The 18th Annual Americana Honors & Awards were held Wednesday night (Sept. 11) at Nashville's venerable Ryman Auditorium, and what had begun to feel like an extension of the good ol' boy network that many have believed country music success to be dictated by in recent years receded as Brandi Carlile capped off a career year with a win for artist of the year.
Perennial winner John Prine celebrated his latest achievement of album of the year for The Tree of Forgiveness in the final presentation of the night, yet the night's ceremony stood in stark contrast to last year, which saw Prine and Jason Isbell walk away with a combined four awards on the evening (The Nashville Sound, Album; "If We Were Vampires", song of the year; and duo/group of the year were all handed to Isbell for his work as frontman of Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit).
While Prine also won song of the year for "Summer's End", the night belonged to those representing the female and artists of color that have gained in popularity and power at both Americana radio and music venue box offices over the past year.
The show opened with Our Native Daughters performing an electrifying rendition of "Black Myself", the opening track of their 2019 debut album. It was merely the first appearance by banjoist Rhiannon Middens on the evening, nominated as both a solo artist (artist of the year) and with the other members of Daughters in the duo/group of the year category. While she won neither, she was presented as the inaugural recipient of the Legacy of Americana lifetime achievement award, alongside former slave and 19th century musician "Fiddler" Frank Johnson.
The award serves as the first collaborative effort between the Americana Music Association and the National Museum of African American Music – slated to open in spring 2020 one block from the Ryman – with NMAAM represented onstage by the museum's president and CEO Henry Hicks, who introduced Giddens by describing her voice "as powerful and expressive an instrument as you will ever hear," and traced Johnson's influence across nearly two hundred years of folk music.
Also awarded at the show were I'm With Her (Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O'Donovan, and Sara Watkins) for duo/group of the year, and the husband-and-wife duo of The War & the Treaty for emerging act of the year. Tanya Trotter dedicated the couple's win to every soldier battling PTSD, as husband Michael still suffers with the disorder after two tours of Iraq post 9/11.
The evening featured numerous nods to the genre's past, including captivating renditions of “Angel From Montgomery” by John Prine and Bonnie Raitt, as well as an homage to Bob Dylan’s duet with Johnny Cash on "Girl from the North Country” by Rodney Crowell and Joe Henry. Paying tribute to the legendary songwriting duo Felice & Boudleaux Bryant, The Milk Carton Kids (the hosts of the event for the second year in a row) were the latest act to deliver a stellar take on the pair's “Sleepless Nights", continuing to highlight their uncanny ability to mimic the vocal stylings of the Everly Brothers.
In recognition of her nearly seven-decade career as an enduring pillar of hope and justice, Mavis Staples accepted the inaugural Inspiration Award from Civil Rights activist and Freedom Rider Ernest “Rip” Patton. Mavis managed to dry her tears long enough to tell the crowd, "I still talk and share [my life] with Pops, so last night I told him, 'Pops, the [AMA] are honoring me tomorrow night.' Well, I know that he was up there telling the elders and angles all day long with a twinkle in his eye, 'They're honoring Mavis tonight.'"
2019 Americana Honors & Awards Winners and Honorees:
Album of the Year: “The Tree of Forgiveness,” John Prine, produced by Dave Cobb
Artist of the Year: Brandi Carlile
Song of the Year: “Summer’s End,” John Prine, written by Pat McLaughlin and John Prine
Duo/Group of the Year: I’m With Her
Emerging Act of the Year: The War and Treaty
Instrumentalist of the Year: Chris Eldridge
President’s Award: Felice & Boudleaux Bryant
Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting: Elvis Costello
Legacy of Americana Award, presented in partnership with the National Museum of African American Music: Rhiannon Giddens and Frank Johnson
Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance: Delbert McClinton
Trailblazer Award: Maria Muldaur
Inspiration Award, presented in partnership with the First Amendment Center: Mavis Staples
The 18th Annual Americana Honors & Awards is the hallmark event of AMERICANAFEST week, which continues through this Sunday, Sept. 15.