As the 17th annual Americana Honors & Awards drew to a close at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on Wednesday night, the star power came out in full force. Lined up along the front of the stage were Brandi Carlile, Irma Thomas, Courtney Marie Andrews, the War and Treaty, and Ann McCrary of the McCrary Sisters to sing Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools.” Having accounted for at least three of the evening’s biggest musical highlights to that point, it was a surefire cast for the grand finale.
There was just one catch: only one of them was walking away with an award. That honor belonged to Thomas, who received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance. On a night where Jason Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, swept three categories and John Prine took Artist of the Year for a second year running, only one female performer came home with a trophy — Molly Tuttle for Instrumentalist of the Year.
Such an imbalance may be nothing new at music awards shows, but this time felt different, as the Americana Honors & Awards otherwise hit so many of the right notes in recognizing those artists whose efforts are often rendered, as more than one speaker put it, “invisible.” The topic of diversity was even one that first-time hosts the Milk Carton Kids, assuming the mantle from longtime emcee Jim Lauderdale, joked about in their monologue, which included a playful send-up song about Americana’s niche appeal.
Throughout the night, women took the lead in every area save for the win column. That tone was set early on by Rosanne Cash when she delivered a stirring, impassioned speech in accepting the Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award. “Women are not small, inferior versions of men,” she declared in a wide-ranging speech that quoted Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and doubled down on her vocal support of gun control. “I believe with all my heart that a single child’s life is greater and more precious and more deserving of the protection of this nation and of the adults in this room than the right to own a personal arsenal of military style weapons.”
Cash’s words were especially poignant given that her late father, Johnny Cash, was the inaugural recipient of the award and, as she noted onstage, Wednesday marked the 15th anniversary of his death. “He left [the world] a better place than he found it and that’s what I hope for. That’s what all of us hope for,” she said, before singing a heartbreaking new song called “Everyone But Me” that alluded to the deaths of her parents.
Before Cash received her standing ovation, rising artist Courtney Marie Andrews received one of her own for a haunting rendition of “May Your Kindness Remain,” in which she howled somewhere between Elvis Presley and Loretta Lynn. More impressive still was Carlile, whose voice on “The Joke” was the loudest instrument in the room all night. She twisted her entire body to wind up for the song’s big note, and hit it with a veritable screech.
When Isbell walked up to the podium a short time later to accept the award for Song of the Year, for which he’d competed with Carlile, he was quick to give her credit. “This is an exciting thing for me, but it seems unfair to have had Brandi sing ‘The Joke’ seven or eight minutes ago,” he mused.
Isbell deflected the spotlight to those with whom he regularly shares it, including his wife Amanda Shires, who he said pushed him to write “If We Were Vampires” by getting him up off the couch. “As she put it, ‘Anyone can be watching Hoarders right now. You’re a songwriter,'” he recalled. When Isbell also won Duo/Group of the Year and Album of the Year for The Nashville Sound, he let his bandmates and producer Dave Cobb do the speaking.
Not mincing his words was Tyler Childers, the Emerging Artist of the Year winner who played a raw, raspy solo version of “Nose on the Grindstone.” During his acceptance speech, Childers took umbrage at the mispronunciation of his surname and “Appalachia,” and the label “Americana” in general. “As a man who identifies as a country music singer, I feel Americana ain’t no part of nothing and is a distraction from the issues that we’re facing on a bigger level as country music singers,” he said, nodding to the title of his debut album, Purgatory. “It kind of feels like purgatory.”
Childers’ comments were in contrast to those of Irma Thomas, the Grammy-winning R&B singer who said she traveled eight hours to attend the ceremony and graciously called her honor “the surprise of a lifetime.” She showed similar poise when a PA malfunction spoiled her performance of “Time Is on My Side,” then — goaded on by the audience — proved electrifying when she was given a second chance.
k.d. lang was the night’s final solo performer before the show-closing tribute to Franklin, having given a rather muted and somber acceptance for her own American Trailblazer Award. But no one seized the night with as much gravitas as Judy Dlugacz and Cris Williamson, the founders of groundbreaking women’s music label Olivia Records. While the AMA has often wound up with predictably male winners in its contemporary categories, it has proven far more adept at highlighting the diversity of people in its legacy honors — more so, in fact, than many other music award committees. “I’m proud of the Americana Music Association for this honor,” said Dlugacz, her voice quivering with emotion. ” It takes courage to recognize what we did.”
Not that such recognition should have to take courage: As Williamson cooly noted, “We’ve sold out Carnegie Hall three times. This is the first time we’ve been acknowledged by the industry.” As Williamson detailed anecdotes about fans being moved to tears by the music they heard from Olivia Records — “A woman singing to another woman,” she noted — she was proud, steady, and ready to seize the moment that took 45 years to arrive for her and Dlugacz.
“It’s not such a big deal now, because now love is love is love,” Williamson said. “Love something, love someone. Otherwise you’re not a human being.”