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