It was Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit's night to shine at the annual Americana Honors and Awards show Wednesday night at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
Isbell and his band walked away with three of the night's biggest awards: Album of the Year for The Nashville Sound, Song of the Year for "If We Were Vampires," and Duo/Group of the Year.
John Prine was named Artist of the Year, while Tyler Childers won the always competitive Emerging Artist of the Year category.
For close to three and a half hours, the Americana community came out in full force to celebrate the diverse sounds of roots music, from folk, bluegrass and alt-country to R&B and the blues. The star-studded group of presenters included John Hiatt, Keb' Mo', Wheeler Walker Jr., Jerry Douglas, The War and Treaty, The Lone Bellow, Candi Staton, Nicki Bluhm, along with CBS Sunday Morning's Anthony Mason, NPR Music critic Ann Powers, and podcaster Tyler Mahan Coe of Cocaine and Rhinestones fame.
Indie-folk duo The Milk Carton Kids -- Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan — hosted the event and provided plenty of laughs with their Larry David-meets-the-Smothers Brothers commentary.
The awards recognized the most outstanding musicians of the year, who were selected by the membership of the Americana Music Association, but this was first and foremost a concert where the music stood center stage. Under the musical direction of guitarist Buddy Miller, the night's backing band featured Don Was on bass, Jerry Pentecost on drums, the legendary McCrary Sisters on backing vocals and others.
The show opened up with a spirited cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" by Tiny Desk Contest winner Fantastic Negrito, Lukas Nelson, and Nathaniel Rateliff. The latter would return in the show with the Night Sweats to perform "Hey Mama," and Nelson returned with his band Promise Of The Real to perform the passionate "Forget About Georgia."
Of the 18 performances, there were numerous highlights. Courtney Marie Andrews (nominated for Emerging Artist of the Year) nearly lifted the Ryman off its foundation during a riveting version of "May Your Kindness Remain." Brandi Carlile hit the stage with her band and a six-piece string section for an epic performance of "The Joke," nominated for Song of the Year. Irma Thomas performed her classic "Time Is On My Side" twice due to a microphone failure during the first try. Margo Price walked into the audience during her performance of "A Little Pain," Robert Earl Keen performed "Feelin' Good Again," as part of a tribute to Houston, Texas, and Isbell and The 400 Unit ripped into a version of "White Man's World." Blues legend Buddy Guy rocked a spirited version of one of his signature songs, "Damn Right I've Got The Blues."
Towards the end of the show, Rosanne Cash performed a new song, "Everyone But Me," and Trailblazer award winner k.d. lang performed her phenomenal "Trail of Broken Hearts." "Nice and easy" she called out as the song was about to begin, and lang's voice filled the Ryman with magic.
For the finale, tribute was paid to Aretha Franklin as Andrews, Carlile, Thomas, The War and Treaty, the McCrary Sisters and more came together to sing "Chain Of Fools," which brought the audience to its collective feet.
The full list of winners is below.
- Album of the Year: "The Nashville Sound," Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, produced by Dave Cobb
- Artist of the Year: John Prine
- Song of the Year: "If We Were Vampires," Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, written by Jason Isbell
- Duo/Group of the Year: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
- Emerging Artist of the Year: Tyler Childers
- Instrumentalist of the Year: Molly Tuttle
- "Spirit of Americana" Free Speech Award, presented in partnership with the First Amendment Center: Rosanne Cash
- Americana Trailblazer Award: k.d. lang
- Lifetime Achievement Award: Irma Thomas
- Jack Emerson Lifetime Achievement Award for Executive: Olivia Records' Judy Dlugacz & Cris Williamson