Thursday September 14, 2017
There are three questions that it was better not to ask after the generally spectacular Americana Honors & Awards ceremony at the Ryman Auditorium last night.
First. What is Americana? This could spark prolonged debate as this event seemed to veer very much towards the country music side of the genre (if you can call it that) with a few other elements such as soul, folk and rock allowed to occasionally intrude. At one point it seemed that they were actually celebrating artists who cannot or can no longer (in the case of the veterans) get onto mainstream country radio or charts.
Second. Why was it that when Robert Cray and The Hi Rhythm Section (with Steve Jordan on drums) took to the stage they outnumbered the other African-Americans in the audience?
Third. Why is it that jazz – that most American of all genres – is not included in the Americana category? After all, Lucinda Williams, one of the heroines of Americana, is recording with Charles Lloyd (whose beautiful album last year with Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz could have, and perhaps should have, been included in the Album of The Year category).
Fourth. (I’ll get to this).
Many other questions can be raised as well – to unsettle your evening and prompt fiery discussions. For example, why does the fact that John Oates (of Hall & Oates) is considered an Americana act because when he was young he was once in a band playing blues covers?
Many of these questions crossed my mind during the three-and-a-quarter hour ceremony that, despite the quibbles, is still the very best awards ceremony around. (You certainly know that the organisation is getting big and seriously proprietorial when they ban cameras with interchangeable lenses).
The performances were tight, most of the speeches succinct and we got to see some undoubted heroes being honoured. It makes the Grammy Awards look like it is populated by musicians who are about as articulate as kindergarten students (and in many cases less so).
The elegantly attired Jim Lauderdale did his usual admirable job of hosting while The Milk Carton Kids did an even better one of padding. (“What the fuck is going on here?” said Kenneth during the TV ad break they had to fill).
The house band was Larry Campbell, Robbie Crowell, Jim Hoke, Jerry Pentecost, Chris Wood and the McCrary Sisters. Buddy Miller was ill and could not lead the band that he had put together. Don Was, who is usually on bass, was absent this year as well. So it wasn’t quite the superstar status of year’s gone by (with the best being the years Ry Cooder sat in). Performances by Rhiannon Giddens and Hurray For The Riff Raff were compelling. Robert Cray’s rendition of ‘You Must Believe In Yourself’ was the most powerful I have seen him for years.
I think Graham Nash explained the whole thing the best when receiving the Spirit of Americana Free Speech In Music Award. “I wondered why an Englishman was getting an Americana award,” he said. “Then I realised Americana has in fact changed the world. I mean, even in my short life we have jazz, we have the blues, we have some interesting folk singing, we have American rock ‘n’ roll.” Nash then sang the Everly’s hit ‘So Sad’ with The Milk carton kids. A nice touch.
It was lovely to see John Prine giving a visibly emotional Iris Dement the Trailblazer Award and then singing with her (as they had done recently on record). It was nice to see Larry Sloven and Bruce Bromberg from High Tone being honoured and even better to see the Hi Rhythm Section recognised. As they noted the number of chart hits they had played on I realised that these musicians were a large part of some of my favourite albums of all time!
The unarguable highlight of the evening was the appearance of Van Morrison to accept The Songwriter Award and then sing ‘Transformation’ from his new album Roll With The Punches. Van sounded fantastic. I am not exaggerating. Then he was gone. Actually, he was gone before the song even finished and he didn’t return for the encore that featured the full cast on Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land.’
I lost the sweep on how many words Van would say in his acceptance speech, having opted for four (‘Thank you very much’). In fact, he was almost chatty in saying ‘I’d like to thank the Americana Music Association for the award. I’d like to do a song from my new album.” Some have wrongly claimed that he only said ‘Thank you’ or said nothing at all but keen Van watchers like myself who have seen him numerous times and hung on every word knew better. Compared to Bob Dylan he is practically a chatterbox!
And speaking of Bob Dylan…..Old Crow Medicine Show kicked off the whole shebang by marching through the auditorium and onto stage playing ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & #35.”
Which leads to my biggest question – and the one that has bugged me for many years. Surely the first person you would give an Americana Songwriting Award to would be Bob Dylan. Yet he remains ignored (probably because he will not come and accept the award in person).
That is an oversight that needs to be urgently rectified, otherwise I might only be able to come here for another decade or so!