Celebrating its most high-profile night of the year, the Americana Music Association holds its 13th annual Honors and Awards show at the Ryman Auditorium tonight at 7pm.
As is tradition, the show will be hosted by Americana icon Jim Lauderdale, who’ll lead a powerhouse band, featuring Buddy Miller, Don Was, Ry Cooder, The McCrary Sisters, and Brady Blade.
The show will feature more than 20 live performances by the likes of Jackson Browne, Loretta Lynn, Flaco Jiménez, Taj Mahal, Rosanne Cash, Jason Isbell, Valerie June, Rodney Crowell, and Sturgill Simpson.
As a genre, Americana has come a long way to have a star-studded award show — and since 2009 — its own Grammy Award category.
It all began in 1995, when the now-defunct Gavin trade magazine created an Americana radio chart with a handful of mostly non-commercial stations. The non-profit Americana Association was then founded in 1999 as an advocacy group for “the authentic voice for American Roots Music”.
Americana pitched a tent for artists falling between the cracks of existing formats and struggling to connect with wider audiences. Popular country radio had been moving away from traditional sounds for years at the time, and the pop charts were dominated by names like Brittany Spears and Ricky Martin.
Traci Thomas, who was on the Americana Association’s founding council and manages the Americana chart-dominating Jason Isbell, says the genre is like “the island of misfit toys”, an umbrella term more easily defined by what it isn’t than what it is: “stuff that’s too country for country, and too twang for rock.”
That can mean a lot of things. Newcomers like Sturgill Simpson and Robert Ellis offer fresh takes on traditional country while young bands like The Alabama Shakes and St. Paul and the Broken Bones evoke 1960s R&B. Aging non-country artists like Robert Plant, Taj Mahal, and Jackson Browne also find a home in Americana.
Rather than chase youth-dominated pop charts, legacy artists find a niche audience by connecting with the roots music that inspired them.
However difficult it is to describe what Americana sounds like, Thomas says that one thing all of these artists and musicians have in common is that they are “artists’ artists, musicians’ musicians”. This week’s conference gives them the rare opportunity to spend time together and honor each other.
Jason Isbell and Rosanne Cash, for example, interact often on Twitter but have yet to meet in person. Beyond getting the chance to pal around, the two are nominated in the same category. Cash reportedly told Thomas “I’ll still like him if he wins.”
Note: Artists who are hyperlinked have been reported on by the WPLN newsroom