Despite heartwarming lifetime achievement award acceptance speeches from the likes of Jackson Browne and Loretta Lynn, and a surprise appearance from rock god Robert Plant, last night's 13th Annual Americana Honors and Awards show in Nashville belonged to Jason Isbell. The former Drive-By Trucker took home awards for Artist of the Year and Song of the Year (for “Cover Me Up”), as well as the night's top honor: Album of the Year, for his post-sobriety triumph Southeastern. In one of the evening's best-received performances, he also sang "Cover Me Up" with wife Amanda Shires.
"I just wanna say something, I'm glad of this award, his album is stupendous and beautiful," presenter Lucinda Williams interjected into the mic as Isbell walked onto the Ryman Auditorium stage to accept the Album honor.
Other big winners last included the Milk Carton Kids, who nabbed Group/Duo of the Year, and house bandleader Buddy Miller, who won Instrumentalist of the Year. Country music's great white hope Sturgill Simpson took home Emerging Artist of the Year, beating out Parker Milsap, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Valerie June and St. Paul and the Broken Bones in the closest, most-heated race of the night.
"Thanks to everybody. I could say the names but I'd be up here way too long, so I'll just thank my family," Simpson said in a terse acceptance speech. Perhaps he'd said all he needed to say with a red-hot, intensely focused performance of his Metamodern Sounds in Country Music stomper "Life of Sin" minutes earlier.
Like most awards shows, last night's was all about the performances. And, unlike most award shows, said performances were gimmick free, unless you consider excellence a gimmick. It seems — for an association with a tent big enough to include Southern fried R&B revivalists St. Paul and the Broken Bones alongside a grizzled country troubadour like Rodney Crowell — rootsy quality control and rustic excellence are, in a broad sense, what Americana is all about.
And a surprise appearance from Robert Plant is definitely some high-quality excellence. The Led Zeppelin legend accompanied former flame Patty Griffin, taking a backseat singing harmony on a stirring, climactic rendition of her American Kid standout "Ohio."
Par for the course, many of the show's best performances came courtesy of the Emerging Artist nominees. Hurray for the Riff Raff's Alynda Lee Segarra commanded the Mother Church of Country Music's undivided attention leading her band through a spellbinding performance of its feminist murder ballad "The Body Electric." Artist of the Year nominee Robert Ellis gave a similarly emotional rendition of his moody, steel-guitar shrouded heartbreaker "Only Lies."
Meanwhile, more upbeat performances like Parker Millsap going for Big Bopper vibrato on a barn-burning "Truck Stop Gospel" and Valerie June, boasting big hair and a bright yellow gown, brought a hint of Memphis blues and a heaping helping of rockabilly attitude with fuzzed-out, rollicking shuffle "You Can't Be Told." But the Devil Makes Three definitely delivered the show's grittiest performance, with a particularly woozy version of their sinister blue dirge "Hand Back Down."
Birmingham, Alabama, R&B throwbackers St. Paul and the Broken Bones, who got a gushing introduction from former Civil Wars singer and fellow Alabamian John Paul White, put on a minutes-long, chitlin’ circuit-worthy revue, inspiring an audience-wide clap along to their waltzing, dramatic powerhouse of an on-bended-knee-begging-for-forgiveness ballad "Grass Is Greener." Looking like a nine-to-five office IT tech stuffed into a tuxedo and sent out into the spotlight to be a soul crooner, lovably gawky lead singer Paul Janeway worked the stage and belted out heartbroken pleas with a dead-ringer rasp for Otis Redding. The performance was a hands-down highlight of the night.
The "Honors" portion of the night wasn't without its highlights, either. At the top of the show, Kacey Musgraves and Angaleena Presley presented country icon Loretta Lynn with the Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriter. After explaining that she and her band had to quickly get on the bus to make an 800-mile trek to a gig, the 82-year-old road dog, dressed in a long-trained, sparkling gown treated the crowd to her autobiographical classic "Coal Miner's Daughter."
The night's biggest bona-fide rock star (besides Plant, of course), Jackson Browne, was honored with the Association's Spirit of America Award, for his willingness to sing topical, critical songs, like 1973's "Redneck Friend," in times of American upheaval. "To try to get at the truth of how you feel and what you believe is a little bit like looking in a crystal ball or consulting and oracle, I mean you really don't know what you feel until you find it," Browne mused from the podium. "Writing a song is a little bit like trying to say some things into the space in front of you and see if it sounds right."
Browne then brought the reverent crowd to its feat with emotional renditions of "The Long Way Around" and "Fountain of Sorrow. The latter featured Browne's old friend and former neighbor, legendary songwriter J.D. Souther, and gospel harmonies courtesy of the McCrary Sisters.
"This is one of the most powerful and wonderful things that could ever happen in my life," Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance recipient Taj Mahal said during his acceptance speech. The genre-bending bluesman proceeded to pick up a small Dobro and serenade the house with a peacefully wistful "Statesboro Blues."
Lifetime Achievement for Instrumentalist recipient, Tejano accordionist Flaco Jiménez dazzled on a performance of "Ingrato Amor," which he sang in Spanish, joined by longtime collaborator Ry Cooder. Cooder also guested as a member of the house band at many points throughout the show.
One of the night's weirder moment came midway through the show, when, near the end of a performance by relatively new supergroup Hard Working Americans, member Todd Snider — looking like an Americana Tommy Lee with his sagging trousers and undershirt combo — mumbled some kind of jumbled, profanity-laced banter before picking up a small duffle bag and, looking rather pissed, sauntered off stage with rock star swagger as the band finished the tune "Down to the Well." Whether he was miffed by something in particular, or it was just a case of "Todd being Todd," was later a topic of post-show debate in the Ryman lobby.
Last night's awards, which were filmed for broadcast on PBS in November, doubled as a kick-off event for AmericanaFest 2014 — a week-long celebration of American roots music that features showcases at clubs around Nashville from the likes of Lee Ann Womack, Billy Joe Shaver and Marty Stuart. The festival culminates Saturday night on the banks of the Cumberland River with an outdoor blowout headlined by the Avett Brothers.