The Pendulum Swings — Slowly — For Diversity at the Americana Awards

Photo courtesy Americana Music Association

Maybe Brandi Carlile should have thanked Jason Isbell in her Artist of the Year acceptance speech at the 2019 Americana Music Honors & Awards ceremony, held Wednesday night at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

In 2018, after taking home wins for Album, Duo/Group and Song of the Year (even he admitted she should have won that last one), Isbell — whose 17 nominations and 10 wins, including one with the Drive-By Truckers, make him the second most-recognized artist in the awards’ 18-year history — tweeted that he wished “the list of winners was at least as diverse as the list of nominees.”

Though he noted how grateful he was for the recognition, his tweet acknowledged what many in attendance or watching online had also expressed: the Americana Music Association had a rather shameful pattern of giving most of its member-voted awards to white males. In 2018, the six award categories had several female nominees, but only one, Molly Tuttle, won, for Instrumentalist of the Year. That was also the only category containing a nominee of color, drummer Jerry Pentecost.

This year, the four Artist of the Year nominees were all women: Carlile, Rhiannon Giddens, Kacey Musgraves and Mavis Staples. The Duo/Group category contained two all-female bands — the trio I’m With Her and the quartet Our Native Daughters (which includes Giddens) — and two couple-fronted bands, the Tedeschi-Trucks Band and the War and Treaty.  Our Native Daughters and the War and Treaty — who won the Emerging Act of the Year Award — are African-American.

All but one of the Emerging Act category’s five nominees (caused by a tie), were black artists. (One, J.S. Ondara, is actually African.) Three of the four solo nominees were female: Yola, Jade Bird and Erin Rae.

I’m With Her, which was nominated in the Duo/Group category last year, won this time. That gave member Sarah Jarosz her first win after seven nominations, including solo nods in four other categories (and four of her six losses were to Isbell). Sadly, Giddens has yet to score after six nominations, including two with the Carolina Chocolate Drops and three for solo work. She was, however, presented with the inaugural Legacy of Americana Award, a “lifetime honoree” award presented in partnership with the National Museum of African-American Music, opening next year in Nashville. She shared the honor with the late Frank Johnson, an enslaved man who earned his freedom with his fiddle and inspired her mentor, Joe Thompson.

“I started my real musical life … [with] the original Chocolate Drops, at the knee of an elder. Joe was 86 years old when I met him — an elder in a long and immensely important tradition,” Giddens explained, adding, “It’s an honor that I get to be a part of that. So I accept this for Frank Johnson, for Joe Thompson, for countless legions of unknown, unnamed black musicians who are an inextricable part of American music, without whom none of us — and I do mean none of us — would sound like we do.”

That point was driven home at the very start of the evening, with Our Native Daughters’ powerful performance of “Black Myself.”

It was further reinforced by the War and Treaty’s Michael and Tanya Trotter, who mesmerized with “Love Like There’s No Tomorrow,” accompanied only by his foot stomps and her tambourine taps.

After accepting their award from Mumford & Sons, the couple told a story that reminded listeners just how much freedom can cost even today, though Michael intended to make a point about how important it is for artists to support one another. Invited to perform with the Mumfords during their record-breaking March appearance at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, Michael, a war veteran, explained he had suffered “a PTSD moment” before going onstage, but Marcus Mumford talked him down.

“Marcus put his arms around me and said, ‘C’mon man. This is where you belong,” Michael recalled. Then Tanya revealed,“We almost didn’t make it here tonight because as a family, we suffer with PTSD. Today is 9/11, and my husband served two tours in Iraq.”

The applause got so loud, her dedication of their award to soldiers and their families, and her “You can do it!” encouragement to push through those struggles, was almost drowned out.

Another history lesson involving freedom came with the presentation of the Inspiration Award to Mavis Staples. Though it seemed, on the surface, a contrived way to deliver the Spirit of Americana/Free Speech Award she received in absentia in 2007, it was hard to deny that her presence elevated the evening. So did Trailblazer Award winner Maria Muldaur’s, and Lifetime Achievement for Songwriting award winner Elvis Costello’s (his delivery of “Blame it on Cain” with Jim Lauderdale and the house band was one of many highlights).

The same could be said of Bonnie Raitt, who performed “Angel from Montgomery” with John Prine. Ironically, Prine won Song of the Year honors for a different tune, “Summer’s End,” written with Pat McLaughlin but performed at the ceremony with Carlile. In what one AMA member called “the Isbell effect,” he also won Album of the Year, for the Dave Cobb-produced The Tree of Forgiveness.In that category, the other nominees — Yola, Lori McKenna and Amanda Shires — were all women. Prine previously won Artist of the Year honors in 2018, 2017 and 2005, making his nomination/win tally five-for-five.

The Song of the Year award, it should be noted, has never gone to a woman except in tandem with a man, even in the three years when three out of its four nominees were women. (Buddy and Julie Miller won in 2009 for “Chalk,” written by Julie, and Shovels & Rope’s Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent won for “Birmingham,” which they co-wrote, in 2013.)

The record for Instrumentalist of the Year is similarly unsettling; in 18 years, only nine women have ever been nominated for it out of 72 potential slots (more, if ties occur), and only two — Sara Watkins and Tuttle — have won, in 2016 and 2018 respectively.

The diversity issue has plagued the organization since it began giving awards in 2002. In sometimes heated discussions following 2018’s awards, voters and non-voters alike seem to agree that awards should be based on merit, not sex, race or sexual orientation. But with only six voted categories and only four nominees per award, perhaps the AMA should consider disallowing nominations in the same category in the year following a win, or establish a hall of fame for those who win instrumentalist, artist or duo/group awards three times.

The board also could also institute a campaign to encourage more members without particular ponies in the race to vote; if the 2019 awards audience was an indicator, members are starting to more accurately reflect the true diversity of Americana’s roots. Ideally, they’ll make their presence felt in future voting.

As one observer noted, change is a slow pendulum swing. This year, the awards moved closer than ever to where they belong — and that effort also made for one of the most exciting shows in recent memory. But just like America itself, that pendulum has still got some traveling to do.