The 17th annual Americana Honors & Awards reestablished what most fans of rootsy rock already knew: that John Prine is the king of Americana, boomer edition, and that Jason Isbell is the other king, next generation. And the only reason Isbell has more of the trophies is because he puts out an album of new songs every couple of years, like clockwork, while Prine releases one every 13 years.
Prine won Artist of the Year at the climax of Wednesday’s ceremony at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, bolstered by the release this year of “The Tree of Forgiveness,” his first all-new collection of tunes since 2005. He also picked up that top honor last year and before that in 2005. Isbell, a fervent acolyte of Prine’s, had to settle for a mere sweep of the other three categories he was up for: Album of the Year (for “The Nashville Sound”), Song of the Year (“If We Were Vampires”) and Duo/Group of the Year (as the frontman for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit).
Isbell’s dominance was expected enough that it was even referenced in a song that the show’s hosts, the Milk Carton Kids, wrote especially for the occasion: “What Even is Americana?” “Don’t need to see the envelope, Isbell won it,” they sang, in a tune that also descriptions of what the genre encompasses that included “a folk song with no discernible chorus” and “an R&B cover with pedal steel on it.” Among the other satirical couplets from the Kids: “So what if your songs are a little too sad/And your publicist is your mom and dad.”
The Milk Carton Kids displayed a rare degree of seriousness in introducing Prine, though with Kenneth Pattengale saying he is “literally straight-up responsible for our community here” before the ‘70s-rooted singer-songwriter performed “Summer’s End.” “I believe I got this year. It’s like groundhog day,” Prine said in picking up his Artist of the Year trophy. “I want to thank everybody who bought my record and everybody who didn’t buy my record — we’ll get you sooner or later.”
The night’s two other competitive categories were Emerging Act of the Year, which went to Tyler Childers, and Instrumentalist of the Year, claimed for the first time by rising bluegrass picker Molly Tuttle. But that left plenty of time in the three-and-a-half hour show for lifetime achievement awards going to Rosanne Cash (the “Spirit of America” Free Speech Award), Irma Thomas, k.d. lang, Buddy Guy and, in an executive category, Olivia Records’ Cris Williamson and Judy Dlugacz. Guy got off one of the best speeches of the night, talking about how his blues lyrics used to run into censorship, but “after hip-hop came out, I can sing what I want now.”
Additional performers included nominees Brandi Carlile, Margo Price, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, I’m With Her, Courtney Marie Andrews and Anderson East. The show was webcast live on NPR.com and taped for future broadcast on CMT in November and “Austin City Limits” early next year.