RAMBLIN: Live from the Ryman, the Americana Honors and Music Awards

·7 min read

Sep. 21—I paid more attention than usual to the Americana Music Honors and Awards show this year — because I caught a video live stream of the Wednesday night ceremony.

Although I'd seen a list of the nominees, I had no idea who would turn up to perform live and in-person at the annual event, held at what's considered the Mother Church of Country Music, the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn. The Ryman, of course, is the original home of the Grand Ole' Opry, the celebrated country music show that relocated to the Opryland complex in 1974.

Simply getting to watch performers live onstage at the Ryman is usually enough to interest me. The celebrated venue had at one point appeared headed for the wrecking ball, before a band of individuals came together to save it. Today, it once again plays host to many outstanding musical acts, hence its selection for the 2022 Americana Music Honors and Awards show.

I wanted to watch this year's awards ceremony mainly because of singer-songwriter James McMurty's "Canola Fields" nomination for the Americana Music Association's Song of the Year.

Only a few months ago McMurtry and his band performed the song as part of his June sold-out performance at Downtown 312 in McAlester. He and his band delivered a blistering performance of the song that night, with memorable lines such as "Cashing in on 30-year crush, you can't be young and do that."

They brought the song to a swell every time McMurty sang the refrain: "Take my hand, Marie, take a death grip on some part of me; keep me from drifting out to sea, or I'll be lost out there."

In an evening filled with many highlights at Downtown 312, McMurtry and band's rendition of "Canola Fields" proved one of the highest and brightest.

I had no idea if McMurty would be performing live in Nashville from the Ryman stage during the Americana Music Honors and Awards show Wednesday night. I could have found out in advance who the scheduled performers were that evening, but why spoil the fun?

When I noticed the length of time set aside for the live stream — about three and a-half- hours — it looked as if I might be in for a long night. I decided to watch a bit of the show and see if I wanted to continue.

The Americana Honors and Awards live stream opened with the Milk Carton Kids, a duo consisting of Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, standing at a podium set up at stage right, which made sense, because that way the hosts and presenters would not be standing in front of the stage and performers. They gave a shout-out to Buddy Miller, who would be leading the all-star house band that night, which also included multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, record producer Don Was on bass, and the McCrary Sisters on vocals.

They also gave a nod to the ubiquitous Brandi Carlile, who seems to be everywhere these days and would enhance that impression by joining several other artists for their onstage performances in addition to her own. No complaints here, since her presence did serve to give her fellow performers an extra boost and they all seemed delighted to have her join them.

Singer/pianist Neal Francis opened the musical part of the evening, performing his song "Can't Stop the Rain" with the all-star band. Next up, the nearly-overwhelmed Larissa Maestro, whose instrument of choice is a cello, won the Instrumentalist of the Year Award. I guess I can understand her excitement, since one does not see a lot of cellists winning awards related to roots music.

Then, Texas singer-songwriter extraordinaire Sarah Jarosz stepped to the podium. I hoped she might grace the audience with a song of her own, but she started to introduce the next artist, who was off-camera.

"Growing up in Texas, I was very lucky to get to hear some of the best singers and songwriters around," Jarosz said. "Many of them we now refer to as legends, known around the world for their mastery of the craft.

"This next artist belongs among the legends," Jarosz continued. "He possesses a gift for writing songs that encompasses worlds within him, like many novels. "This year he's nominated for Song of the Year and when you hear 'Canola Fields,' you'll know why. Please welcome one of my all-time favorites, James McMurtry."

Wham! Just like that, only about 12 minutes into the show, McMurty stepped to the microphone to perform "Canola Fields." Following a short introduction to relate that he wasn't certain what canola was when he first saw it growing, he sang the song's opening lines: "I was thinking 'bout you, crossing Southern Alberta, Canola fields on a July day, about the same chartreuse as that '69 bug, you used to drive around San Jose."

Soon, he intoned Marie to take his hand, just like he did in his McAlester performance.

I noticed a strange thing, though. Although the house band backing McMurtry at the Americana Honors and Awards show included some of the best musicians ever, including Miller and Campbell, they didn't quite gel behind McMurtry the way his own band had during his McAlester performance.

Consisting of guitarist and accordionist Tim Holt, drummer Darren Hess and the bassist known simply as Cornbread, McMurty's road band came to play when they performed at McAlester this summer. I wish they could have joined McMurty at the Ryman.

Later in the Americana Honors and Awards Show, Brandi Carlile won the Song of the Year Award for "Right On Time," certainly a worthy contender for the honor. Carlile wrote the song with Dave Cobb, along with band members Phil Hanseroth and Tim Hanseroth.

I'm just glad I got to watch both McMurtry and Carlile perform such great songs on the same night. The only thing that would have made it better would have been if Sturgill Simpson and guest Willie Nelson would have shown up to perform Simpson's song, "Juanita," which was also a Song of the Year nominee. (They didn't).

I won't run through the entire three and-a-half hour show here, but what made it even better was watching it unfold inside the Ryman Auditorium, with the occasional glimpse of the building's stained glass windows.

After the Grand ole Opry left, the Ryman Auditorium remained open and at one time featured guided tours through the historic building.

At one point the venerated Ryman in downtown Nashville looked as if it were headed toward the wrecking ball, but a number of artists and others banded together to save the venerated site.

A tipping point occurred in 1991, when Emmylou Harris and The Nash Ramblers, the acoustic band she's put together at the time, obtained permission to perform a concert and record a live album at the celebrated venue. Although the building had started to show evidence of deterioration, a 300-person limit was approved for Emmylou's live acoustic concert.

The album, released in 1992 as "At the Ryman" not only proved a hit, but Harris and The Nash Ramblers band members won Grammy awards — all of which opened the conversation about saving the Ryman.

One more thing. The Ryman Auditorium served as home to the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 until 1974, the aforementioned date when the Grand Ole Opry moved from the Ryman to its current location at Opryland.

The Grand Ole Opry has since remained at its Opryland location, from 1974 until the present — a period of 48 years.

Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts of country music shows at the Ryman beginning in 1943 and extended until 1974, a period of approximately 31 years. That means the Grand Ole Opry has already been at its "new" Opryland location for approximately 17 years longer that the Opry was located at the Ryman Auditorium.

No matter. For those who are old enough to remember when the Grand Ole Opry originated from the Ryman Auditorium, the Ryman will always be known by its nickname: The Mother Church of Country Music."

Here's a nod to Emmylou, and everyone else too, who had a hand in saving the Ryman auditorium from the wrecking ball.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.