Leave it to Jason Isbell to come up with a lovely, homespun metaphor for the Americana community.
“We pull each other up. It’s the opposite of a bucket of crabs,” said the singer-songwriter and dual winner from the stage of the Ryman Auditorium at Wednesday night’s 15th annual Americana Honors and Awards.
And so it was with the annual roots music extravaganza, which made room for Isbell’s literate songs like “If It Takes a Lifetime” and seemingly every other flavor in existence without having to argue about what actually belongs there. Musical styles presented during the three-hour event included acoustic folk, roots rock, Memphis R&B, bluegrass, Grateful Dead-style jamming and George Strait.
The “Amarillo by Morning” singer was one of the evening’s musical highlights, making an appearance to honor longtime host Jim Lauderdale with the Wagonmaster Award – presented only once before to its namesake, Porter Wagoner. In 1992, Strait cut Lauderdale’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and “The King of Broken Hearts” for the blockbuster Pure Country soundtrack, beginning a long and fruitful relationship with the prolific artist-songwriter-entertainer Lauderdale. Like the consummate professional, Strait performed a sterling rendition of the latter song (flanked by Lauderdale and the Buddy Miller-led house band backing him) for the audience members who hung around for the end of the show. In an unscripted moment, longtime Strait producer Tony Brown even rushed the stage to dole out some hugs.
Earlier in the evening the crowd got a dose of Stax Records-style soul from Stax OG William Bell, who was presented with the Lifetime Achievement award for Songwriting, having composed standards like “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and “Born Under a Bad Sign” that are still being reinterpreted today. The 77-year-old singer’s voice proved to be just as golden as it was in the late Sixties, with an assist by roots rock icon Bonnie Raitt and John Leventhal – who produced Bell’s 2016 album This Is Where I Live. Raitt also gave a smoking performance of her own “Gypsy in Me” during the show.
Much was also made about honoring those who came before and passing the torch to those on the horizon, resulting in several standout performances. At the top of the show, attendees were hit with a lengthy, CMA Awards-style barrage of songs to pay tribute to recently departed icons Ralph Stanley, Merle Haggard, Guy Clark and Allen Toussaint. Alison Krauss was joined by Buddy Miller, Stuart Duncan and Melonie Cannon to sing a largely a capella version of Stanley’s “Gloryland,” followed by Joe Henry’s soulful run through Toussaint’s “Freedom for the Stallion.” Steve Earle offered a stormy, intense take on Clark’s “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train” and the segment closed with Grateful Dead co-founder Bob Weir cathartically jamming to Haggard’s “Mama Tried.”
Among the new artists receiving the torch, Parker Millsap stood tall with his emotional ballad “Heaven Sent,” depicting the complicated relationship between a gay man and his religious father. Country traditionalist Margo Price brought some much-needed attitude to the proceedings with her foot-stomping “Tennessee Song,” and Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats skillfully bridged folk and soul with their easygoing “Wasting Time.”
Many more of those emerging (and established) talents are still ahead as the 2016 Americana Fest gets fully into swing, with nightly showcases in numerous venues across town. For lineup and schedules, visit americanamusic.org.