Americana Honors & Awards: The Winners and the Moments

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit on the red carpet before the Americana Awards and Honors show, where they would win three awards. All photos in this post by Amos Perrine

The 17th annual Americana Awards and Honors show felt a little different this year; maybe it was the trouble with the mics that plagued the show from the beginning, or maybe it was the absence of Mr. Americana, Jim Lauderdale, hosting the show, reminding the audience after every song, “Now, that’s Americana!” It might have been the Smothers Brothers of the Americana set, The Milk Carton Kids, hosting the show in their deadpan, wry way. Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan winked and nodded and shuffled their way through the show, and they kicked it off with a hilarious sketch in which Pattengale said, “There is one question tonight we need to answer,” to which Ryan replied, “Diversity?” a nudge at the criticisms over recent years’ show lack of diversity. “No,” Pattengale said. “What is Americana?” The duo then sang a new song “What Even Is Americana?” in which they poke fun at all the clichés about the music, joking in one line that Jason Isbell wins all the awards (and he won three again tonight).

This year’s show also felt a little different because the crowd was on its feet giving standing ovations to almost every artist. Rosanne Cash, who received the Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award, got five standing ovations herself. In her typically elegant, touching, and passionate way, she declared that, “I just have a surplus of righteous indignation, and I am happy now to speak.” Her speech, which came early in the show, was clearly the highlight and focused on the power of music to make community and to bring people together, a theme repeated by many of the artists. With her fiery eloquence, Cash told the audience that she had three messages. First: "We [musicians] are the premier service industry for the heart and soul."She urged the crowd to support the Music Modernization Act now before Congress so that a younger generation of musicians can keep making music and make a living doing it. Second, she reminded the crowd that women are not small and inferior versions of men. Finally, she said, “I believe that a single child’s life is more precious that than the right to own an arsenal of military-style guns.”

Johnny Cash was the first recipient of the "Spirit of Americana" Free Speech Award in 2002. Last night's moment was especially poignant because Sept. 12 marked the 15th anniversary of his death.

The evening highlighted, honored, and praised women’s contributions to music. Irma Thomas received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance. She joked that “you receive a lifetime achievement award when you get old; I’m 77, but I’m only 14.” NPR’s Ann Powers introduced the founders of Olivia Records, Judy Dlugacz and Cris Williamson, who built their label by and for women. Williamson thanked the AMA for the Lifetime Achievement honor, commenting that they had produced three Carnegie Hall shows and sold millions of records but until now no one had acknowledged their work. Williamson echoed Cash by declaring: “I think it’s up to us musicians to make the world a better place to live.”

Irma Thomas’ performance of “Time Is on My Side” was ruined by her dead microphone; at one point during the performance, Emmylou Harris stood up and raised her hands in frustration, trying to get the sound crew to take care of the problem. When Thomas finished the song, the crew rebooted the PA, and she returned to perform the song again.

In a night of spectacular performances, Courtney Marie Andrews, Brandi Carlile, and Margo Price stole the show with their songs, and Andrews, especially, tore down the house with her killer performance of “May Your Kindness Remain.” The closing performance featured a rousing version of Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools,” sung by Thomas, Carlile, The War and Treaty, Anne McCrary, and Andrews.

Here’s the list of winners from the evening’s awards.

Album of the Year:
“The Nashville Sound,” Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, produced by Dave Cobb

Artist of the Year:
John Prine

Song of the Year:
“If We Were Vampires,” Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, written by Jason Isbell

Duo/Group of the Year:
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Emerging Artist of the Year:
Tyler Childers

Instrumentalist of the Year:
Molly Tuttle

“Spirit of Americana” Free Speech Award, presented in partnership with the First Amendment Center:
Rosanne Cash

Americana Trailblazer Award:
k.d. lang

Lifetime Achievement Award for Instrumentalist:
Buddy Guy

Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance:
Irma Thomas

Jack Emerson Lifetime Achievement Award for Executive:
Cris Williamson and Judy Dlugacz of Olivia Records

Were the awards for 2018  or 2017? I love Isbell but c'mon that song was released in mid 2017. The Americana Awards have morphed into the Grammys  or Academy Awards, barely skimming the surface of the genre.