Americana Awards Show Highlights: George Strait, Bob Weir, Lumineers, Jason Isbell & More

Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for Americana Music
Jim Lauderdale and George Strait perform onstage at the Americana Honors & Awards at Ryman Auditorium on Sept. 21, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn.

Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Margo Price took top prizes.

When you can find George Strait and the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir sharing a bill, it’s not just an only-in-Nashville moment, but an only-at-the-Americana Honors moment. The rest of the performers at the awards show that kicked off the Americana Music Festival at the Ryman Auditorium Wednesday (Sept. 21) night fell a little bit more into the center of that Americana sweet spot -- from the Lumineers to Lucinda Williams -- but it’s the embrace of traditional country on one end and classic rock psychedelia on the other that makes the format being celebrated one of music’s most inclusive genres.

At the 15th annual Honors, the actual awards meant even a little less than they do at the Grammys, if that’s possible, due to a grand total of six being given out (not counting lifetime achievements), in contrast to 21 performances. But for the record, it was Jason Isbell who got the “sweep” — meaning two awards, pretty close to the max you can get at this minimalist show, with the Americana poster boy of the moment picking up album of the year for Something More Than Free and song of the year for “24 Frames.” Two more overtly country-skewing artists racked up key wins: Chris Stapleton for artist of the year and Margo Price for emerging artist of the year.

The emergence of Price in particular augurs well for Americana as a relevant catch-all for mainstream castoffs. But the annual awards show is less about fresh faces and more about old people… or dead people. And how many awards shows don’t relegate those to a wave from the audience, or an In Memoriam? Lifetime achievement awards were given to Weir, soul man William Bell, musical activist Billy Bragg, Shawn Colvin, and longtime host (and format flag-waver) Jim Lauderdale.

But the show (heard live on SiriusXM and NPR, and filmed for a future Austin City Limits airing) kicked off with a salute to four former lifetime achievement winners who this past year went to the great post-lifetime gala in the sky. Alison Krauss was joined by band leader Buddy Miller and co-vocalists Melanie Cannon, Stuart Duncan, and Bryan Sutton on a chills-inducing “Gloryland,” a bluegrass hymn associated with the late Ralph Stanley. Joe Henry, who produced Allen Toussaint’s final album, revived his socially concerned “Freedom for the Stallion,” prescient “wall” reference and all, including a sax solo, not something you always hear at the Americana Honors. Steve Earle proved this outlaw bit’s still not gotten out of hand with Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train.” And Weir reminded everyone of the his band’s underrated country side by saluting Merle Haggard with “Mama Tried,” an anthem to which almost every parent of a Deadhead could relate.

There was an acknowledgement that the Lumineers may be the current standard-bearer for Americana as a format, as commerciality and crossover go. Though the band wasn’t up for any awards this round, they’re headlining a gig at Nashville’s Ascend Amphitheatre later in the week as part of the Americana Festival, and performed “Amelia” at the awards show. Festival chief Jed Hilly pointed out in an introduction that “two years to the day after they hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200, we got the Americana chart” in Billboard, a breakthrough for the format.

Billboard's Americana/Folk Albums Chart: THe Head and the Heart Debut at No. 1

Emmylou Harris, who won the duo/group award for her work with Rodney Crowell, thanked the Americana Association for consolidating a once extremely loose coalition of roots-oriented artists. “They didn’t know what to call us,” she pointed out. “We were kind of field hippies. Now we’re Americana.”

After receiving an award from presenter/hero John Prine, Isbell thanked his wife, Amanda Shires, who performed with him and has her own gig during the festival. “She was standing next to me, but then George Strait came in and I lost her,” he said, explaining her absence on stage. “I understand that.” He said Shires had served as an editor on his winning song, “24 Frames,” by convincing him to take out a lot of extraneous lyrics. “Keep people in your life who will tell you when you’re doing something awful, in your personal life or a song,” Isbell advised.

Also thanking a spouse was new-artist winner Price, who said her husband “believed in me enough to sell our car to do it.” Her label chief, Jack White, inevitably came in for a shout-out, even as she gleefully noted how “some of the people who passed on our record may be here tonight.”

