Roots Watch: The Ryman Awards Show Season
September’s the month country and its cousins honor music and music makers that the Media Barons-That-Be don’t consider ripe for prime time—anything more than five minutes old, anything with specialized appeal, artists who don’t universally look like aspiring starlets or teen idols (sorry, Junior Sisk, Richard Thompson, and Billy Sherrill) and anybody at all besides pre-sold megastars. It seems fitting that, once again, the AMA’s Americana awards and honors (Sept. 12), the Academy of Country Music’s special honors (Sept. 24) and IBMA awards (Sept. 27) were all staged at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, where acoustics, durability, and the reverberations of history count more, and feel like they count more, than glitter.
Kudos to Tamara Saviano, Shawn Camp and David Gardner for their AMA Album of the Year win for This One’s for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark. Salute collections sometimes seem to win that sort of honor for inclusiveness; in this case, it was for the final result….Bonnie Raitt and Booker T. Jones (of the MGs), both 2012 Americana Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, had been around for charming and revealing public interviews during the Americana fest and conference, conducted by perceptive questioners Ann Powers and Robert Gordon, respectively. (Booker T on how you come up with R&B songs and other sorts: “It’s like remembering a new one.” The opening of the awards show proper featured “Green Onions” with an extraordinary line-up of guitarists (Buddy Miller, Larry Campbell, Kenny Vaughan, and Richard Thompson, no less, among them) and ended with a startlingly good version of the Band’s “The Weight,” in salute to Levon Helm, with verses taken by Emmylou Harris (sounding as refreshingly loud and gritty as she’s chosen to in years), and by the Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, and with guitar solos from Ms. Raitt and songwriting Lifetime Achievement award winner Thompson—who, as per usual, gave all the other terrific guitar players something to watch. The Shakes “emerging artists” win made perfect sense, considering how far they’ve come from obscurity in the past year alone. I admire the way they insist on being seen as a band, exactly what they’ve been, despite Ms. Howard’s instant prominence as a belting soul and meta-soul shouter; how that will play out over time will be interesting to observe.
Note: An Americana act to watch—the band honeyhoney, recently relocated to Nashville from the West Coast, the most engaging act I’ve seen this decade that builds on the country picking meets punk musical ideas of the mid-1990s, and with musical chops that match or exceeds many of the bands of that day. Something else I’d like to see: a full album of Buddy Miller-Lee Ann Womack duets, as offered up casually, and on demand, more or less, during the Americana showcases—everything from “If Teardrops Were Pennies” to “You Really Got a Hold on Me.” It worked; it was a real kick.
It would be very easy to get all cynical and say that the Academy of Country Music would present their “Honors” in Las Vegas along with their Country Stars’ Greatest Glitz prime time show, if they thought anybody cared. What should be lauded is that they care, enough to have this unique show that’s become, in its sixth year, the very model of what country awards might look like if sub-genres, history and modern maturity were not segregated away, yet mainstream country popularity not denigrated. On the same stage were Kenny Chesney and Dailey & Vincent, Clint Black and Randy Houser, Kellie Pickler and Rodney Crowell, Alan Jackson, Will Hoge, and Hunter Hayes. As with the Kennedy Center Honors in DC, the format has performers saluting top Pioneer Award and career achievement award winners—a shorn Ms. Pickler with a memorable “Stand By Your Man” for Billy Sherrill, Hunter Hayes with “Fast as You” for Dwight Yoakam, Buddy Miller with “Boulder to Birmingham” for Emmylou Harris, Dierks Bentley on “I Don’t Care” for Ricky Skaggs. With Bobby Braddock and the late Roger Miller both winning “Poet’s Awards” for remarkable careers as songwriters, Braddock was able to raise the excellent potential answer to Miller’s “The Last Word in Lonesome is Me” he’s noted in private for a while, with apologies to the Southeast grocery chain—“The Last Word in Kroger is Roger.” I do wish a wide audience had had the chance to hear Randy Houser get hold of “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” in the salute to Bobby.
The IBMAs are, as you will have heard, heading for Raleigh for a few years next time out, for very practical short-term reasons, but I trust they’ll look to returning to the Ryman, where a piece of their heart lies, up the road. The awards have been all the more moving, at times, for being there—not least in the show-ender this year, a salute to the late Earl Scruggs that included just about every banjo player of note in the vicinity. It was a year for sentimental favorites—with the late Doc Watson honored as guitarist of the year, the long-established (and terrific) Blue Highway as vocal group, Russell Moore and Dale Ann Bradley back as top vocalists (and why not) and with a different sort of sentiment, but real feeling from the audience on hand and, I suspect, voters, The Gibson Brothers rising to the top Entertainers of the Year award through sheer work, determination and talent. I first saw the Gibsons at the eclectic, grass roots-built Twangfest in St. Louis nearly a decade ago, as they were finding their focus. If memory serves, Engine 145 friend (and critic) Jon Weisberger had brought them to the attention of the organizers even then. Congrats to Jon himself are well in order now, as the bass player and well-known bluegrass chronicler, this time out, won the new IBMA “Bluegrass Songwriter of the Year” title for his growing body of quality songwriting work.
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