2015 Americana Awards: Shakey Graves, Sturgill Simpson & Lucinda Williams Win Big Honors

AP Photo/Mark Zaleski
Alejando Rose-Garcia, also known as Shakey Graves, accepts the Emerging Artist of the Year Award at the Americana Music Honors and Awards show on Sept. 16, 2015, in Nashville, Tenn.

A few hours after winning the emerging artist of the year trophy at the Americana Honors & Awards Wednesday night, Shakey Graves turned up at a nearby club for a secret show that kicked off with a song that was appropriate for the occasion: "Big Time Nashville Star." But apropos only in the most ironic sense, since the Americana genre -- or set of genres -- exists in a humble realm where actually grasping for (or embracing) stardom would seem deeply unbecoming. And any Kanye-esque sense of awards entitlement would probably be greeted with a kindly, "Well, bless your heart."

So it felt fitting that, at this least competitive of awards show, there was nothing resembling a sweep at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium this year. Absentee Sturgill Simpson came closest, reigning victorious in the song of the year category for the psychedelically titled "Turtles All the Way Down" on top of being named artist of the year. He lost out in the album of the year category to veteran Lucinda Williams’ expansive two-CD set, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.

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Duo/group of the year went to the Mavericks, a band that's largely shifted from the mainstream country market in the early '90s to the harder-to-define Americana world today, finally finding the official kudos that eluded them in their previous life. "Holy s---, we won something!" exclaimed singer Raul Malo.

Instrumentalist of the year went for the first time to John Leventhal, who thanked his production clients for allowing him to add licks to their records. It may have been a tipoff that these results weren’t closely held by Price-Waterhouse up to the last second that this category was co-presented by his collaborator and spouse, Rosanne Cash.

Unlike the Grammys, where career-capping honors for elders often get just a token moment on the telecast, the Americana Honors place an even greater emphasis on lifetime achievement awards than handing out the topical trophies. 

Don Henley, whose return to country-rock, Cass County, comes out next week, was first up, receiving a lifetime achievement award in the trailblazers category from fellow Texan Rodney Crowell. "Trailblazers may be trailblazers, but they are also curators of tradition, and I like to think of myself as one of the people who curate and carry on traditions," Henley told the crowd in brief remarks before he and the house band played a new drought-themed song, "Praying for Rain." "I'm so honored to be in this hallowed house tonight. I've never performed in here before, but as they say back home where I come from, I’m fixin' to," he added, alluding to a solo gig scheduled at the Ryman next month.

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Buffy Sainte-Marie was awarded a lifetime honor in the Americana unique free speech in music category, with presenter John Kay of Steppenwolf noting the downturn in her career in the 1960s after she began recording songs with titles like "My Country 'Tis of Thy People You're Dying." "Some of you probably don’t know who I am," Sainte-Marie acknowledged before singing her signature antiwar song, "Universal Soldier." "I kind of disappeared from the airwaves, but don’t feel sorry for me,” she added, pointing out her post-stardom run on Sesame Street, her Oscar for co-writing "Up Where We Belong," and international tours where she "traveled all over the world even when the people of America were denied my songs."

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, musical partners on her solo records as well as his David Rawlings Machine albums, were joint recipients of the career honor for songwriting. Being in their '40s, they might be the youngest recipients of the Americana lifetime achievement awards ever, a concept that naturally sat well with them. "We're really hoping this is the midway point," Welch said on the red carpet. Rawlings wondered if the Americana Association might forget about this award over time and come back around to honor them again. "Hopefully we'll get another one in 30 years, or 20. We might be able to get two more in!"

Ricky Skaggs accepted a lifetime honor in the instrumentalist division from Ry Cooder before taking the stage with Cooder and members of bluegrass's White family for a gospel number. He wrapped up his acceptance speech with a comment that put the award in a similarly spiritual context: "All of the awards are great, but on that day, to hear the Lord say 'Well done, good and faithful servant,' that’s the greatest thing. But thank you for this down here."

Members of Los Lobos, lifetime honorees in the performance category, had a less reverent perspective on things. Noting on the red carpet that they'd been picked to close the show, saxophonist Steve Berlin quipped, "Once we bite the head off the bat, it's all over." And, on the fact that their existence as a band predates the adoption of the term Americana by several decades, Berlin added, "We go back to when it was called Apache-cana. I just came up with that -- that’s pretty good!"

Other performance highlights included a Keb Mo tribute to B.B. King, whose Lucille guitar stood on a stand next to him throughout a run-through of "How Blue Can You Get." Most of the performers played with a house band led by guitarist Buddy Miller, the music supervisor for TV’s Nashville and a frequent instrumentalist of the year winner at past shows. As Lee Ann Womack (a nominee for artist and album of the year) said before the show, "My people know if they want me to do something, they'll just tell me Buddy’s involved."

The show aired live on SiriusXM and NPR.org. An edited version -- which may or may not include additional performances by nominees Jason Isbell, John Hiatt, Rhiannon Giddens, the Lone Bellow, Nikki Lane, Robert Randolph, Doug Seegers, and Houndmouth, plus host Jim Lauderdale -- will be presented as an episode of Austin City Limits on Nov. 21.