The Spin didn’t have a definition of Americana when we sprinted up the narrow stairs of the Ryman to watch the Americana Music Association’s annual Honors and Awards Show, and we came back down the stairs just as confused as we started out. Sure, we love American music — on any given day, we may listen to Eddie Floyd, Gid Tanner and Drive-By Truckers back to back, and we’ve been known to lend an ear to Texas troubadours, from Guy Clark to Ernest Tubb himself. But Americana is not a style, or a canon of great recordings, or even a repertoire — it’s a marketing term that encompasses what used to be called alt-country or roots- rock, with singer-songwriters thrown in for good measure. The Spin applauds the marketing savvy and promotional zeal of the Americana folks, who have secured their own Grammy category, not to mention plenty of attention from music lovers everywhere. If anything, the awards show just muddied the waters even further, although there was some great music on the Ryman stage.
First up was an ensemble starring Booker T. Jones, the great Memphis-born multi-instrumentalist who played on Stax recordings by Floyd and Otis Redding. Joining Jones on a game version of the Stax instrumental “Green Onions” was the amazing English guitarist Richard Thompson, along with super-pickers Miller, Darrell Scott, Kenny Vaughn and Larry Campbell.
Thompson’s admission into the Americana club could give you the idea that the so-called “genre” is a bit slippery — OK, Thompson has spent his career playing both North American-style songs and things that are very, very English. People with long memories may remember that Thompson covered Emitt Rhodes, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan in Fairport Convention, and wrote a 1969 tune titled “Cajun Woman.” So maybe an Americana artist is someone who plays songs written by Americans, or in an American style, or maybe an Americana artist is an American who covers songs by an English songwriter who has been influenced by American music. Alison Krauss recorded Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day,” for example. Like we say, it’s confusing.
Thompson ripped up his own “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” — his furious but perfectly controlled playing proved that a great musician strives to wring every ounce of meaning out of his material. Patterson Hood, who is a rock-influenced singer-songwriter with a feel for grimy Southern-specific narratives, introduced Jones. The dapper Jones accepted his Lifetime Achievement Award with the grace he’s displayed throughout his career, which includes working with Hood’s band, Drive-By Truckers.
Tom T. Hall ambled out on stage to sing “I Love” with singer-songwriter Peter Cooper and country singer Lee Ann Womack — Hall is awesome and everything, but he’s one of those commercially minded Nashville country songwriters, and quite frankly, “I Love” is schlock. The Spin would have preferred “Turn It On, Turn It On, Turn It On.” Tom T. was there because Cooper and fellow songwriter Eric Brace made a record of Hall songs that was nominated for an Americana award. Fair enough, but we thought Americana artists did it for artistic satisfaction, not for money, and if Hall wrote “I Love” out of any deeper inner compulsion than the need for a brand-new Cadillac, we’d like to know.
Guy Clark sang his fine “My Favorite Picture of You,” and it was a moving moment, especially in light of the recent loss of Susanna — later on, a record of Clark tunes, This One’s for Him, won the Album of the Year Award. The Punch Brothers did a newgrass-style song titled “Flippen,” while neo-soul belters The Alabama Shakes performed their tune, “Be Mine.” Another young group, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, sang convincingly about the joys of country living.
The Texas-born post-bluegrass singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz provided one of the evening’s best moments — her nervous, twitching rhythms propelled “Come Around” into art-song territory. Big Star drummer Jody Stephens joined R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills to present an award, but The Spin got the idea that no one knew who Stephens was, and that’s not Americana. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit performed, as did Justin Townes Earle and Bonnie Raitt.
Americana Association head Jed Hilly defined Americana as music made with no eye to the charts, and then everyone in the audience grooved along with Raitt’s John Hiatt-penned smash hit, “Thing Called Love.” The show ended with several thousand musicians gathering onstage to do The Band’s “The Weight,” a classic song that The Spin likes to call the “Kum Ba Yah” of Americana gatherings. OK, it was maybe 15 or 20 musicians. What else? Oh yeah, Buddy Miller played some boss guitar and didn’t win any awards this year. But Gillian Welch won Artist of the Year, The Civil Wars came away with Duo/Group of the Year, and Alabama Shakes were named New Emerging Artist of the Year. The Spin still doesn’t know what Americana is, but we sure liked some of it.