Wednesday night (9-17), the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville was filled to the rafters with fans and dignitaries from the independent-minded roots music community who have banded under the collective name of “Americana” to describe the varying, but uniquely American forms of music they create and champion. Since the gaze of the mainstream music apparatus in America tends to overshoot many of Americana’s finest, each September the industry gathers to network and game plan, and honor their best and brightest of the year at an annual awards ceremony.
“Holy shit, we won something!” Raul Malo, the frontman for The Mavericks exclaimed on the stage Wednesday night. Though the band has been around since 1989 and won a slew of industry awards in the mid 90’s, gaining recognition these days for a band at their level is something remarkable, and something the Americana Music Awards offers to artists who may otherwise go unfairly unrecognized for their important contributions to music.
Austin, TX’s Shakey Graves won for Emerging Artist of the Year—a distinction Sturgill Simpson enjoyed the year previous, and was one of many important events that saw Sturgill skyrocket to the point of country stardom over the previous year. At this year’s installment of the Americana Music Awards, Sturgill was poised to have a big night. He was up for Artist of the Year, Song of the Year for “Turtles All The Way Down,” and Album of the Year for Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. It could be like a Sturgill Simpson coronation if he swept all three, but he wouldn’t be there to witness it.
Back in February, Sturgill and his band fell seriously ill on the road as bands will tend to do, especially during winter tours. This was right in the midst of Sturgill’s meteoric rise, and he was selling out club-sized venues left and right, adding new dates last minute in an attempt to meet the demand, and people were driving sometimes hundreds of miles from home to make Sturgill shows in the next state over. But Sturgill was forced to cancel shows at Charlottesville, Asheville, Raleigh and Richmond. For obvious reasons, this left many fans disappointed, with broken plans, and the possibility of not being able to see Sturgill ever again in an intimate venue.
Sturgill rescheduled the dates to make it up to the communities he missed because of the cancellation, including one of the few available dates in Charlottesville at The Jefferson Theater—the same night as 2015’s Americana Music Awards. Sturgill had a choice, and it couldn’t have been an easy one.
As the Americana Awards were getting underway at the Ryman in Nashville, Sturgill was 545 miles away in Charlottesville, getting ready for his makeup show. “We’re really sorry about canceling in February,” Sturgill said from the stage to the appreciative Charlottesville crowd. “But we all got really sick. And I want you to know that we could be at the Americana awards tonight, but we’re here instead. Because all the trophies in the world don’t mean shit without you all.”
During Sturgill’s set in Charlottesville, he played one of his signature songs, “Turtles All The Way Down,” which was up for the Americana Song of the Year. At the same time Sturgill was playing it, the Song of the Year award was being announced in Nashville. Right after Sturgill finished the song, someone was gesturing from the front row, holding their phone up to the stage. Sturgill looked down and read it.
“That’s cool,” Sturgill said. “Apparently we just played the Americana Song of the Year.”
It’s worth noting that one of the themes of ‘Turtles’ is the cosmic connections inherent in the Universe.
Back in Nashville, Sturgill’s producer Dave Cobb accepted the award on Simpson’s behalf.
Sturgill went on to win Artist of the Year later that evening, and it looked like he may be headed for a clean sweep of the major awards when the final award, Album of the Year, was announced. Instead, it went to Lucinda Williams for Down Where The Spirit Meets the Bone. Lucinda was weepy in her acceptance, and as one of the founding voices of Americana, it was hard to argue with the selection. The win also secured all the major awards—Song, Artist, and Album—for the distribution and management company Thirty Tigers (Sturgill has since moved on to Atlantic).
It was a little awkward back in Nashville to have the night’s biggest winner be recognized in absentia. But as Sturgill said Thurdsay morning in a statement to fans, “All the awards in the world are worth nothing without the people who support us.”
Now that sounds like the embodiment of the spirit of Americana.
– – – – – – – – – –
Thanks to DMI and others in attendance in Charlottesville who reached out with their account of events.