The McCrary Sisters started off Wednesday night’s Americana Music Honors and Awards Show at the Ryman with a funky version of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and it took us a few seconds to realize what they were singing. The McCrary Sisters did it well, and the performance set the tone for an evening that was full of '60s nostalgia. At their 12th annual awards show — filmed for posterity, with the eternal Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller doing their usual host and bandleader duties — Americana recognized a roster of Nashville folkies, revered elders, established acts and new talent. Dr. John played “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” with Black Key Dan Auerbach on blues guitar. And former Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young guitarist and singer Stephen Stills received the Spirit of Americana Freedom of Speech Award before squeezing out old-style ‘60s guitar leads on a version of Springfield’s classic of hippie paranoia, “For What It’s Worth.”
With the ‘60s vibe omnipresent, Americana paid tribute to Stills, and gave Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter their Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting. Also performing and receiving awards were proto-rock guitarist Duane Eddy and current Americana stars Old Crow Medicine Show, who sang their Dylan co-write “Wagon Wheel." Dr. John reverted to his Mac Rebennack persona to play some re-harmonized, New Orleans-style piano, before several thousand Americana singers and pickers gathered onstage to perform Rodney Crowell and Donivan Cowart’s “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight," which closed out the night’s festivities.
“Blowin’ in the Wind” was a highlight, though the young fan sitting next to us had no idea what the song was, even when we gave him a clue. That generational divide is an interesting aspect of the current State of Americana, and this year Americana gave two awards to Shovels & Rope, a husband-and-wife duo who make minimalist country-folk, complete with tempo shifts and strange asides, and who grace the cover of this week's Scene.
Nominated in four categories, Shovels & Rope won for Emerging Artist and Best Song. They really are emerging, since Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent released the full-length Shovels & Rope way back in 2008 before making a splash with last year’s O Be Joyful, which made the lower reaches of Billboard’s chart. It could also be that Americana has recognized Hearst and Trent’s recent collaboration with famed pop producer Butch Walker, or maybe they just thought “Birmingham” — the number that earned Shovels & Rope their Best Song nod — was a good tune. As Shovels & Rope performed it before the packed house, we noted that “Birmingham” is a good tune, and that Hearst would have been a country singer in another era. We’ve always heard Shovels & Rope as expressionist, No Depression-style country-rock, or maybe like The Decemberists, if The Decemberists had emerged from Smyrna.
Nominated for Song of the Year and Emerging Artist, J.D. McPherson did a turn as a Narvel Felts-style rockabilly singer. The California-bred duo The Milk Carton Kids wore suits and ties, and displayed droll camaraderie — Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan joked about their “emerging whiskey habit,” and they sounded like Simon & Garfunkel attempting to imitate The Incredible String Band and The Smothers Brothers at the same time. Their music is a version of commercial ‘60s folk, with some off-kilter guitar licks thrown in for good measure.
Richard Thompson didn’t win for this year’s song, “Good Things Happen to Bad People,” but Thompson performed it superbly — it’s a pleasure to watch Thompson play the briefest of solos. Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell performed, and they won for Album of the Year, for Old Yellow Moon, and took home the Duo or Group of the Year Award.
Comedian Ed Helms presented Old Crow Medicine Show with Americana’s Trailblazer Award. Holly and Jett Williams accepted the President’s Award for their grandfather, Hank Williams. Ry Cooder made a humorous speech about legendary label owner Chris Strachwitz, who influenced generations of musicians by releasing roots music on his Arhoolie Records imprint. Accepting his Lifetime Achievement Award for Executive, Strachwitz said, “I just recorded sounds I loved. I had no idea what effect they had on people.”
To paraphrase Lauderdale, that’s Americana for you. Music is funny that way, and the current crop of Americana stars may well be doing important revision to the convoluted concept of roots music. As for the '60s vibe we mentioned earlier, fellow Buffalo Springfield member Richie Furay, who came in from Boulder, Colo., to jam with Stills and blues guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd on “For What It’s Worth,” may have summed it up, as it pertains to Americana.
“The ‘60s were an intense time,” Furay said. “We wrote songs that came alive in our hearts.”