Bonnie’s Raitt’s surprise – and deserved - triumph at the 65th Grammy Awards was the clear highlight of Americana Music in 2023. It was also, for some, the obvious lowlight.
Raitt collected the prestigious Song of the Year Grammy for “Just Like That,” a remarkable composition that, for many in the music industry, wonderfully reflected the seemingly-lost art of crafted song-writing which reflects the trials and tribulations of ordinary life!
But for others, especially the mainstream music media, it was plain treachery.
“WTF: Bonnie Raitt Wins Song of the Year” screamed the headline in Rolling Stone magazine. It then opined: “We thought the Grammys had moved beyond such bizarrely out-of-touch choices, but apparently not.” And Esquire deemed Bonnie’s win the “chaos vote.”
The music media’s whinging only reinforced the bravery and moral authority demonstrated by the Recording Academy in voting for a song which demonstrated human emotion, rather than pandering to the music industry’s multi-million dollar promotion of populist material from the likes of Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, Kendrick Lamar and Beyonce – among the other finalists.
Raitt wrote “Just Like That” after watching a news story about a woman meeting the man who had received the transplanted heart of her late son. And in a most humbling acceptance speech, she invoked the song-writing of her late friend John Prine: “People have been responding to the song, partly because of how much I love - and we all love - John Prine, and that was the inspiration for the music for this song and telling a story from the inside.”
At 73, she became the first woman over 50 to win Song of the Year in Grammy history. Indeed, she collected three 2023 Grammys to take her career total to an impressive 15.
Later in the year, as might be expected, the Americana Music Association anointed The Recording Academy’s controversial decision by giving the same honour to Raitt at the AMA’s annual awards in Nashville.
But, rather oddly, the AMA chose not to give its Artist of the Year award to Raitt. She wasn’t even a finalist. For the second successive year, that title went to young bluegrass whizz Billy Strings, who beat out Charley Crockett, Sierra Ferrell, Margo Price and Allison Russell.
And it could be argued that this list of finalists actually ignored the one Americana artist who could claim to have had the biggest impact on the genre in 2023 – dynamic singer, song-writer and instrumentalist Molly Tuttle.
At the same 2023 Grammys where Raitt was triumphant, Tuttle made history by becoming the first bluegrass artist to get nominated for the all-genre Best New Artist Award. She was one of 10 finalists for the New Artist title, which went to jazz singer Samara Joy.
But she received well-deserved compensation by winning, along with band Golden Highway, the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album for their lauded 2022 release Crooked Tree.
Tuttle is also no stranger to awards. In 2017 she became the first female to win the Guitar Player of the Year Award at the annual International Bluegrass Music Awards. She won the same honour the following year, when she also collected Instrumentalist of the Year at the Americana Music Awards.
Tuttle and Golden Highway wasted no time in building on the success of Crooked Tree. They released a follow up album, City of Gold, in 2023 to more critical acclaim and proved to be one of the most sought after acts-of-the-year in the genre - touring across the U.S. at sold-out venues.
While Strings and Tuttle represent the new generation of Americana artists, there was also a place for the old guard during 2023.
A highlight of the year was the 90th birthday on April 29 of multi-genre legend Willie Nelson, who celebrated the occasion with a two-night bash at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, titled Long Story Short: Willie Nelson 90. There were stars-a-plenty paying tribute, from celebrity MC Dame Helen Mirren to Grateful Dead legend Bobby Weir.
A couple of months earlier, Nelson had also enjoyed success at the Grammys, winning Best Country Album for A Beautiful Time and Best Country Solo Performance for the aptly-named “Live Forever.” It took his Grammy total to 15 over 48 years.
And in between all the hoop-la, Nelson found time to do what he does best – release a new album. His 151st to be precise. It was called Bluegrass and yes it was Willie stamping his mark on the genre the likes of Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley made famous.
