Over the years, the definition of Americana music has been difficult to really peg down, but Merriam-Webster did a pretty good job of it two years ago by calling it “a genre of American music having roots in early folk and country music.”
That description was certainly represented Wednesday night in Nashville at the awards ceremony for the 14th annual Americana Music Festival. Still, rock, blues and even gospel got a chance to shine on the hallowed Ryman Auditorium stage.
Truly, the event was a celebration of music, with luminaries such as Stephen Stills, Dr. John and Emmylou Harris featured alongside up-and-coming acts like South Carolina’s Shovels and Rope and California’s Milk Carton Kids.
Following a red-carpet entrance that had multiple media outlets interviewing the arriving stars, the ceremony kicked off with Delbert McCilnton singing the Hank Williams crooner “Hey Good Lookin’.”
It was a poignant moment to open the show, as noted filmmaker Ken Burns welcomed Holly Williams to the stage to accept the President’s Award on behalf of her late grandfather before she performed a plaintive “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” to a standing ovation.
“Hank would have been 90 yesterday and it was just bizarre sitting here in an empty Ryman during soundcheck and singing his songs so many years later,” she told the capacity crowd.
The big winners of the evening, however, were two duos that are relatively new. Even though Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell have been longtime collaborators, their 2013 album Old Yellow Moon was their first record as a twosome.
It was great enough to earn Album of the Year honors, in addition to Duo Group of the Year.
“We feel like we were Americana before it had a name,” Harris stated, prior to performing “Chase the Feeling” with Crowell.
Meanwhile, Shovels and Rope are veritable newcomers to the game, as the husband and wife officially formed as a duo in 2012 and were named Emerging Artist of the Year. Not only did their offering of the hit song “Birmingham” nearly bring the house that bluegrass built down, it also garnered Song of the Year.
Their rousing showcase prompted longtime host and musician Jim Lauderdale to exclaim, “Now that’s Americana!” the first of a few times he would do so throughout the evening.
Lauderdale himself got slightly choked up when he presented venerable lyricist Robert Hunter with the Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriter. A gracious Hunter accepted the award on behalf of “those who pursued the occupation for the sake of the song itself,” and then went solo for a touching version of “Ripple,” which the Grateful Dead took to tear-jerking heights on their album American Beauty.
The audience didn’t need to wait long for something more bombastic as Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys soon took to the podium to talk about Dr. John’s accomplishments and influence.
The Louisiana figurehead was set to take home a Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance, and he demonstrated why when he tickled the ivories as Auerbach added growling accents with his guitar.
Stills was another Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who brought home one of the custom-made Americana Music trophies. His activist work with Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and other projects pegged him with the Spirit of Americana/Free Speech in Music award, and he was joined by current (The Rides) bandmate Kenny Wayne Shepherd for a searing rendition of “For What It’s Worth.”
Stills’ unmistakable howl was complimented by Shepherd’s blazing fretwork on that one.
Another memorable performance came from the Duane Eddy, as the twang-master collected a Lifetime Achievement Award for Instrumentalist and played his standard “Rebel Rouser” as the audience clapped and nodded along.
Old Crow Medicine Show, whose timeless “Wagon Wheel” helped the band join the Grand Ole Opry only 24 hours prior, received the Lifetime Achievement Trailblazer Award. Actor and banjo enthusiast Ed Helms even noted that one didn’t even have to like music to appreciate “Wagon Wheel.”
And several members of the hit ABC show Nashville were also in attendance, as Chip Esten introduced his co-stars Lennon and Maisy Stella to perform the Lumineers’ smash “Ho Hey.”
For the finale, country royalty Rosanne Cash and grizzled Texas rocker Alejandro Escovedo joined several of the night’s performers and the all-star band featuring Buddy Miller, Don Was, Larry Campbell, Marco Giovino and John Deaderick. Dr. John also added his talents, as did Harris for a heartfelt “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight.”
In all, the Americana Music Honors and Awards tabbed some of the best and brightest names in the genre from past and present. But judging by the many generations and styles of music that took the stage, Americana is only growing.