Allison Russell, Billy Strings and Brandi Carlile were among those earning top accolades on Wednesday (Sept. 14) as the Americana Honors & Awards ceremony returned to its home at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. Over the course of the evening, nearly a dozen honors were given out, peppered throughout a lineup of performers that showcased the breadth of Americana’s evolving sound.
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Ace guitarist Billy Strings earned the evening’s most coveted honor, artist of the year, following the release of his third album, Renewal, in 2021. Strings, however, was not in attendance at the Ryman Wednesday evening, as he was on tour in New England. In his stead, legendary dobro and steel guitar master Jerry Douglas both presented and accepted the honor on Strings’ behalf.
One of the evening’s most orotund, soul-elevating moments was undoubtedly Russell and Carlile teaming for “You’re Not Alone,” supported by a group of ace musicians.
“Our circle is unbroken. Our circle is whole. None above, none below, all of us equal under the listening sky,” Russell said, a joyous summation of the love in the room that evening.
“You’re Not Alone” seemed well positioned as the theme for the evening, whether spoken about in acceptance speeches and introductions, or expressed musically through the evening’s plethora of collaborations and group performances.
Russell, who earned three nominations heading into the ceremony, received album of the year honors for Outside Child, which was produced by Dan Knobler.
“Over and over again tonight I’ve heard two things: Community, family, union, belonging. Being uplifted, being inspired. I feel so honored to be a part of this community,” Russell said. Russell thanked many members of her team and offered a special moment of gratitude to Carlile, whom she said played a key role in helping Russell ink a label deal with Fantasy Records. “[She] made phone calls and championed this record and championed me and lifted my family and I out of poverty during the pandemic,” Russell added, growing emotional.
“That’s what she did and that’s what this family, this chosen family does. I wasn’t lucky with the family I was born to, fostered by, adopted by, but I have been unbelievably lucky because of music.”
Larissa Maestro was named instrumentalist of the year, and thanked others who have previously been nominated and won the honor for breaking down barriers in the category.
“I want to talk about doors opening for a second, because I didn’t think this kind of thing was a possibility for me…I’m 39 years old and I didn’t see people that looked like me in this category for a lot of years and I got to see it last year and they were my friends and it is so exciting.” Maestro said.
JP Harris paid homage to his friend and fellow musician, the late Luke Bell, who was found dead last month after a long battle with mental illness.
“Luke never got the chance to sing this song from this stage himself, like he should have, so I’m going to do my [best] in your stead, little brother,” Harris said, before performing “The Bullfighter.”
Carlile later had a second performance, joining Lucius, Tim and Phil Hanseroth for “On the Rock,” while song of the year went to Carlile’s “Right on Time,” written by Carlile, Dave Cobb, Phil Hanseroth and Tim Hanseroth.
“What an honor to have this song seen by you guys,” Carlile said, thanking her co-writers. “This song basically says that sometimes, the s—’s just gotta hit the fan,” she said, adding, “There were so many songs of the year in this category and it’s incredible to be alongside y’all.”
Two genre-blurring acts who are currently signed to mainstream country labels made ace showings during the Americana Honors.
The War and Treaty, who signed with Universal Music Group Nashville earlier this year, offered a searing vocal masterclass during their rendition of their latest release, the intimate “That’s How Love Is Made,” drawing the Ryman crowd to its feet. Later in the evening, they were named duo/group of the year, after winning emerging artist of the year in 2019.
“Our road has been long, it’s been hard but it’s been worth it,” said Tanya Trotter, who accepted the honor with her husband and bandmate Michael Trotter, Jr.
Morgan Wade, currently signed to Sony Music Nashville, and an emerging artist of the year nominee who broke through last year with her album Reckless, performed a cooly passionate take on the album track “Run.”
Sierra Ferrell, who recently released a new album, Long Time Coming, was named emerging act of the year, not long after offering one of the evening’s most engaging performances with “Rainbows.”
“I never thought I’d be up here accepting this…I love y’all, thanks so much,” Ferrell said.
Several lifetime achievement honors were presented during the evening, as Lyle Lovett honored Chris Isaak with the performance award, Garth Fundis honored the late Don Williams with the president’s award, Carlile honored the Indigo Girls with the spirit of Americana award, the Fairfield Four were honored with the legacy of Americana award, and Al Bell was honored with the executive award.
Robert Plant surprised the audience by appearing to honor All-Star Band musical director Buddy Miller with a lifetime achievement award, for his work with a range of artists including Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, and Tom T. Hall. Miller also performed “Wide River to Cross.”
“I don’t know why I’m getting this…this is overwhelming,” Miller said. “Everybody that gave me a chance, my dear friend Jim Lauderdale…this means so much to me.”
Last year’s legacy honor went to Dr. Paul T. Kwami and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Dr. Kwami, who served as the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ music director for 28 years, passed away last week, and Sanders led the crowd in a moment of remembrance before honoring the Fairfield Four.
The quartet originally formed as a trio in 1921 in the basement of Fairfield Baptist Church in Nashville. Prior to the Grand Ole Opry finding a longtime home at the Ryman in 1943, the Ryman Auditorium was home to performances from the gospel group The Fairfield Four. The current iteration of the group performed “Rock My Soul” and were presented with the 2022 legacy of Americana award.
As the evening came to a close, the McCrary Sisters honored their late sister and bandmate Deborah McCrary, performing the classic hymn “Amazing Grace,” melded with the melody of another classic, “The House of the Rising Sun.”
The evening’s denouement came with an all-sing of “I’ll Take You There,” the Staple Singers classic, a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1972, written by Americana Lifetime Achievement honoree Al Bell.