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Welch & Rawlings, Sainte-Marie, Williams, Others Define and Dominate Americana Awards

Last night, the luminaries of the Americana world -- artists, industry folks, reporters, fans -- gathered at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, to celebrate the various achievements that have been made in the genre, in the past year. 

Ahead of the ceremony, a modest clutch of press and artists gathered on the red carpet, which was actually a chain of the kind of paisley carpets that are typically laid on the stage to soften it for performers. Giants of the field, like Los Lobos, Dave Rawlings & Gillian Welch, Keb' Mo', Lee Ann Womack, and the Mavericks paraded past, interspersed with promising newercomers like Esme Patterson (Shakey Graves, Paper Bird), Houndmouth, and Nikki Lane -- all of which delivered remarkable performances during the ceremony.

Rawlings & Welch were in attendance to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award for songwriting, and I asked them how that felt, considering they're far from finished. Though there's no question the duo has contributed in enormous ways to the evolution of folk and roots music, has written some of the finest songs in the genre, and has been involved with some of its most important recordings, it's hard for me, at least, to believe their best work is behind them. They laughed, acknowledged they're nowhere near done with their lifetime of achieving anything in music, and then Welch got serious. "I'm an optimist," she said. "I'm still hoping to do my best work. [But I] take it as a good pat on the back. This is people saying, 'Good job, keep up the work!' And that means a lot, because it's a hard industry. It's a little bit of a tricky time to be a musician. A lot of our livelihood is eroding and washing away. It's a difficult time. ... But this is a nice pat on the back and [reminder to] keep up the good work." 

No doubt, Welch and Rawlings were one of the highlights of the night for many in the audience. And, further, the Lifetime Achievement honors wound up being some of the most memorable parts of the ceremony. Buffy Sainte-Marie, who received recognition for her achievements toward freedom of speech, talked about how her love songs have been the most successful commercially, but that all of her songs are love songs of a sort. "Universal Soldier," she explained, is a song about loving your country in a way that requires that your country loves you back. She then took center-stage, alone, and delivered her classic anthem with as much urgency and relevance as it contained a half-century ago.

Earlier, she told me: "In between then and now, there was a dark period where people who were doing songs of meaning couldn't get any airplay. But with the internet, it's like the '60s again ... people are self-publishing. It's a revisit of an open spirit.

"I was a goner after Nixon," she added, "so to have this honor tonight is very nice for me. It means the U.S. is catching on to the fact that we shouldn't be like that. ... For a while, we had our ears stopped and our mouths taped, and that's not the way to be. Let's hope it impacts a lot of musicians to come forward with the songs that a lot of musicians write but they're scared to put out there." 

Though there weren't a lot of topical songs this night, outside of Sainte-Marie's performance -- Rhiannon Gidden's show-stealing delivery of "Waterboy" was the one exception, though perhaps not everyone received it as a topical song -- Americana is replete with artists worming into the hard truths we often don't discuss in polite conversation. 

Lucinda Williams delievered "East Side of Town" from her award-winning Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, and Robert Randolph's opening convocation, flanked by the McCrary Sisters and the Fairfield Four set a high bar for soul-exposing music. Keb' Mo' unleashed the other most exceptional performance of the night, paying tribute to the late B.B. King, with a eulogy and, more remarkably, a string of guitar solos that schooled us all. 

Ricky Skaggs, who delivered a delicious bluegrass gospel tune with his wife Sharon White and the inimitable Ry Cooder, received a Lifetime Achievement honor. Don Henley and Los Lobos also received recognition for their many achievements, the latter closing the show in true AMA fashion, with an all-star performance that included Giddens, the Watkins siblings, the Lone Bellow, the McCrary sisters, and the list goes on.  

But it was Williams and the absent Sturgill Simpson who seemed to steal the night. To be fair, there are only a small handful of annual awards handed out at the AMA gala, so to claim any single artist dominated would be a little ... hyperbolic. But checking the vibe in the room last night and the amount of affectionate applause Williams and Simpson received whenever their names were mentioned, calling them the night's winners seems about right. Williams surprised many when she walked away with the album of the year nod, for her Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, while Simpson earned recognition for both song of the year ("Turtles All the Way Down") and artist of the year. 

And, surveying the array of names and styles included in the above paragraphs, it's safe to say it was another banner year for the Americana Music Association, which has taken strides toward expanding its diversity and recognizing the varied styles that have contributed to whatever this stuff is we now call "Americana." From twang to soul, protest folk to hand-clapping gospel, this is the music from whence we came.

Americana Music Honors & Awards 2015 Winners

Album of the Year
Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone, Lucinda Williams, Produced by Lucinda Williams, Tom Overby and Greg Leisz

Artist of the Year
Sturgill Simpson

Duo Group of the Year
The Mavericks

Song of the Year
"Turtles All The Way Down" Written by Sturgill Simpson

Emerging Artist of the Year
Shakey Graves

Instrumentalist of the Year
John Leventhal

Spirit of Americana/Free Speech in Music Award
co-presented by the Americana Music Association and the First Amendment Center
Buffy Sainte-Marie

Lifetime Achievement Award, Trailblazer
Don Henley

The Lifetime Achievement Award, Songwriting
Gillian Welch & David Rawlings

Lifetime Achievement Award, Instrumentalist
Ricky Skaggs

Lifetime Achievement Award, Performance
Los Lobos

President's Award
BB King