Each September, thousands of roots-rock, folk, bluegrass and alt-country fans from all over converge in Nashville for the weeklong Americana Music Association conference and festival, jumping from panel discussions to parties with music venues across the city hosting showcases.
The biggest show of the week is always the Americana Honors and Awards ceremony Wednesday night at Ryman Auditorium (later edited and aired on PBS stations) and many of this year’s honorees echoed similar sentiments about their peers, their heroes and their own bands. Some of these comments came in short discussions on the “red carpet” (really a disarming patchwork of Oriental rugs like those seen on venue stages) and were often repeated from the podium by award winners. They expressed a deep appreciation for collaborators, the powerful feeling of family, respect and community in Americana and the immense gratitude for getting to play music at all, especially post-lockdown.
Chris Isaak was recognized with the Lifetime Achievement for Performance and quickly turned the conversation to the musicians who support him, some of whom have played with in his band for 20-40 years.
“I want to make sure people know this isn’t my award, it’s my band,” he said. “When people say ‘You did a good job playing live,’ I go, ‘It’s them.’ I’m going to have to cut this award into five or six pieces.”
Isaak was far from the only star to deflect praise and boost up his backing musicians. Nashville-based Molly Tuttle, who won Instrumentalist of the Year in 2018, was elated to present this year’s award in a category full of “friends,” including her bass player Shelby Means.
“This is what we mean by family, it’s bigger than just music”
The War and Treaty, the married soul-gospel-roots duo from Alabama made up of Michael and Tanya Trotter, took home the Duo/Group of the Year award but before the ceremony the singers emphasized how good it feels to be a part of this community.
When asked if the infusion of joy in their performance is intentional, Michael said, “Absolutely. I think we could all use that in our world today. I don’t know how you can be anything other than that when you’re around family, and Americana is the family.”
He went on to name some key people in the scene that helped to elevate their work, including house band bassist and legendary producer Don Was, Emmylou Harris, Brandi Carlile, and the late John Prine.
“As we go through this event, [Prine’s] spirit is all over it. You feel it. You feel his absence as well, and that is somewhat disheartening. But then you think about what he stood for and you’re lifted again. As well with Deborah McCrary, we mourn these. And this is what we mean by family: it’s more than just music. These people touched people’s lives and they taught us how to do that.”Michael Trotter of The War and Treaty
Nikki Lane, who recently played WNXP’s Sonic Cathedral before the release of her new LP Denim and Diamonds, was energized to introduce her friend and “non-biased, for real favorite artist” Sierra Farrell, the Appalachian roots musician who won Emerging Act of the Year. “We need more of that in the world,” said Lane.
Farrell’s fellow nominee in that category, Morgan Wade, looks and dresses the part of a hard rocker, but claims she found her home in Americana due to song-focused artists like Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (guitarist Sadler Vaden produced Wade’s debut record Reckless) and Brandi Carlile. She said the genre is “very diverse, you feel welcomed and not judged.”
Brandi Carlile was nominated for Album of the Year, Artist of the Year and Song of the Year, securing the latter with her bandmates and fellow “Right on Time” songwriters Phil and Tim Hanseroth.
Although not based in the Southeast, Carlile has collaborated with Dave Cobb at RCA Studios in Nashville on her last two award-winning albums. She’s often seen as the reigning matriarch of Americana, responsible for elevating underrepresented artists and giving flowers to her influences such as The Indigo Girls, who were given the Spirit of Americana/Free Speech Award on September 14. Said Carlile:
“I can look around and see three people who drug me around the country in my 20s…let me sleep on their tour buses. One night I had everything I own stolen out of my van and Chris Isaak, who had me on tour, went out in a taxi cab in Washington, D.C. by himself and came back to the hotel with new clothes for me. To be here with people I now take on tour and look over and see them, too, it’s like, “Yeah, this is where I belong. This is home.”
Pop duo Lucius, who appear on Carlile’s album In These Silent Days (and released in 2022 their own stunning Second Nature LP, our former #RecordoftheWeek), sang with Carlile at the ceremony. Then Carlile joined her friend and eventual Album of the Year award winner Allison Russell on Russell’s new track, “You Are Not Alone.”
During Russell’s acceptance speech for her gut-wrenchingly vulnerable solo debut, Outside Child (which was also our #Record oftheWeek last spring), she teared up talking about her creative family which, she said, has become a stand-in for her damaging birth, foster and adoptive families. “Music saved me. This community saves me every day.”
Russell’s supporting musicians during her performance were all women, and mostly women of color including Instrumentalist of the Year winner Larissa Maestro, who demurred pre-show about the nomination and instead emphasized the joy in playing music with her friends. She said, “It just feels like there are a lot of buds here tonight and it’s really exciting.”
“As long as I can play music, the world is turning.
Maestro mentioned excitement for what her fellow Nashville musician Adia Victoria would do live at the awards show and Victoria didn’t disappoint, strutting around the storied stage after showing off and then shedding her Sister Rosetta Tharpe bomber jacket, lighting up the venue with “Ain’t Killed Me Yet.”
The South Carolina native and WNXP’s September 2021 #NashvilleArtistoftheMonth was nominated for Emerging Act of the Year, and Album of the Year. When asked about performing these songs for fans back out on tour this year, she said:
“You know, I don’t call them fans, I call them folks that are here to commune with me. I think since the pandemic, performing live is completely different. It’s not like I’m just here to sing songs, I’m here to bear witness.
Because this record was made during the pandemic…I was meditating on loss and grief and death, and everyone in the audience has gone through that. So I’m not just talking about this abstract theme, but this thing we have all gone through. You can feel it in the room.“
Victoria also noted that being able to share her art from the stage at The Ryman, having “been hired and fired” from so many businesses downtown as she honed that craft, is “humbling and awe-inspiring.”
Lukas Nelson gushed in a similar way about making a living doing this thing. The Promise of the Real frontman and balladeer son of Willie Nelson promised he’s recently written an upbeat, sing-along honky-tonk record that will get people on their feet. And when prompted about the extended pandemic, he claimed, “As long as I can play music, the world is turning. I’m just happy to be able to be doing what we do.”
Ketch Secor, singer and fiddler for beloved group Old Crow Medicine Show reminisced about his music-making start in Nashville busking on Lower Broadway at age 19.
“This is a labor of love but it’s a labor. I just appreciate the privilege of being able to draw a crowd, man.“Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show
Floral-suited, Chicago-based piano man Neal Francis (Emerging Act nominee) wants to maintain the gratitude for being able to tour, since “there was a time very recently that we couldn’t go out all.”
Some winners and nominees were notably absent on Wednesday, including twice-nominated Yola (whose Sonic Cathedral session this year blew us away) and Artist of the Year winner Billy Strings, whose psychedelic jam-Bluegrass band is one of the hottest touring tickets right now. Don Williams was posthumously honored with the the President’s Award and Lukas Nelson played one of his songs. Country artist JP Harris jumped off tour to pay tribute his fallen friend Luke Bell, who succumbed to the disease of mental illness last month in Arizona.
For those in attendance at The Ryman on Wednesday, the warmth of legends and contemporaries filled the room, as did thankfulness that artists and art appreciators can gather in-person.