As she accepted a Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award, Rosanne Cash admitted she was too old to care about the predictable insults that she’s endured for her views.
“To quote Tom Morello,” she said center stage at the Ryman Auditorium during the 17th Annual Americana Music Awards, “I didn’t put down my first amendment rights when I strapped on a guitar.”
By then Cash had outlined three points with the precision of a midterm candidate out on the stump. There was her plea for the rights of musicians to make a living and advocating for the Music Modernization Act in Congress. The second was about the need for women to be equal with men, in pay and representation in government. And lastly, she said, a child’s life is not second to the rights of owning an arsenal of military-style guns.
On this night, it was fifteen years to the day since her father Johnny Cash had passed. He had been named the award’s inaugural recipient and the daughter could say she learned at his knee.
There she stood at the temple of the Ryman, herself an elder statesman on a night that felt like the passing of the generational torch. When John Hiatt took the stage, it was to introduce his daughter Lilly, a nominee for Best Emerging Artist. For the first time in thirteen years, the person most synonymous as a spokesperson for the Americana music movement was conspicuously absent. In Jim Lauderdale’s place were Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, better known as the Milk Carton Kids.
With their stellar and breathtaking harmonies, the duo are like spiritual heirs to the Everly Brothers with wry humor and like a millennial incarnation of comedy duo the Smothers Brothers. When Margo Price sang “A Little Pain,” it set off a hilarious discussion about the subject. “I disagree on a little pain,” Ryan proffered to his partner in a back and forth philosophical banter and bit of improvisational comedy. “If pain doesn’t hurt you Margo, you should have that looked at.”
The annual September gala is always time to take stock of the genre and community. If performances were an indicator, it feels like a golden age of creativity on a night when you had Courtney Marie Andrews, Brandi Carlisle, I’m With Her, k. d. lang, Tyler Childers, John Prine and the legendary Buddy Guy and Irma Thomas all on the same stage.
The amalgam of genres within Americana and the idea that it is as an umbrella for roots-oriented music perpetually undergoes self-examination. Ryan and Pattengale dealt with it in a light-hearted way with their own ditty, “What Even Is Americana?”
Presenter Wheeler Walker Jr. was a little bit flip about it all. “It’s just country music no one listens to,” he said in his introduction of emerging artist Tyler Childers. Walker seemed more like he was at the Oscars, giving a shout out to Dave Cobb in the audience like he was Jack Nicholson. Childers performance was more sobering and one of the night’s most memorable.
But when Childers accepted his award, you might have missed his parting comments in which he stated that he is a country artist and that Americana “ain’t no part of nothing” and a big distraction from broader issues faced by country artists.
The beauty of Americana is that it is such a big tent that constantly seems to be widening. In an age when albums have given way to the shuffle, the genre agnostic tent. How else could you have Candi Staton, who has twelve gospel albums, stand at the podium while her co-presenter complimented her for her retro psychedelic R & B.
AMA executive director Jed Hilly likened it to a family reunion and spoke of its tribal growth. Jason Isbell, the perennial award winner, came home with three more. On the same stage where Isbell played five nights last year (all of which he chose to have opened by women), there were no female winners. It provoked a Twitter hangover the following morning about being more inclusive. On this night, he deferred to members of his 400 Unit to make acceptance remarks before he made a broader point: “I believe in the work that all of us as a group are doing together.”
Perhaps one of the most emotional moments was the Lifetime Achievement Award to Olivia Records founders Chris Williamson and Judy Dlucagcz. In her passionate induction, NPR correspondent and critic Ann Powers spoke about the importance of women in music. She described the all-female label run by woman and formed in the Seventies as the model for present day independent labels.
The label sent out its albums in plain brown wrappers for women who wanted to be reached but couldn’t afford to be recognized. Williamson remembered getting letters from women who had to pull off to the side of the road, emotionally overwrought with the idea that a woman could be singing to another woman.
“Sister Brandi, Sister k. d., Mary Gauthier….the sisters are here,” Williamson exclaimed as she looked out into the audience.
For her part, lang played it down when she later accepted the AMA Trailblazer Music award from Brandy Clark. Describing herself as someone who was enamored by Patsy Cline and steel guitar, she likened herself to a transient in town. But lang recognized other trailblazers who left their sweat on the Ryman stage.
Before they pronounced John Prine as Artist Of The Year, Alejandro Escovedo and Fantastic Negrito talked about the importance of “meaning it” every night when you’re just trying to survive as artists. Cash had framed it in starker terms. If economic conditions don’t change, the next generation of musicians will disappear.
Outside the hallowed halls of the Ryman, you wouldn’t necessarily know it. Hilly had said that back in 2007 there were fifty-four artists and now Americanafest could boost 260 acts in fifty plus venues. While awards were being given out, emerging new voices like Kari Arnett were playing rounds in town. Arnett joined a group of Minnesota songwriters Sarah Morris, M French and Vicky Emerson at the Belcourt Taps. Her new song “Only a Woman” directly echoes the sentiments made by Cash in her acceptance remarks about equality for women.
“I love this damned band,” a bubbly Amanda Shires said after husband Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit were winners for album of the year.
Irma Thomas, the New Orleans pioneer whose “Time Is On My Side” inspired The Rolling Stones, received a Lifetime Achievement Award. At 77 she said she felt like she was 14. Her youth came in handy as she had to reprise the song twice due to sound problems. At night’s end she joined Andrews, Carlile and Michael Trotter of The War and Treaty for a rousing “Chain of Fools” in tribute to Aretha Franklin.
It was all worth it for her family. They had driven eight hours to get to Nashville to see her.
You just live for nights like this.