"Thank you to the Americana fans, because, without you, there might be no other place for me," said Amanda Shires, collecting her award for Emerging Artist of the Year at Wednesday's 16th annual Americana Honors & Awards in Nashville. And she's right: as guests filtered into the Ryman Auditorium, Sam Hunt's "Body Like a Back Road" played over the outdoor speakers and tourists danced to Luke Bryan covers on Lower Broadway. Those might be the songs that score Number Ones, but last night was an opportunity to recognize artists like Shires, John Prine, Sturgill Simpson, Iris Dement, Graham Nash, Van Morrison and Robert Cray, who all took home trophies – and to pay tribute to the genre that gives them all a home.
The Americana Honors & Awards always boasts a strong combination of legacy acts and emerging names, and last night's event was no exception: nominated artists like Margo Price and Brent Cobb both played new songs – his new single "Ain't a Road to Long" and her "Do Right By Me," from her forthcoming new LP All American Made. And both were smart enough to make use of perhaps the world's best background vocals in the form of the McCrary Sisters, part of the house band.
But it was Prine who took home Artist of the Year, and who, early in the night, set the evening off on a celebratory note just by walking onstage – Prine received one of the loudest standing ovations just by literally making an entrance, let alone performing. He came out first to introduce Iris DeMent, a lifetime achievement award winner, and recounted to the audience the first time he ever heard her sing. "I'd never heard a voice like that," he said. "Straight out of one of John Steinbeck's novels, or straight out of heaven." When DeMent gave her speech, she held back tears – and grasped Prine's hand for the entire time. She then sat at the piano to play her song "Morning Glory" – a "not messed up" moment for troubled times, she said – and then reunited with Prine for their now legendary duet "In Spite of Ourselves."
The night was full of stand-out performances: Rhiannon Giddens quieted the room with the sheer power of her song "Julie"; Aaron Lee Tasjan brought his his cosmic funk with "Ready to Die"; and Hurray for the Riff Raff's "Pa'lante" came supercharged with political power. Alynda Segarra wore a shirt with the words "Jail Arpaio" to add an extra punch and prove that Americana isn't a genre that's afraid to speak out (and sing out) for social justice.
Sam Outlaw and Lori McKenna both offered plaintive moments and Artist of the Year nominee Jason Isbell joined with wife Shires for a version of "If We Were Vampires" that was at once heartbreaking and heartwarming, meditating on both the curse and gift of mortality in the context of love.
And as often as Americana can get a reputation for being full of mellow, acoustic moments, last night's awards proved that thesis wrong – more artists seemed to wield their electric guitars than ever before, making it clear that the roots of rock & roll has not been forgotten on the genre's new and elder statesmen. Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives, Drive-By Truckers, Tasjan, Robert Cray and the Hi Rhythm Section (both Lifetime Achievement Award Winners), Price's band and even Shires, performing solo, all plugged in.
Also notable were some of the night's absences: Rodney Crowell, who won Song of the Year for "It Ain't Over Yet" and Buddy Miller, always a formidable presence in the house band, were both sick, and Simpson, on tour in New York, was not present to collect his award for Album of the Year, for A Sailor's Guide to Earth. And Joe Henry and Billy Bragg paid tribute to Glen Campbell and John Hartford with a version of "Gentle On My Mind," written by Hartford and made legendary by the late country icon.
Like Shires, many artists took time to acknowledge how Americana as a genre has given them a much-needed home: Graham Nash, the Spirit of Americana Free Speech in Music Award winner, mused how an Englishman like himself ended up here, before telling the audience that "Americana has changed the world" and singing the Everly Brothers song "So Sad" with the Milk Carton Kids. Emmylou Harris talked about the power of the genre and Vince Gill mused on how "musicians don't follow borders" while introducing Cray. And if last night's ceremonies were any indication, the ones on the stage of the Ryman certainly do not.
Highlights from the Americana Honors will air during a special Austin City Limits later this fall.
Here's the full list of winners at the 16th Americana Honors & Awards:
Album of the Year: A Sailor's Guide to Earth, Sturgill Simpson, Produced by Sturgill Simpson
Artist of the Year: John Prine
Group/Duo of the Year: Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives
Song of the Year: "It Ain't Over Yet", Rodney Crowell (feat. Rosanne Cash & John Paul White), Written by Rodney Crowell
Emerging Artist of the Year: Amanda Shires
Instrumentalist of the Year: Charlie Sexton
Spirit of Americana/Free Speech in Music Award co-presented by the Americana Music Association and the First Amendment Center: Graham Nash
Lifetime Achievement Award, Trailblazer: Iris DeMent
Lifetime Achievement Award, Songwriting: Van Morrison
Lifetime Achievement Award, Performance: Robert Cray
Lifetime Achievement Award, Instrumentalist: Hi Rhythm Section
Lifetime Achievement Award, Executive: Larry Sloven and Bruce Bromberg