Brandi Carlile was crowned artist of the year while John Prine picked up trophies for album and song of the year at the 18th annual Americana Honors & Awards, held Wednesday night at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
The other competitive awards went to I’m With Her for duo/group, the War and Treaty for emerging act and Chris Eldridge as instrumentalist of the year.
Carlile paid tribute to her competitors in the artist of the year category during her acceptance speech. “Rhiannon Giddens is one of the most important artists of this generation,” she said. “Kacey Musgraves did something new and special (with “Golden Hour”), and it’s really hard to do something new anymore.” Of Mavis Staples, whom she also faced in the category, Carlile said she was the artist of all time, not of the year: “She took a DNA test; it turns out she is 100 percent That Legend.”
Said Prine, pulling out a piece of paper in the first of his two acceptance speeches, “At the Grammys, I was up for something. We had speeches then and I still got ’em,” he quipped. The veteran singer-songwriter was accepting for the song “Summer’s End,” about the opiate crisis, and “The Tree of Forgiveness,” his return to making an album of original songs after a long layoff.
Carlile had been widely expected to win album, artist or song of the year last year, when “By the Way, I Forgive You” and its single “The Joke” were nominated. She was shut out before going on to win the Grammy for best Americana album, among other awards, months later. Americana Music Association voters weren’t about to repeat that this year, after her profile grew many times over. The org awarded her the top prize, artist of the year — the only category she was up for, since she spent the past year between recording projects.
At the Americana Honors, lifetime achievement awards are even greater in number than the competitive kudos. Previously announced awards went to Elvis Costello, Maria Muldaur, Giddens and Delbert McClinton. The show, webcast live by NPR.org, also handed out a lifetime trophy to Staples, which she’d previously won but been unable to accept in person.
Staples closed the show by leading the participants in a Staple Singers-style group-sing of the country-gospel standard “I’ll Fly Away.”
The Milk Carton Kids co-hosted for the second year and joined Mumford & Sons for a number.
The supergroup of the moment, the Highwomen, was represented by individual performances by Carlile and Amanda Shires. Milk Carton Kid Joey Ryan riffed on the attention the Highwomen have been getting by quipping, “It’s our pleasure to announce our all-new male supergroup called the Highmen,” leaving it up to the crowd how to spell that.
In accepting his lifetime achievement award, McClinton allowed that many in the audience would not have heard of him: “I’m from another time; I’m a refugee from the law of averages,” he said. The Texas blues-rocker noted that the FBI had come to his house after the assassination of John F. Kennedy because his name was in Jack Ruby’s notebook. “Every label I was on from ’74 to ’91 went out of business while I was on the label,” he pointed out, “sometimes when I had charting singles.” But now, he added, after his wife cleaned up his act, “the last 35 years have been the best years of my life. I’m sitting on top of the world, and like the man said, I did it my way.”
Giddens’ award was presented in conjunction with the National Museum of African American Music, opening near the Ryman next spring — which, as the Milk Carton Kids said, is the only development in downtown Nashville’s ongoing construction boom to not get irritated about.