The only award recipient who wasn’t on hand to receive his trophy at Wednesday night’s Americana Honors & Awards show at the Ryman Auditorium was Jimmie Rodgers, who is, of course, long dead. During the portion of the evening devoted to the state of Mississippi’s musical heritage, presenter/performer Marty Stuart was at least able to produce a railroad lantern that once belonged to Rodgers. But the more meaningful symbolism, as it applies to Americana music, was in Stuart’s vigorous, sweeping speech; he paid tribute to the many, many facets of rootedness that Rodgers embodied (a concept that’s also masterfully fleshed out in the book Meeting Jimmie Rodgers: How America’s Original Roots Music Changed the Pop Sounds of a Century).
Stuart rhapsodized about how Rodgers, who’s popularly known as the father of country music, was in touch with down-home experience and dedicated to telling his own story, and how he tapped in to various styles of musical expression. And each of those threads was showcased especially clearly throughout this year’s ceremony.
The newest addition to the awards show’s crack house band, led by Buddy Miller (repeat recipient of Instrumentalist of the Year), was Ry Cooder, who delivered incisive slide guitar licks from a straight-back chair situated on stage. Cooder appeared at the event a few years back to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award, but on this occasion, the roots renaissance man was there in large part to highlight his longtime collaborators Tejano accordionist Flaco Jiminez and bluesman Taj Mahal, who were receiving Lifetime Achievement Awards in Instrumentalist and Performance categories, respectively. Cooder introduced and dueted with Jiminez and backed Mahal, who received his own savvy, affectionate intro from Keb’ Mo’.
What Cooder represented up there, besides instrumental eminence, was a particularly knowledgeable, imaginative, up-close-and-personal relationship with musical traditions and vernacular repertoires that have thrived within and across American borders. He told the story of how he searched for a master of Norteno music, and in Jiminez found a gifted musician who was willing to work with him. That’s but one of many examples of Cooder’s immersion in roots forms and his partnerships with their fascinating practitioners.
Besides that, particular attention was paid to recognizing musical tributaries. Mo’s speech included a deft, and not insignificant, acknowledgement of the facts that music of African-American origin has been claimed as “the music of all people” and the “complexion of the audience” has changed. While introducing Mississippi-repping Cassandra Wilson, herself a sophisticatedly down-home jazz stylist, singer-songwriter Paul Thorn spoke of inheriting two different styles of gospel expression from black and white churches.
Consciously or not, Valerie June—for whom selecting which rooted style she wants to work with is integral to songwriting—recalled Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s proto-rock guitar influence, as she stood up there as a woman of color percussively holding her own on a candy-apple red hollow body electric. And when John Paul White, formerly of the Civil Wars, introduced his label signees St. Paul & the Broken Bones with the southern, showbizy warning, “They’re about to take y’all to church,” it certainly wasn’t an empty statement. Lead singer Paul Janeway really does have Pentecostal preaching roots, which he channeled in his fantastically flamboyant performance, to which the band present a scintillatingly slow-burning counterpoint.
Songwriting that privileges the truth of experience, perspective or belief—what Jackson Browne described in his acceptance speech for his Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award as “wanting people to know who you are”—was another focal point of the evening, beginning with Loretta Lynn’s songwriting Lifetime Achievement honor and performance of her life-story-in-song signature “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
Rosanne Cash did her sensually poetic tune about reconnecting with her regional roots (“A Feather’s Not a Bird”), and Robert Ellis narrated an exchange that punctured wishful romantic delusion (“Only Lies”). Hurray For the Riff Raff personalized murder ballad-style accounts of violence (“The Body Electric”), and Parker Millsap, in a display of both brains and fire in the belly, inhabited an overzealously evangelical character (“Truck Stop Gospel”).
As the presenters opened successive envelopes, it became clear that the decisive vote had been cast for a certain kind of personal songwriting: the dexterously difficult kind. Sturgill Simpson, who played “Livin’ the Dream,” a rollicking, hard country number that surveys bitterness and disappointment in hindsight, from a more highly evolved vantage point, came away with the Emerging Act plaque. And Jason Isbell, who was joined by his violin-playing wife Amanda Shires for an even-more-ardent-than-the-album-version rendition of “Cover Me Up,” swept Americana’s three most highly valued categories: Song, Album and Artist of the Year.
The winning song that Isbell performed was the only straightforwardly confessional, love song anyone sang all night. But that wasn’t what inspired some guy in the audience to shout out, “More!” That dude, and everybody else there—or so it seemed—were responding to the way Isbell testified to the messiness of love and its jagged, impulsive edges. “Do the things that scare ya,” he said the first time he stepped up to the podium.
All told, the awards show veered toward some pretty far-flung sensibilities, but that’s a sign of growth, and of Americana, as a scene, a genre, an industry, living up to its broad-as-Jimmie Rogers potential.