by Luke Taylor
September 21, 2023
In a nearly four-hour celebration in Nashville on Wednesday night, the Americana Music Association hosted its 22nd Annual Honors & Awards. While artists certainly walked away with awards — including repeat wins for The War and Treaty (Duo/Group of the Year) and Billy Strings (Artist of the Year) — what was celebrated most at the Ryman Auditorium was music, inclusion and community.
Hosted once again by Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale of the Milk Carton Kids, the program brought to the stage numerous performances that honored the nominees, the deceased, and even a couple of album anniversaries. The program began with a performance by Logan Ledger — backed by the amazing Buddy Miller-led house band — covering the late Jimmy Buffett’s hit song, “Come Monday.” Later, Milk Carton Kids, along with Noah Kahan, honored the 50th anniversary of Paul Simon’s album, There Goes Rhymin' Simon with a performance of “American Tune.” Later, Rufus Wainwright performed a cover of Tom Waits’ song “Ol’ 55” to honor the 50th anniversary of Waits’ debut album, Closing Time. The entire program concluded when all musicians took the stage to deliver a raucous version of the late Robbie Robertson’s “Cripple Creek.” Verbal tributes were also paid to the late John Prine and to the late Deborah McCrary of the McCrary Sisters, the surviving members of whom sang several times throughout the evening.
Stitching together all the award announcements, tribute and acceptance speeches were performances of newer music by nominees and honorees. Standing out among the many standout performances were Sunny War’s powerful performance of “Whole”; Adeem the Artist’s lyrically and thematically complex ballad, “Middle of a Heart”; S.G. Goodman’s warbling vocals on her song “Space and Time”; the Avett Brothers’ emotional performance of “I Wish I Was”; and Margo Price’s no-holds-barred performance of “Mountain and Back,” which even saw her dash through the audience at one point. But probably the most passionate and potent performance of the evening went to Spirit of Americana award recipient Allison Russell, who, with her band, nearly brought down the house with a roof-rattling rendition of Russell’s song, “Eve Was Black,” a smackdown on white supremacy.
Russell’s performance really got to the heart of what Wednesday’s ceremony was championing: Against the backdrop of legislative action happening in the state of Tennessee, the Americana Music Association came together as a community to stand for unity, equality, diversity and inclusion. The theme echoed through several speeches by artists:
In accepting the award for Instrumentalist of the Year, Chantee Ross of SistaStrings heralded “the beautiful spirit of inclusion and seeing people for who they are, and we’re fighting really hard in Tennessee.”
Jessi Colter, while introducing Margo Price, spoke about Americana music in general, saying “I think it’s great American popular music, that’s what we are. You all are that, and the new groups that are coming in are wonderful. It’s so great to watch it grow.”
William Bell, in his comments announcing the Duo/Group of the Year award, said “Music is a family, and music is getting along with other people in tight spaces.”
Tanya Trotter of The War and Treaty, during her acceptance speech for Duo/Group of the Year, said, "I want to thank Americana for all they have done, for the progression that this beautiful community has done for African Americans, for Latinos, for the Indigenous community,” after which her husband Michael added, in his speech, “I want us to not forget the power of music, especially in this city. Not long ago, we were reminded, we were touched by violence. … Music helped [us] through it. Some of us might run to our phone and pull up a Brandi Carlile song to remind us there’s goodness in the world.”
Bonnie Raitt, accepting her award for Song of the Year for “Just Like That,” remarked, “I’m so proud of this organization and so proud of the musicians that we foster and nuture and support. Thank God for Americana format, that’s what I can say.”
Seth Avett of the Avett Brothers, accepting the Lifetime Achievement for Performance Award, said, “It seems there are so many [genre] labels we would be struggling to free ourselves of at any opportunity we’re given. But Americana, we are so lucky to be called that, we don’t ever want out, and thank you so much for letting us in.”
And Billy Strings, accepting his award for Artist of the Year, observed, “I moved to Nashville in 2015 not really knowing what I would find, and I found the most colorful and vibrant community.”
The evening’s most powerful moment came when Russell received the Spirit of Americana/Free Speech in Music Award. It was presented by Representatives Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, whose expulsion from and eventual reinstatement to the Tennessee House of Representatives made global headlines. The lawmakers each took turns recognizing Russell’s work to organize a benefit concert opposing anti-LGBTQ legislation passed in Tennessee. In his remarks, Representative Pearson said, “Allison Russell shows us that resisting this cruelty that we see every day in the General Assembly is essential. But there are no graduations to equality. We’re either all equal, or none of us are equal, or as we say in Tennessee: Y’all means all.”
Interestingly, Russell, along with Charley Crockett and Margo Price — all of whom were nominated in several categories and seen as favorites to win — did not receive any awards for music. But at an event that really seemed focused on uplifting the entire community and all the music it puts forth, simply being present was honor enough.
See a list of all Honors & Awards recipients below.
PBS is set to broadcast “ACL Presents: The 22nd Annual Americana Honors,” a special episode of Austin City Limits featuring performance highlights on November 25, 2023.
2023 Americana Honors & Awards Summary
Winners in each category appear in bold with asterisk (*)
Album of the Year:
Big Time, Angel Olsen; Produced by Angel Olsen and Jonathan Wilson
*Can I Take My Hounds To Heaven?, Tyler Childers; Produced by Tyler Childers
El Bueno Y El Malo, Hermanos Gutiérrez; Produced by Dan Auerbach
The Man from Waco, Charley Crockett; Produced by Bruce Robison
Strays, Margo Price; Produced by Margo Price and Jonathan Wilson
Artist of the Year:
Duo/Group of the Year:
*The War and Treaty
Emerging Act of the Year:
Adeem the Artist
Thee Sacred Souls
Instrumentalist of the Year:
Allison de Groot
*SistaStrings (Chauntee and Monique Ross)
Song of the Year:
“Change of Heart,” Margo Price; Written by Jeremy Ivey, Margo Price
“I’m Just a Clown,” Charley Crockett; Written by Charley Crockett
*“Just Like That,” Bonnie Raitt; Written by Bonnie Raitt
“Something in the Orange,” Zach Bryan; Written by Zach Bryan
“You’re Not Alone,” Allison Russell featuring Brandi Carlile; Written by Allison Russell
Lifetime Achievement, Trailblazer and Legacy Award honorees:
Jack Emerson Lifetime Achievement Award: *George Fontaine, Sr. of New West Records
Legacy of Americana Award: *Bettye LaVette
Americana Music Association’s 2023 Trailblazer Award: *Nickel Creek
Spirit of Americana/Free Speech in Music Award: *Allison Russell
Lifetime Achievement Award: *Patty Griffin
Lifetime Achievement in Performance: *The Avett Brothers
Americana Music Association - official site