At this week’s Americana Music Festival and Conference, there’s been much reminiscing about the distinctively gritty, southern flavor of the R&B and rock ‘n’ roll that came out of Muscles Shoals; first by way of a multi-artist tribute show Wednesday night, then a Country Music Hall of Fame panel Thursday afternoon, followed by a Lifetime Achievement award presented to FAME Studios founder Rick Hall at the sold-out tenth annual Americana Honors and Awards Thursday night.
That was only the tip of the iceberg. Suffice it to say, today’s ailing rock format had nothing on the Americana awards show in terms of leanness, verve or roots. For starters, both Gregg Allman and Robert Plant were in the house, Allman to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award for performance and to do that very thing—perform—for the first time since his recent hospitalization, and Plant to accept the Album of the Year trophy—presented by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, no less—and to sensually brood his way through “Monkey” with the Band of Joy. During his acceptance speech he made a playful admission that further endeared him to the crowd: “I stole a great deal of [American music] with my old companions.” No one needed to be told which rock ‘n’ roll-ruling companions he meant.
Led by Artist and Instrumentalist of the Year winner Buddy Miller—a from-the-gut electric guitar player, if ever there was one—the house band had an extra punchy attack thanks to a rhythm section featuring Cody and Luther Dickinson of the blues-rocking North Mississippi Allstars and Don Was, member of ‘80s dance-rock outfit Was (Not Was) and producer of the Rolling Stones. Miller did one of he and his wife Julie’s primal blues numbers, “Gasoline and Matches”, with powerhouse gospel singer Regina McCrary filling Julie’s heated harmony-singing role, and the show’s emcee, Jim Lauderdale, chose to reach back to his mid-‘90s catalog for the hillbilly boogie rocker “Life By Numbers” rather than playing one of his newer bluegrass songs.
Elizabeth Cook, who was nominated in several categories, and her guitar-playing husband Tim Carroll brought a bit of funky, bossanova-tinged garage rock to the table. And even though the Avett Brothers—Duo/Group of the Year winners—selected an as-yet-unreleased song that’s nowhere near their rowdiest, “The Once and Future Carpenter”, there was palpable urgency to their singing, not to mention the way Scott Avett stomped his kick drum and Seth Avett his hi-hat. Their equally high-energy acoustic peers from across the pond, Mumford & Sons, couldn’t be there to claim their own New/Emerging Artist award. The British band beat out crowd favorites The Civil Wars, who received a standing ovation for their song “Barton Hollow.”
Justin Townes Earle won Song of the Year with his rockabilly-leaning, sorrows-drowning tune “Harlem River Blues”—which received an especially amped up treatment this night—and thanked punk-author Jim Carroll for writing The Basketball Diaries. The fact that Earle was the one singing the song and describing the literary inspiration behind it is no small deal. Unlike a lot of award-giving musical genres, Americana elevates the original singer-songwriter.
The singer-songwriter who received the this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting—Lucinda Williams—is known for expressing herself as viscerally through her lyrics as she does through the physicality of her singing and sound. After thanking her poet father, Miller Williams, for teaching her the importance of words, she declared that she wanted her award to stand for “the will and heart it takes to make it all come true”. Which, really, was a fitting sentiment across the board for a night that brought together rock royalty, Muscle Shoals legend and a small army of folks who’ve muscled their way into the popular conversation mostly without the help of major label budgets.
Here’s the full list of winners:
ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Band Of Joy, Robert Plant
ARTIST OF THE YEAR: Buddy Miller
INSTRUMENTALIST OF THE YEAR: Buddy Miller
NEW / EMERGING ARTIST: Mumford & Sons
SONG OF THE YEAR: “Harlem River Blues” by Justin Townes Earle
DUO / GROUP OF THE YEAR: The Avett Brothers
Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriter: Lucinda Williams
Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance: Gregg Allman
Lifetime Achievement Award for Instrumentalist: Jerry Douglas
Jack Emerson Lifetime Achievement Award for Executive: Rick Hall
Trailblazer Award: Bob Harris