The Americana Honors & Awards may be the only music awards show that’s so anti-ageist, it’s not uncommon for artists to pick up trophies in the standard annual categories many years after getting their lifetime achievement awards.
That was the case Wednesday night at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, as 70-year-old John Prine was awarded artist of the year, with nobody thinking that his being given a career summation award 14 years ago meant he shouldn’t be invited back for more.
Although Americana Association honchos typically take pains to point out that it’s a young person’s format, too, equal representation for whippersnappers didn’t seem to be so much on voters’ mind in 2017, as voters let the gravity of hero worship take its natural course. Rodney Crowell, 67, who got his own lifetime achievement award 11 years ago, won song of the year Wednesday, for the aptly titled “It Ain’t Over Yet.” Best duo/group went to Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives; Stuart’s 58 years hardly bely the length of his actual career, since Stuart went pro as an early teen.
Before anyone sues for reverse age discrimination, the Americanas did find a way to give the award for best emerging artist to someone under 50, that being Amanda Shires, 35 (who gave thanks to “my husband, who you might know as Mr. Shires,” aka Jason Isbell). The album of the year trophy was awarded to another leading light of the genre who’s only old as a soul: 39-year-old Sturgill Simpson. His win for “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” seemed inevitable, being the only contender in the category that’d already been nominated in the Grammys’ all-genre album of the year category.
This year’s actual lifetime achievement winners included Van Morrison, Graham Nash, Iris DeMent, veteran members of producer Willie Mitchell’s Memphis studio band, and the founders of the High Tone label. After being given a generous, gfarrulous introduction by Emmylou Harris, the mercurial Morrison gave perhaps the shortest acceptance speech ever spoken by a lifetime honoree — “Thank you” — before joining the house band to perform his new single, “Transformation.” DeMent was more elaborate and emotional in her remarks before joining Prine for a duet of “In Spite of Ourselves.”
“Why is an Englishman getting an Americana award?” Nash wondered aloud, before answering his rhetorical question with the thought that, like the Beatles, the Hollies worshipped Buddy Holly and especially the Everly Brothers. He recalled joining the Everlys on stage in 1989 for a nearly impromptu version of “So High,” the exact three-part-harmony dynamics of which he then attempted to recreate with the Americana genre’s most Everly-centric current act, the Milk Carton Kids.
As always, the Americanas gave full shrift to recently dearly departed acts. The live show and webcast opened unofficially, with the lights not yet fully turned on, with host Jim Lauderdale and house backup singers the McCrary Sisters walking Leon Russell’s “Tightrope.” Mid-show, Joe Henry and Billy Bragg teamed for a gentler, less finger-picky version of Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind.” The climax brought most of the evening’s cast back out for a group-sing of country star Don Williams’ “Tulsa Time,” joined by its songwriter, Danny Flowers, and led by singer/guitarist Larry Campbell, who’d stepped up to fill in as the leader of the house band for an ailing Buddy Miller.
Miller was still recognized, in absentia, via the instrumentalist of the year award that bears his name, which went to former teen idol and longtime Bob Dylan guitarist Charlie Sexton. “The Buddy Miller award is the best award anyone could ever get,” said Sexton.
Lest anyone complain that the show gave in too greatly to a dependence on elder statesmen, living or dead, the telecast found a powerful and topical moment in a performance by Hurray for the Riff Raff, up for album of the year. Singer Alynda Segarra wore a “Jail Arpaio” shirt — in reference to the recently Trump-pardoned ex-sheriff — and performed the politically charged civil rights anthem “Pa’lante,” which includes an incendiary excerpt from Pedro Pietri’s poem “Puerto Rican Obituary.”
Other (relative) youth power came not just via a performance by Isbell (whose recent “Nashville Sound” will presumably be a contender next year), but numbers from two women who join him as the most prominent contemporary faces of the genre, Margo Price — who premiered “Do Right By Me,” a funky R&B/country selection from her forthcoming sophomore album — and force of nature Rhiannon Giddens.
Another sign you’re not watching the Grammys, or any other music show? When an artist’s acceptance speech begins, as Shires’ did, with the exclamation “Holy fire, that’s crazy.”
Prine, though, may have had the line of the night, emerging to do an introduction after no introduction of his own, responding to the fervent applause with: “I was gonna come out and tell you who I was, but I’ll go with whoever you think I am.”
The nearly three-hour show, webcast live over NPR’s site, was filmed for eventual television broadcast as an episode of “Austin City Limits” (airdates yet to be determined).