Brandi Carlile, Sturgill Simpson and John Prine Top Americana Honors & Awards Winners

Brandi Carlile
Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for Americana Music Association

Brandi Carlile accepts an award onstage at the 20th Annual Americana Honors & Awards at Ryman Auditorium on Sept. 22, 2021 in Nashville.

On Wednesday evening (Sept. 22) at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the Americana music community celebrated the crowning evening of its annual AMERICANAFEST, with the Americana Music Association’s 20th annual Honors & Awards. The evening proved a joyous, much-anticipated reunion, as last year’s live event was canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Brandi Carlile was the evening’s biggest winner, accepting her second artist of the year honor. She won this award two years ago, and is the first woman to win twice in the category.

“To be artist of the year after a year like we have all had as a community, there’s a weight to it and I know it’s profound,” Carlile said -- adding, “Because it was hard to be an artist this year.”

Over the past year, Carlile has been hard at work on her upcoming album In These Silent Days, and released the book Broken Horses: A Memoir. During her acceptance speech, she also celebrated her friends and fellow female artists -- including Amythyst Kiah, Yola and Allison Russell -- who released projects over the past year.

“My friends have made music that has elevated me,” Carlile said.

Carlile also ushered in the evening, welcoming viewers both in the Ryman audience and watching online with her signature combination of heart and wit.

“Last year we stayed home, and tried as a community to just love each other the best we could in the uncertainty, distance and even sometimes a crazy-making closeness... shout out to my wife Catherine," she said. "For me personally, Americana and the AMA provided a bright spot even with all the miles between me and Nashville. When a lucky few of us received awards in the mail, we placed them on the mantle and thought of our friends and heroes that we’ve been missing.”

Chief among those was surely the man Carlile called “the godfather of Americana,” John Prine, who died in 2020 from complications with COVID-19. “May we feel his presence tonight in this room, and do our best to make him smile and make him proud,” Carlile said.

Prine’s “I Remember Everything,” penned by the legendary singer-songwriter along with Pat McLaughlin, was named song of the year. This writing team also won in this category two years earlier for the song “Summer's End.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever been in this building without John -- I was feeling a little teary-eyed down there tonight, but I think he’s here,” Prine's widow Fiona told the audience as she accepted on Prine’s behalf. “I want to thank the Americana Music Association for the love and respect they’ve shown by keeping John’s name and his music alive. We are so thankful for this posthumous recognition [for] John’s last recorded song.” Carlile later joined Margo Price and Amanda Shires to honor Prine with a rendition of "Everything.”

Sturgill Simpson’s latest project, Cuttin’ Grass- Vol. 1 (The Butcher Shoppe Sessions), produced by Simpson and David Ferguson, was named album of the year. This marked Sturgill's second win in the category, following a win four years earlier for A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.

Violin and fiddle player Kristin Weber was named instrumentalist of the year. Weber is the fourth female musician to win this category within the past six years, following wins by Sara Watkins, Molly Tuttle and the 2020 winner Brittany Haas. Texan Charley Crockett, who just released his latest album Music City USA, was named emerging artist of the year.

“Lord have mercy…I am very grateful,” Crockett said. “I’m 10 records in, and I signed my first record deal on a New York cCty subway car. The thing is -- I guess emerging is whenever they see you, right? In a category of so many amazing emerging women, it’s hard to accept this award… it’s my first time ever in this building. For somebody like me, if it wasn’t for Americana, we probably wouldn’t get any recognition at all…so thank you so much.”

Last year, Black Pumas won the emerging artist of the year honor, and this year, they progressed to winning duo/group of the year. The duo was not in attendance, and presenter Kiefer Sutherland accepted on the duo’s behalf.

In addition to the evening’s winners, the night featured a strong lineup of soul-stirring performances. Aaron Lee Tasjan and the Buddy Miller-led house band kicked off the evening by honoring the late Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts with a rendition of the Stones' 1971 classic “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.”

Other performers during the evening included Allison Russell (who performed “Nightflyer” from her album Outside Child), Amythyst Kiah (“Fancy Drones (Fracture Me))” from her album Wary+Strange), Crockett (“Are We Lonesome Yet”), Jason Isbell and Shires (“Letting You Go”), Sarah Jarosz (“I’ll Be Gone”), Price (“I’d Die For You”), Valerie June and Carla Thomas (“Call Me a Fool”), Thomas (“B-A-B-Y”), The Highwomen (“The Highwomen”), and Carlile (“Right On Time”).

The evening also paid homage to those artists that were lost over the past year, including Nanci Griffith, who won the Americana Music Association’s trailblazer award in 2008. Aoife O’Donovan and Joe Henry honored Griffith with a performance of “Gulf Coast Highway.” Buddy Miller celebrated the life and career of the late Tom T. Hall with a performance of “That’s How I Got To Memphis.” Steve Earle honored his son, the late Justin Townes Earle, with a performance of “Harlem River Blues.”

“See ya when I get there, cowboy,” he said in concluding the touching tribute to his son.

Throughout the evening, several lifetime achievement award recipients were celebrated. Keb’ Mo’ accepted the lifetime achievement award for performance, and then showed the Ryman crowd just why he is so deserving of the honor, with a stunning performance of “Oklahoma,” alongside The McCrary Sisters.

Other lifetime achievement winners feted during the ceremony included Fisk Jubilee Singers (honored with the legacy award), Trina Shoemaker (producer/engineer), Thomas (inspiration award) and The Mavericks (trailblazer award). National Museum of African American Music leader Henry Hicks and songwriter/producer Shannon Sanders presented the lifetime achievement legacy honor to Dr. Paul Kwami and the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

“Sometimes we may think that the work that we do is not recognized,” Kwami said. “I look back at the history of the Fisk Jubilee singers, young men and women who some of them did not even know their parents but who left a rich legacy for us. I’m very grateful to the association for giving us this honor… because it inspires us and it lets us know that people know what we are doing.”

Of being honored with the trailblazer award, The Mavericks lead singer Raul Malo said, “This is a lifetime achievement award and we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for our families. It’s a lifetime of missed birthdays and celebrations but through it all, my wife still talks to me, so that’s something… I always say that musicians have guardian angels all through your life. If you do right and you’re a good person, they will always be there. And they have been there for us from the beginning.”

Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell ended the show with a performance of “Let It Be Me,” in tribute to the late Don Everly.