Besides accepting his own lifetime achievement award, Bragg performed a song by an honoree who couldn’t attend — Woody Guthrie — and naturally hinted at the political. But the Brit also cheekily expounded on how not just he had benefited for the largess of Anglo/American relations, noting in passing that “you let Tom Hiddleston date Taylor Swift” and suggesting that, if cross-Atlantic artistic diplomacy continues to flourish, perhaps “Lyle Lovett can be the new James Bond.”

Introducing Weir, Bruce Hornsby took off an irreverent track, recalling that in his days gigging as the Dead’s latter-day keyboard player, “for every gig, the best party was in Bobby’s room. As his venerable songwriting partner John Barlow said… the Grateful Dead could be described as ‘Bob Weir and the Ugly Brothers.’ And Bobby truly was the heartthrob of the band,” Hornsby said, creating an image of “Bob striding around this den of iniquity like Priapus himself… They should have called him Bud Hefner. Or more accurately” — semi-inside stoner joke here — “Kind Bud Hefner.” But for his own part, Weir couldn’t have been more serious in his acceptance speech, saying, “How could a guy be more truly blessed? Here I am playing in maybe my favorite place to play, with a collection of gifted musicians, bringing love and joy to people and doing this for a living.”

Out on the red carpet before the show, as Nashville tourists looked on, it was clear that not everyone was tuned in to the Americana concept. “Is Carrie Underwood going to be here?” asked one onlooker. The biggest cheers from the tourists came for Voice alumnus Sarah Potenza (“I vooooooooted for you!” shrieked one nearly hysterical woman) and Wynonna Judd, both of whom are doing festival gigs during the week. Judd certainly knows she’s the odd woman out among this crowd, which doesn’t always look kindly on mainstream country. “Do you even know who I am?” she asked when she appeared on stage with Nashville actor Sam Palladio to present an award.

Strait is also an outlier in the Americana world, but he was a welcome one in introducing a lifetime achievement award for Lauderdale, whose songs he’s repeatedly covered. “I know him mostly as a songwriter—a really, really, really, really good hit songwriter,” said Strait, adding that “like Porter Wagoner,” for whom the Wagonmaster Award was named, “Jim Lauderdale is a consummate entertainer” and “wearing suits which Porter would envy… Somebody counted and said he’s released 28 albums, but that count will be off before this month is over.”

Lauderdale acknowledged that Strait recording songs like “The King of Broken Hearts” — which they subsequently performed with Buddy Miller — kept his solo career in business: “George, you were the reason I could make a living.” On his prodigiousness: “I do have another record coming out next week, and a record coming out this spring, too. And I’m working on another one, too. But you know, folks, times are kind of tough out there, and you don’t get paid like you used to with songwriting, and I’m going out on the road more and more to support myself. I don’t know how I could possibly afford to…” He stopped short when he realized the audience was laughing, because Strait, standing to the side, was shaking his head.

“I’m here for you, buddy,” Strait, his patron, finally interrupted, seeming to implicitly promise Lauderdale another cover.

Set list:

Gloryland (Ralph Stanley tribute) — Alison Krauss and Buddy Miller

Freedom for the Stallion (Allen Toussaint tribute) — Joe Henry

Desperados Waiting for a Train (Guy Clark tribute) — Steve Earle

Mama Tried (Merle Haggard tribute) — Bob Weir

Wasting Time — Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats

Diamond in the Rough — Shawn Colvin

The Gypsy in Me — Bonnie Raitt

What I Don’t Know — Dwight Yoakam

Memphis — Milk Carton Kids

Bring It On Home to Memphis — Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell

If It Takes a Lifetime — Jason Isbell

Ain’t Got No Home (Woody Guthrie tribute) — Billy Bragg

American Flags in Black and White — John Moreland

Tennessee Song — Margo Price

Freight Train Boogie (Delmore Brothers cover) — Steve Earle and Buddy Miller

Angela — Lumineers

Heaven Sent — Parker Milsap

The Three of Me — William Bell with Bonnie Raitt

Dust — Lucinda Williams

The King of Broken Hearts — George Strait with Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller

Will the Circle Be Unbroken — Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with cast