by Julian Spivey
Brandi Carlile and John Prine were the biggest winners at the 2019 Americana Honors & Awards on Wednesday, Sept. 11 from the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. The awards were also streamed lived on NPRmusic.org.
Carlile took home her first Artist of the Year award after a busy last couple of years that saw her album By the Way, I Forgive You nominated for numerous awards, including Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards and the formation of an all-female supergroup The Highwomen, with Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hamby, which released its debut album last week.
Prine was the only multiple-time winner of the evening taking home two of the night’s most coveted awards in Album of the Year for last year’s The Tree of Forgiveness produced by Dave Cobb (who produced three of the four nominees in the category) and Song of the Year for “Summer’s End,” which he shared with co-writer Pat McLaughlin.
Following are my five biggest takeaways for this year’s Americana Awards & Honors:
For at least five years running the Americana Awards & Honors have been live streamed on NPR’s website with very little trouble as far as connectivity or production issues. I guess that’s a good run of success, but when it comes to the only way to watch the event that doesn’t involve purchase the limited number of tickets and comes to the website’s most viewed live musical event of the year any major hiccups are going to be annoying. The biggest mistake production or technological-wise during the evening was the live stream not kicking in on time and viewers completely missing the first performance of the evening by Duo/Group of the Year nominees Our Native Daughters and part of the opening monologue by hosts The Milk Carton Kids, who returned to host for the second straight year. At other times throughout the telecast there were issues with recording that resulted in Rhiannon Giddens performing the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger” twice – not a big complaint, but the show does always run long – mics seemingly not being turned on when necessary, especially during the ending all star performance of the gospel standard “I’ll Fly Away” in which both Elvis Costello and Brandi Carlile seemingly didn’t have properly working mics and just poor sound quality at times throughout the show, especially during the evening’s most rocking number on Costello’s “Blame It On Cain.” When I watch other musical award shows like the Grammys or CMA Awards I long for the terrific music of the Americana Awards, but on this night I also longed for the Americana Awards to have the production of any of the many award shows that are televised.
For many years there has been criticism that the genre of Americana wasn’t diverse enough, especially when it came to the nominations for the Americana Awards. This year’s celebration was easily the most diverse I’ve ever seen when it comes to both women and minority nominees and performances. In fact, the majority of both categories on Wednesday night were women or minority or both. In my opinion, the performances on the Americana Awards always shine no matter who’s performing or nominated, because in my opinion the genre is fairly flawless when it comes to talent, but it was certainly nice to see new faces on the evening and more open-mindedness from voters. The performances from acts like The War and Treaty, Yola, I’m With Her, Amanda Shires, Lori McKenna, and more were fascinating, if not downright jaw-dropping in the moments that The War and Treaty and Yola graced the stage. It was a good night for the genre of Americana in taking some needed steps forward.
Before she released By the Way, I Forgive You early last year I really wasn’t that familiar with Brandi Carlile’s body of work – but since that released I haven’t been able to get enough of her incredible songwriting and vocals. Her album wasn’t eligible for this year, having been nominated last year (and somewhat controversially losing out to Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit’s The Nashville Sound, though I thought that was the correct choice), but I was thrilled to see her take home the much deserved Artist of the Year honor. More importantly I was thrilled to have another opportunity to see her perform live and this time she did my favorite song “The Mother” from her latest album, which I had ranked as the best song of 2018 on this website’s year-end list.
John Prine was my preferred choice to win both Album of the Year for 2018’s The Tree of Forgiveness and Song of the Year, along with co-writer Pat McLaughlin, for “Summer’s End” so I was thrilled to see it happen. It was also not surprising at all to see, as the voting body clearly loves and respects his entire body or work. Prine is essentially considered The Godfather of Americana music. In what was my very favorite performance of the evening, Prine, recently returned from illness, was joined on the Ryman stage with the equally as iconic Bonnie Raitt to perform their shared classic “Angel From Montgomery,” which Prine wrote. It was magical.
One of the things I was most looking forward to for this year’s Americana Awards & Honors was the honoring of Elvis Costello for Lifetime Achievement in Songwriting. Costello is one of my many songwriting heroes and was a terrific choice as honoree this year. Costello was introduced brilliantly by longtime friend and producer T-Bone Burnett, before giving an entertaining acceptance speech that for some reason got awful smoky in the room (which Costello made reference to but was never explained). Costello then took the stage for a few verses of “Red Cotton” from his 2009 Americana/folk album Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, before launching into a rocking performance of “Blame It On Cain,” from his 1977 debut My Aim Is True. As previously mentioned, the sound was bad for the performance of ‘Cain’ and it was a surprising song choice for Costello anyway, but anytime he’s being honored for his excellence in songwriting it’s going to be one of the big moments of the night for me.
Artist of the Year: Brandi Carlile
Album of the Year: The Tree of Forgiveness, John Prine
Song of the Year: “Summer’s End,” John Prine
Duo/Group of the Year: I’m With Her
Emerging Artist of the Year: The War and Treaty
Instrumentalist of the Year: Chris Eldridge
Lifetime Achievement in Songwriting: Elvis Costello
Lifetime Achievement in Performance: Delbert McClinton
Legacy of Americana Award: Frank Johnson & Rhiannon Giddens
Trailblazer Award: Maria Muldaur
Inspiration Award: Mavis Staples
President’s Award: Felice & Boudleaux Bryant