“We gotta change around here,” Mavis Staples sang toward the very end of Wednesday night’s 18th annual Americana Honors & Awards Ceremony at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. Having been presented the evening’s Inspiration Award by pioneering Civil Rights activist and Freedom Rider Ernest Patton earlier in the evening, Staples’ song was a powerful reminder that change-inspiring music-makers are, like Staples put it herself during her acceptance speech, “still carrying on.”
But during a show that at once gestured at the future of the Americana genre while still firmly upholding its rigid past, Staples’ “Change” also served as a commentary on the state of Americana music in 2019. The Americana Honors, hosted by Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale of the Milk Carton Kids, celebrated big names like Elvis Costello and John Prine while highlighting a multiplicity of new voices and sounds from the genre’s wide cast of up-and-comers.
The biggest winner was Prine, who took home both Song of the Year (“Summer’s End”) and Album of the Year for his 2018 standout The Tree of Forgiveness. And yet, despite some predictability from the 3,000-odd Americana Association voters, the show also gently pointed toward a new era, one helmed by artists like Brandi Carlile (who quoted Lizzo during her Artist of the Year acceptance speech), the War and Treaty, and I’m With Her, who won awards for Best Emerging Artist and Duo/Group, respectively.
Carlile’s Artist of the Year win, in particular, felt long overdue, the singer’s first-ever official award from the Americana community (a year after her Grammy accolades) that served as a victory-lap recognition of her 2018 classic By The Way, I Forgive You. Having performed the deeply personal “The Mother” earlier in the evening, Carlile spent much of her acceptance speech offering praise to the other three Artist of the Year nominees: Mavis Staples, Kacey Musgraves, and Rhiannon Giddens.
Many of the most compelling moments and subsequent standing ovations from the nearly four-hour show came early on, delivered by relatively new acts like Yola, Ruston Kelly, Erin Rae, J.S. Ondara, and Our Native Daughters. From Yola’s sultry roots-pop to Kelly’s self-professed “dirt emo” to Ondara’s left-field coffeehouse folk, the first half of the show offered a broader, more flexible roadmap for the next generation of Americana songwriters, instrumentalists, and singers. When Amythyst Kiah, I go anywhere that I wanna go” during the group’s “Black Myself” it sounded like a provocation as much as an aspiration.
Amanda Shires provided the evening’s most musically daring number with the deconstructed folk-pop intro to “Parking Lot Pirouette.” Meanwhile, Rhiannon Giddens, accepting the first annual Legacy of Americana honor alongside the long-forgotten 19th-century string-band pioneer Frank Johnson, ran through a note-perfect rendition of the age-old standard “Wayfaring Stranger” not once but twice, due to technical difficulties that forced her to repeat the song. (The awards are taped to air on PBS.)
Apart from Giddens and Johnson, this year’s lifetime achievement recipients included Delbert McClinton, Staples, Costello (“he roamed freely around our country for 40 years,” T Bone Burnett said when presenting him the award), and Maria Muldaur. After Muldaur was presented her award by Bonnie Raitt, the 76-year-old folk pioneer delivered a tribute to her inspirations that served as a survey course in American roots music: Ralph Stanley, Victoria Spivey, Kitty Wells, Sippie Wallace, and Hank Williams.
There were a few semi-random moments, including Rodney Crowell and Joe Henry’s tender recreation of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash’s arrangement of “Girl From the North Country” and Mumford & Sons’ acoustic performance of their 2018 song “Do It for Yourself,” which was aided by the Milk Carton Kids. (“Last time I was here, I vomited on Jerry Douglas,” Marcus Mumford told the crowd at the Ryman.)
Later, the audience was hushed when Raitt and Prine came out by themselves with guitars. “You know this one, Bonnie?” Prine joked before the two went into a finely-aged rendition of their duet on “Angel From Montgomery.” Not long after, Staples traded verses with Carlile and the War and Treaty’s Michael Trotter during a rousing ensemble encore performance of “I’ll Fly Away.
Michael and Tanya Trotter had one of the evening’s biggest moments, mesmerizing the crowd with their a cappella take on “Love Like There’s No Tomorrow” before giving a moving speech about their project of “exposing togetherness” when accepting their award for Best Emerging Artist.
On a night that showed how much more vital and exciting the larger Americana musical world can be when it embraces new sounds and styles, the War and Treaty seemed to exemplify Staples’ call when, a few hours after they won their award, Staples recast the refrain in her song “Change” in a slightly more hopeful light:
“Get it straight/Be sure that you hear,” Staples sang, “things gonna change around here.”