The Americana Honors & Awards ceremony is the flagship event of every AmericanaFest, which officially got under way on Tuesday in Nashville. First held in 2002, the ceremony honors both emerging talent as well as genre icons, and has, over the last 18 years, championed the careers of beloved artists like John Prine, Margo Price, Jason Isbell and Bonnie Raitt.
This year, the Milk Carton Kids, who released their latest album All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do earlier in 2018, will host the show for the first time. The folk duo, made up of Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, follow in the footsteps of longtime host Jim Lauderdale, who passes the torch after helming the program since 2003.
“To my mind, it’s a great place for people to gather once a year to get a taste of what this crazy amalgam of music really is,” says Pattengale, who, along with Ryan, won the Americana award for Duo/Group of the Year in 2014 and took a few minutes before rehearsal to speak with Rolling Stone Country about preparing for the gig. “Americana is a term and a construct definitely worth paying attention to.”
Performers slated for this year’s show, set for Wednesday night at the Ryman Auditorium, include Buddy Guy, k.d. lang, Rosanne Cash, Brandi Carlile and Robert Earl Keen. Among the nominees are Margo Price, Mary Gauthier, Jason Isbell, and John Prine.
How did the opportunity to host the awards show come about?
Pattengale: As these things go, Jed Hilly, the Executive Director of the Association, called up and said, “Hey, would you guys be interested in hosting the awards show this year?” You don’t ask too many questions. With that said, it goes without saying and should be obvious to anyone who could empathize with a middle of the road folk duo in 2018, that this is quite an honor for us. It’s quite an opportunity and quite the moment to be able to, in some ways, represent and lead along the yearly gathering of all the freaks and weirdos that make up our little corner of music. We’re really looking forward to being the master of ceremonies, as it were, for what always proves to be, if not a good time, a good show.
Ryan: What do you mean, it’s not a good time? Because it’s so long?
Pattengale: Yeah, it can be long. Sometimes you run in to people that you don’t really want to see. Sometimes you have to host the whole thing with a guy that you’ve been doing that with for a decade. There are some personal hardships.
Ryan: The other thing is sometimes you’re nominated but only rarely do you win. That’s always a disappointment. That’s the main thing about awards shows. Literally 75% of the nominees will lose tonight.
I’ve always thought that was so odd, to make people come and sit in a room where they know the odds are against them but they still have to be gracious and happy.
Ryan: Most likely you’re going to go home a loser. I mean by the numbers. You’re welcome, everybody.
Pattengale: The saving grace would be if your award was announced late in the evening, you could enjoy everything up until when you lose. But if you’re nominated for the first one and you don’t win, it’s going to be a long night. The first year we went we were nominated it was early in the evening and we lost and the whole rest of the night sucked.
Ryan: Yeah then we told them we wouldn’t come back unless we won. And sure enough we won the next year. Now we’re hosting.
It sounds like it’s worked out all right, then. You mentioned that you’ve been writing material and rehearsing. You’ve always been known for improvising with your banter, so how much are you writing ahead of time? And how long have you been working on it?
Pattengale: We’re writing the whole thing anticipating that, in the moment, we’ll realize that what we’ve written is not very funny and we’ll probably have to go off script and just see what happens. But we are very sensible people. We’re coming prepared. We’ve been working tirelessly for about 16 hours, eight of which we both just slept, trying to get together a top-notch Hollywood script for our Ryman hosting gig.
Ryan: The one thing we did do in advance that has been a lot of work is the opening musical number. And while there will be a striking lack of choreography compared to other awards shows, there will be an opening musical number.
Will that be political commentary, a parody song… Any hint of what to expect?
Ryan: Why, what’s going on?
Pattengale: That was mildly funny.
Ryan: What? That was good. We should do that on stage. At some point, Kenneth, you should say, “Now we aren’t doing any explicit commentary, are we Joey?” And I can say, “Why, what’s going on?”
But no, it’s not going to be like a Colbert opening monologue where we deliver one-liners about the news of the day. This one is more of a celebration than that.
Have you spoken with Jim Lauderdale at all about his experiences hosting over the years? Has he given you any tips?
Pattengale: You know, we haven’t talked to Jim, and I think it’s simply been a matter of busy schedules. But now that you mention it, that’s a smart idea and we’ll probably call Jim up at midnight tonight and ask him what we’re in for. He’s really got it down. He did it for a number of years and exceedingly well. He’s a born, natural, consummate host who’s been handling those sorts of duties in a variety of media for many years and we don’t really have any experience with this stuff. So it’s basically just a massive gamble that the Americana Awards put on us with their big flagship program of the year.
Lauderdale also has the catchphrase, “Now that’s Americana” that he would say throughout the awards.
Ryan: That is copyrighted, trademark material. We have not been granted access to the catchphrase.
The cool thing about that, aside from it being a funny gag, is that Americana is such a broad genre and serves as a community for so many types of music. From that perspective, what do you guys feel is the importance of a festival and awards show like this?
Ryan: Part of that is a question that we’ll attempt to answer Wednesday evening.
Pattengale: As far as classifications go, it’s always a funny song and dance. And at tomorrow’s show there might be a song and dance about it. But in its essence, the question isn’t that hard to answer. Tomorrow night when we honor Buddy Guy with a Lifetime Achievement Award, it’s very obvious in the American history books that Buddy Guy will be filed as one of the greatest blues musicians from Chicago of a certain era. If that was the extent of the definition, it would only tell one story. Whereas when we get to bring him up on the stage and honor him in this community, it casts his legacy in a light that is very valid. What he’s done and what he’s written and what he’s played and what he’s invented over many years has a reach that’s long and far and crosses genres and crosses tastes and is a part of the language in a community that every single person that will be in the Ryman tomorrow night is involved in. If Buddy Guy was only relegated to those blues history books and to those communities, it wouldn’t tell the full story.
As he’s sitting there, the same thing is true about k.d. lang. Who would ever put k.d. lang and Buddy Guy in the same sentence together? But it makes a certain kind of sense and a perfect kind of sense when you see it in the context of this program that comes together at this annual gathering in Nashville. There is a commonality between these people. I think if you really got under the hood to investigate what that is, it’s two things. It’s a ferocity in spirit and it’s an individuality in people’s artistic identities.