With Allison Russell’s Big Win, the Americana Awards Get Right What the Grammys Couldn’t (Column)

·6-min read

The Americana Honors & Awards have always, perhaps more than any other music awards show, rewarded work that is fairly unassailable … which doesn’t always mean that the ceremony has always seized the moment. In 2018, Brandi Carlile’s breakout album and song, “By the Way, I Forgive You” and “The Joke,” both lost in their respective categories to Jason Isbell. Although he was being rewarded for top-flight work and there was nothing remotely shameful about this wins, it had the feeling of an opportunity lost, rubber-stamping the time-tested when a rising star who offered a chance for increased representation was right there in the nominees’ midst. So this year, if the award had gone to Carlile’s excellent “In These Silent Days,” it would have been a perfectly reasonable case of playing catch-up.

But maybe it says something about how far either the Americana Awards, Carlile or society have come that giving the award to a gay woman in a musical realm that once felt very white-male-cis is no longer the boldest choice an awards show can make. In Americana, it has been the year (or a couple of years) of the Black woman, odd as that would have been to prophesy just a few years ago, and with Allison Russell, Yola and Adia Victoria all vying in the album of the year category, there was an embarrassment of riches to choose from among. Critical wind seemed to be in the sails of Russell’s album, “Outside Child,” but still, it seemed like too much to hope for. It’s one thing to land on top of a New York Times (or Variety) best-of-year list, but might it have been too much to hope for a plurality of 3400 voters to reach agreement on a debut album by a not-yet-household-name artist that is essentially about trauma?

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If it did feel like too much to hope for, that might’ve been because the Grammys botched the same opportunity so badly. Well, not exactly the same opportunity — “Outside Child” should have been nominated in the general album of the year category, not just the genre division where it landed. At least the nominations in the roots categories reflected the Year of the Black Woman meme, but when it came down to putting things to the mass votership, Los Lobos won… which would have been terrific if this were 1987 and they’d just put out “By the Light of the Moon.” But it was 2022 and the band was getting it for a covers album even they admitted was a relative trifle in their catalog, a fun album with some trenchant choices but, nonetheless, an idea that came at the behest of the record company. That the Recording Academy prized that over albums in which still-rising singers left blood on the vinyl spoke volumes about how a Grammy ballot remains a casual checklist to much of its ever-expanding membership.

But apparently the Americana Association’s 3,400-strong voting membership is small enough to be counted on to actually listen to albums when voting for album of the year, and they heard what the critics recognized — that “Outside Child” is a masterpiece, however much it literally may still qualify as outsider art. It can take a little convincing to turn people onto the album, when what you’re using as part of the sales pitch is the thing that may stop some people from ever putting it on. Russell wrote the songs with an emphasis on the sexual abuse she experienced as a child before running away from home as a young teen. It both is and isn’t as heavy as that sounds. There’s littler flinching from what the singer-songwriter is describing in some of the material, but every song is musically and lyrically distinctive from the others, and the sense of liberation she found in art, love and chosen family makes for a cathartic experience unlike any other in recent times.

“It’s so surreal. I honestly couldn’t believe it when they said my name,” Russell said after the show. “I was like, that can’t be right” — and yet she “felt like they took the journey” from trauma to transcendence described in the album.

“We were just talking about this with Brandi — she was talking about her album ‘The Story’ and how it’s had this many-years-long arc of kind of discovery and rediscovery and people finding the songs at different times. And I feel like, in a way that’s what’s happened with ‘Outside Child’ over the last 16 months or more, since it came out May 21, 2021… though we had a whisper campaign before that.”

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - SEPTEMBER 14: Allison Russell and Brandi Carlile perform onstage for the 21st Annual Americana Honors & Awards at Ryman Auditorium on September 14, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Davis/Getty Images for Americana Music Association )
Allison Russell and Brandi Carlile perform onstage for the 21st Annual Americana Honors & Awards at Ryman Auditorium on September 14, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Davis/Getty Images for Americana Music Association )

Russell spoke glowingly of what it “meant to be nominated alongside Yola, Brandi, Adia and of course Robert Plant and Allison Krauss… but specifically Yola and Brandi, because they’re like chosen family. It’s like Alice Walker said, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. For so many years, there was this false scarcity construct put on Black women — Black people in general — and queer people, where there’s only room for one of you, if at all. And all of us just decided to stop drinking that Koolaid, if we ever did, and uplifting each other. And I feel like all of this goodness that’s coming about is from this beautiful sort of rainbow creative coalition and communion where we’re rejecting those false competition and scarcity constructs and saying we are stronger and happier and better and more abundant and protected together, you know? And this award feels like it’s about them…

“Of course I’m incredibly honored in a very personal way. Unfortunately, also, it’s not personal in that so many people have had parallel experiences to mine — far, far, far too many. But in general, just the trauma that we’ve all gone through in the last couple of years, I feel like I don’t know that this record would’ve been heard in the same way, if at all, at any other time in our history.”

The Americana voters are apparently share-the-love kinds of folks. No one got more than one trophy in Wednesday night’s honors at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. And Carlile, who has gotten a lot of awards from the association since that shutout four years ago, was rewarded yet again, too, for her song “Right on Time,” which prevailed in the song of the year category, as it should’ve. The nominees were so strong across the board in both categories that it’s hard not to wish for different parts of the multiverse where a recording as grand as Yola’s or Victoria’s or Plant and Krauss’s could prevail.

But in this particular universe, where people who’ve had experienced the stuff of trauma and can find catharsis and healing in having that channeled into great art, it really came down to one album feeling right on time.

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