Guitar lovers were treated to fiery performances from Bonnie Raitt, Richard Thompson and former NRBQ six-stringer Al Anderson at the Eleventh Annual Americana Music Honors & Awards at the historic Ryman Auditorium on Wednesday night. The program culminated in an all-star rendition of the Band’s “The Weight” — a tribute to the genre’s late hero Levon Helm, who died in April, that included Raitt soloing in her elegant, purring slide style and Thompson rapidly picking out a lead that pushed the song’s melody in his signature exploratory fashion. The number also featured a host of Americana lynchpins including Emmylou Harris, John Hiatt, Booker T. Jones, Darrell Scott (Robert Plant’s Band of Joy), Jim Lauderdale, Amy Helm (Olabelle), Larry Campbell and rising star Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes.
But the event was more than a concert. As its name essays, the show is an opportunity for Americana fans and performers to honor their own. It was also a testimonial to the still-growing strength of the genre, which got its own Grammy category just three years ago, as well as an affirmation of the relevance and durability of the Honors & Awards program itself. The Ryman was sold-out without a current hot-ticket artist like Robert Plant, Gregg Allman or Helm, who all performed in recent years, on the bill.
This year Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers presented the Lifetime Achievement Award for Instrumentalist to Jones, who kicked off the event by leading the house band helmed by ubiquitous songwriter, guitarist and producer Buddy Miller in his Booker T. & the M.G.’s classic “Green Onions.” Thompson took on the role of the M.G.’s original guitarist Steve Cropper, tearing through the tune’s trademark first guitar break.
That opener set a high musical bar that was maintained throughout the night in performances by the Alabama Shakes, Raitt and Anderson together as an acoustic duo, the reunited Mavericks, Miller and Lauderdale playing a tune from a new unreleased collaboration, legendary Texas songwriter Guy Clark, young bluegrass barn burners the Punch Brothers, and Peter Cooper teaming with Lee Ann Womack and Tom T. Hall.
Raitt presented a Lifetime Achievement Award for songwriting to Thompson, who was also given a Gibson SJ-200 guitar on stage by Gibson Guitar Corporation President David Berryman. And Raitt received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance that was presented by Hiatt. The night’s other Lifetime Achievement Award, for an executive, was presented to SESAC’s Dennis Lord, who was the Americana association’s first president and executive director.
Winners in the annual musical categories were: Gillian Welch for Artist of the Year; This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark for Album of the Year; Alabama Shakes for New/Emerging Artist; “Alabama Pines” by Jason Isbell for Song; guitarist David Rawlings for Instrumentalist; and Civil Wars for Duo/Group.