Jason Isbell Has Big 2018 Americana Music Awards

Amanda Shires / Jason Isbell

2018 Americana Music Award WINNERS:

  • Musician of the Year – Molly Tuttle
  • Emerging Artist of the Year – Tyler Childers
  • Song of the Year – “If We Were Vampires” by Jason Isbell
  • Duo or Group of the Year – Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
  • Album of the Year – The Nashville Sound – Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
  • Freedom of Speech Award – Rosanne Cash
  • Lifetime Performance Award – Irma Thomas
  • Lifetime Instrumentalist – Buddy Guy
  • Lifetime Executive Award – Cris Williamson and Judy Dlugacz of Olivia Records
  • Trailblazer Award – KD Lang

The 17th Annual Americana Music Awards held at the Ryman Auditorium Wednesday night (9/12) found the organization addressing the social tensions boiling in America, the call for more diversity throughout culture, and facing it’s own transitionary period for the awards themselves. Hosted by Americana legend Jim Lauderdale since the early years, 2018 saw folk duo the Milk Carton Kids jump into the spot as Master of Ceremonies, symbolizing a shift to a representation that includes more younger artists, though with still plenty of fanfare for the founders of the burgeoning genre, and the performers of the past.

The show opened with a rendition of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” sung by Nathaniel Rateliff, Fantastic Negrito, and Lukas Nelson, immediately setting the table for diversity, strong messages, and the new generation of artists bringing the roots of American music forward.

Everyone expected a lot of political speeches, but Tyler Childers—who won the evening’s Emerging Artist of the Year award—possibly took the evening’s biggest stance. The Kentucky songwriter came out on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium dressed like Colonel Sanders, with just an acoustic guitar to perform solo at center stage. After his performance, he was awarded the Emerging Artist of the Year award—the same award his producer Sturgill Simpson won in 2014. He also delivered a pointed message about the term Americana, saying it was a distraction from the real problems in country music, and inappropriate for country artists. “It kind of feels like ‘Purgatory'” he said, making reference to his most recent album (read more).

Courtney Marie Andrews took the stage in a rhinestone jumpsuit and earned the evening’s first standing ovation with her rendition of “May Your Kindness Remain.” Brandi Carlile delivered a version of “The Joke” that was beyond epic, with her incredible range echoing through the world-class acoustics of the Ryman. It was so moving, her standing ovation started even before the performance ended.

Rosanne Cash was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award for Free Speech. As it was pointed out in her introduction, the award itself does not take a political side, since both Kris Kristofferson and Charlie Daniels have won it in the past. But Rosanne used the award to take some strong stances.

“We are the premier service industry for the heart and soul,” Rosanne said, advocating for the rights of musicians and songwriters. “Women are not small inferior versions of men,” she also said, broaching the most hot button issue of the day. She also came out for protection of immigrant children, and against people’s right to own an “arsenal of military-style weapons.”

Jason Isbell came out in white Nike Air Jordans, singing “White Man’s World,” adding a double shot of political expression. “That’s the first time we’ve played that song, and nobody’s gone to the bathroom,” Isbell said after finishing the song. But it was his song “If We Were Vampires” that would win Song of the Year. He thanked his wife and 2017 Emerging Artist of the Year Amanda Shires for inspiring him to stop watching TV one day and to write a song.

This would be the first of three awards Jason Isbell would win with his band The 400 Unit, including Duo or Group of the Year, and Album of the Year for The Nashville Sound. But the biggest award of the night would go to John Prine for Artist of the Year. “It feels like Groundhog Day,” he said after winning the award the last two years in a row. Aside from Compass Records’ Molly Tuttle who won for Instrumentalist of the Year, Thirty Tigers and Thirty Tiger’s-distributed artists swept the competitive awards.

Lifetime Achievement Award winners included Irma Thomas, who was allowed to come back to the stage to perform a second time after technical issues dogged her first performance. Buddy Guy said, “Better late than never” when receiving his Lifetime Achievement Award for Instrumentalist. Cris Williamson and Judy Dlugacz who operated the first woman-owned and woman-operated record label called Olivia Records were given the Lifetime Achievement for Executive. And a tribute to KD Lang via her Trailblazer Award closed out the festivities before the final number, which a tribute to the recently-passed Aretha Franklin.

Though Jim Lauderdale’s contributions to Americana are rivaled by few, it felt like it was time for fresh blood at the emcee position, and the Milk Carton Kids delivered with their quirky sense of humor. A few early technical difficulties aside that will be edited once the show is rebroadcast on PBS at a later date, it was a solid presentation that rose to met the calls for diversity in music.