Rock and folk icons Robert Plant, Levon Helm and Joan Baez were among those offering acceptance speeches Thursday night (Sept. 18) during the Americana Music Association's seventh annual Honors and Awards show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
In addition to the duo/group of the year award, Plant and Alison Krauss shared the album of the year prize for Raising Sand. Helm, best known for his work with The Band, was named artist of the year, and Baez was this year's recipient of the Spirit of Americana Free Speech in Music award. Other honorees included Buddy Miller (instrumentalist of the year) and former Screamin' Cheetah Wheelies vocalist Mike Farris (new emerging artist of the year). Songwriters Hayes Carll and Brian Keane won the song of the year award for "She Left Me for Jesus," a track from Carll's latest album, Trouble in Mind.
The presentations of the awards came between a truly diverse array of live performances which may or may not have answered the question show host Jim Lauderdale asks every year: "What is Americana?" But if nobody seems to be able to come up with a succinct definition of the genre, it can be broadly described as roots music that comes from a wide variety of influences ranging from folk, bluegrass and traditional country to blues, gospel and rockabilly.
As evidence, Lauderdale and Miller, who led the house band again this year, opened the show on a hardcore honky-tonk note with their take on George Jones' 1955 hit, "Why Baby Why." Jason & the Scorchers soon provided punk overtones with their original "Harvest Moon" and a cover of Hank Williams' "Lost Highway." (Jason & the Scorchers, a Nashville act that gained national attention in the '80s, played Thursday night after receiving the Americana Music Association's lifetime achievement award in the performance category.)
The rest of the performances leaned heavily toward singer-songwriters, including Ryan Bingham, Justin Townes Earle, Tift Merritt, James McMurtry and a duet from Steve Earle and Allison Moorer. Bluegrass was represented by the Sam Bush Band and the SteelDrivers, gospel by Farris, a more eclectic musical adventures from Kane Welch Kaplin (the trio of Kieran Kane, Kevin Welch and Fats Kaplin) and an elegant, intricate instrumental performed by Nickel Creek mandolinist Chris Thile and acoustic bassist Edgar Meyer.
Helm's aching vocal on "Anna Lee" proved to be one of the crowd favorites. The response was just as strong when Plant joined Miller onstage to help sing "What You Gonna Do, Leroy."
With the stylistic diversity in mind, actor and musician Billy Bob Thornton prefaced presenting the artist of the year award by offering his view on Americana music: "It's the only area these days that is keeping real music alive."
In light of his tenure as lead vocalist of Led Zeppelin, Plant was clearly the curiosity of the evening, at least as far as the crowd was concerned. He didn't disappoint, either. In accepting the album of the year award with Krauss, Plant recounted a visit to Nashville years ago when he was working in his old band.
"We received the keys to the city," he said. "Halfway through the gig, we were put under house arrest for inciting something. ... But I've changed, and the city has changed." Pausing briefly, he smiled and added, "It might not have even been this city. ... But now I've got a partner."
At that point, Krauss looked at him and dryly retorted, "Not with a story like that!"
Songwriter John Hiatt was presented the lifetime achievement award for songwriting before performing one of his most famous compositions, "Have a Little Faith in Me." Longtime Austin City Limits producer Terry Lickona received the lifetime achievement award for an executive, and journeyman musician Larry Campbell was surprised when he was presented the lifetime achievement award for an instrumentalist. In another unexpected moment, record producer Tony Brown presented singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith with the AMA's Trailblazer Award. In turn, Griffith gave Brown the lifetime achievement award for producer/engineer. Both had been told they would be presenting the awards but were unaware that they would also become recipients.
In accepting the free speech award, Baez spoke mainly about her new album that was produced by Steve Earle and her early experiences while recording albums in Nashville in the late '60s. Specifically mentioning several studio musicians, including pianist Hargus "Pig" Robbins and the late Jerry Reed, Grady Martin and Kenny Buttrey, she said, "Nashville has always welcomed me with open arms. ... It's a place I always come back to."
The awards show ended by honoring the late Jerry Garcia with the organization's President's Award followed by Helm providing the lead vocal on an all-star version of the Grateful Dead's "Tennessee Jed."