The annual Americana Honors & Awards have faced mounting criticism that they, too, like the Grammys, have seen a preponderance of male winners taking the stage. Last year, the much beloved Brandi Carlile and Margo Price were both nominated in the top three categories — artist, album and song of the year — and many believed it was Carlile’s year, especially. So there was notable groaning in the Americana ranks when those women walked away empty-handed while Jason Isbell won another three awards, like clockwork.
This year, the Americanas have made sure, if nothing else, that a guy won’t win artist of the year — by only nominating women in the category.
In a slate that would make it appear that leadership listened to the complaints, the contenders for that honor at this year’s Americana Awards include a returning Carlile along with Rhiannon Giddens, Kacey Musgraves and Mavis Staples.
It’s the first year since 2013 that perennial Americana favorite Isbell is not in the running for artist … and he’s probably relieved. Also not appearing on that list is John Prine, who won it in 2017 and 2018.
Women’s seeming takeover of the Americanas may also be seen in the duo/group category, where last year’s winner, Isbell and the 400 Unit, is not nominated this year. This time, the category pits two female Americana supergroups, I’m With Her and Our Native Daughters, against two acts where men and women share the front position, the Tedeschi Trucks Band and the War and Treaty.
In the emerging act category, where there are five nominees instead of the usual four (indicating a tie), Kenyan-born singer J.S. Ondara is the only solo male. The other four nominees are Jade Bird, Erin Rae, Yola and the War and Treaty.
The nominations for the Americana Awards have long tended to be more gender-inclusive than for other awards shows, so when the voters end up opting for a guy, it’s hard to say for sure whether that comes down to ingrained sexism or just ingrained going with the usual Isbell/Prine suspects. In any case, with Isbell getting no nominations this year and Prine up only for album and song, the Americanas won’t face the same charges of same-old.
Variety spoke with Carlile earlier this year for a cover story involving her multiple Grammy nominations, something that was seen as part of a conscious shift by that org’s nominating committees, which had faced criticism the year prior. When the subject moved on to how the imbalance is perceived at smaller but symbolically important awards shows like the Americanas, she said it was hard to decry last year’s wins for Isbell and Prine, who are both friends (Isbell’s wife, Amanda Shires, is part of her new side project, the Highwomen) — even as she allowed that the temperature of the room changed when it became apparent that long-honored men would rule the roost at the Ryman again.
“When I was at the Americana Awards,” she said, “the night that I lost all the awards I was nominated for to Jason Isbell…” She trailed off, laughing. “I’m gonna lose to Jason Isbell for the rest of my life and I don’t care. I f—ing love Jason Isbell, and some of the most insightful shit I’ve heard about feminism has come out of his mouth. He’s an advocate; he’s feminist adjacent. He’s an exciting person in that sense, because he has the ear of people that don’t think like him. And John Prine is John Prine. He’s my hero. So it is not in any way disrespect to the beautiful men that I love in my life who won. But when they were winning, you felt this thing in the room happen, this realization — and everyone felt it, you know. Everyone there voted; everyone there was part of the process. And they all just went, ‘Oh, it’s really this way right now. We need to think about this. We need to put some effort into it, at first, and then eventually it’ll be second nature.’”
That the Americana Association leadership are putting still more thought and effort into it is apparent from the nominee lists. But lest it seem that the nominating committees are stacking the deck entirely in favor of women, there’s an ironic reversal in the instrumentalist category. In 2018, that was the one annual award that a woman did pick up — Molly Tuttle. This year, Tuttle isn’t nominated, leaving a slate of Chris Eldridge, Eamon McLoughlin, Chris Powell and Michael Rinne. This ensures that at least one man will win an award on Sept. 11.