The idea of taking one part twang and folding in the edgier sensibilities of the times has been around for half a century or more, from hippie-fied country-rock to riff-driven roots rock and the heated-up hillbilly fare that Dwight Yoakam—the 2013 Americana Artist of the Year winner, in absentia—took from L.A. rock clubs to the charts. But Thursday night at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the Americana Music Honors and Awards Show staked its claim to rock ‘n’ roll itself—as opposed to a later hybrid—as roots music.
There was, as usual, plenty of emphasis on historical heft throughout the event. Award presenter Rosanne Cash—at the teleprompter’s prompting—pointed out that it’s a sign of the institution’s respect for tradition that all seven of the lifetime achievement nods came before the naming of the Album of the Year recipients. There were also gestures aplenty toward the musical streams that originally fed rock ‘n’ roll.
Gospel was one. The McCrary Sisters—deservedly featured as marquee performers in their own right after years of singing backup in the house band—showed a range spanning the down-home, pre-rock a capella stylings of their father’s Fairfield Four to sophisticated, contemporary mass choir arrangements.
Delbert McClinton followed their opening number, covering Hank Williams, recipient of this year’s President’s Award. Here was a song, “He Good Lookin’” to be exact, by a singer who’s claimed as a proto-punk icon being delivered, with noticeably more vocal grit than the original, by a guy who came up rocking Texas roadhouses. The whole thing hinted at the wilder music that arrived in Williams’ wake.
Then there was the polyrhythmic undertow of a classic ‘60s swamp-psych R&B number rendered by a piano-playing, wildly feathered Dr. John—Lifetime Achievement winner in the performance category—with an assist from his most recent producer, retro-minded rocker Dan Auerbach, on guitar. That was part of a rather noncommittal exploration of New Orleans roots music happening during this year’s festival and conference as a whole.
Old Crow Medicine Show kicked up quite an acoustic ruckus of their own, rolling through their oft-covered folk-rock crowd pleaser “Wagon Wheel.” Just the night before they’d become quite possibly the first act with a fauxhawk-sporting ringleader—that’d be Ketch Secor—to be inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. On this occasion they received the Trailblazer Award, though, as Secor demurred with a first-rate entertainer’s flourish, they haven’t blazed new trails so much as cleared the kudzu from some that haven’t been traveled in a while.
Most remarkable of all was the fact that even some of the genre’s most celebrated troubadour types elected to rock out. The very fine, and finally performing as a duo, married combo of Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison took a jaunt through Dave Alvin’s “Border Radio,” English folk-rock legend Richard Thompson charged through “Good Things Happen To Bad People,” from his aptly titled album Electric, and Duo/Group of the Year winners Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell chose to do one of the hot-and-playful tunes from their Album of the Year-winning collaboration Old Yellow Moon.
Really the only performers who broke from the rock ‘n’ roll mood were Holly Williams, with a sultry tribute to her grandfather, Lifetime Achievement for Award for Songwriting recipient Robert Hunter, with a rare and touchingly halting rendition of the Grateful Dead fave “Ripple,” and the acoustic team Milk Carton Kids, who executed an impressively intricate vocal-and-guitar point-counterpoint. Beforehand, Joey Ryan, the taller and more laidback half of the duo, quipped, “We’re gonna try to play the quietest song of the evening.” He wasn’t exaggerating.
Considering that there’s precious little groove to be found in current mainstream rock—and scarcely such a thing as mainstream rock at all anymore—rock with actual roll to it is ripe for reclamation by Americana musicians, who are known to be an extremely intelligent, often literary, trad-conscious bunch. Rock ‘n’ roll’s youthful freedom was the tradition that seemed to stir the most nostalgia among them this particular night. On such return trips, the music can never again feel quite as simple and spontaneous as it did at its genesis, but it can certainly make for a spirited vehicle—and really get the blood flowing.