In this case, he chose 12 numbers from his own astonishing song-writing catalogue, stretching back more than 60 years, and painted them with a bluegrass brush. He did so with the help of long-time producer Buddy Cannon and some of the best acoustic musicians available – among them Dan Tyminski (mandolin), Rob Ickes (dobro) and Aubrey Haynie (fiddle ).
And speaking of old timers, there was a Grammy for two roots legends, Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder, who won the Best Traditional Blues Album Grammy for Get on Board: The Songs of Sony Terry & Brownie McGhee. As per the title, the album featured 11 songs drawn from recordings by southern blues legends Terry and McGhee, another great blues twosome Taj and Ry first heard as teenagers.
And perhaps the come-back of the year title should go to bluegrass and old-timey music pioneer Alice Gerrard, who at 89, released a new studio album, Sun to Sun, in October - her first since 2014. And to do so, she was forced to resort to a Go Fund Me campaign. After more than a 100 donations, the fund closed in mid-August, with organisers noting “we covered the expenses for the album.”
In promoting the album, containing 12 of her own compositions, Gerrard – famous for her duos with bluegrass legend Hazel Dickens - confronted the obvious: “In the dark of the night I think sometimes about how this might be my final recording, my final mattress, my final car, my final dog – but then you never know …”
Americana music lost three of its greatest songwriters – Gordon Lightfoot, Robbie Robertson, and Jimmy Buffett – during 2023.
Lightfoot was one of the most popular figures in popular music and regarded as a “national treasure” in his home country of Canada. He died in Toronto on May 1, aged 84. He was one of the country’s greatest song-writers, his work being covered by some of the biggest names in the business – Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, the Grateful Dead and Nanci Griffith.
Lightfoot had a wonderful baritone voice which he used – along with his distinctive 12-string guitar – to deliver some of folk music’s most beautiful melodies with songs he crafted with poetic lyrical vision. Among his biggest hits were “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Early Morning Rain” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
He said: “I simply write the songs about where I am and where I’m from. I take situations and write poems about them.”
Robertson was also a Canadian legend and indeed a true pioneer of Americana music having been a founding member the Band – Bob Dylan’s first backing group following his conversion from folk to electric pop in the mid-1970’s. Robbie died in Los Angeles on August 9, aged 80.
Robertson’s reputation as a great instrumentalists is etched as number 59 in Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists. But he probably took more pleasure when inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. He took full credit for writing such ground-breaking songs as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek” and “Stage Fright” for the Band and solo hits “Broken Arrows” and “Somewhere Down the Crazy River.”
But his song-writing achievements were somewhat overshadowed by the fact that other founding members of the Band - Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson - always insisted the songs he wrote for the group were a collaborative effort and writing royalties should have been shared.
Robertson’s most assertive response came in a Rolling Stone article in 2000: "I wrote songs before I even met Levon," the lead guitarist said. "I'm sorry, I just worked harder than anybody else. Somebody has to lead the charge, somebody has to draw the map. The guys were responsible for the arrangements, but that's what being a band is, that's your fucking job."
Buffett, who died on September 1, aged 76, was a prolific musician, songwriter and recording artist with more than 50 albums, selling more than 20 million copies worldwide. He even had a well-received posthumous album Equal Strain On All Parts, released in early November.
But he found equal fame as a prolific businessman with an empire developed in the name of his most famous song, the 1977 folk-pop classic “Margaritaville.” And in April this year, Forbes magazine posted a profile of Buffett, listing his net worth in excess of $1B, most of it accumulated from the Margaritaville brand he launched in 1985. It includes restaurant and resort chains, casino, housing, branded merchandise, liquor and even a marijuana brand.
“Margaritaville” would spend 22 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart. But his die-hard fans, known affectionately as Parrotheads, refused to accept he was a one-hit-wonder, citing his consistent output of calypso-fused material dubbed “gulf and western,” given his long years around the shores of the Caribbean.
In fact, it was quintessential Americana, long before the term was invented. And it took a U.S. President, or, more likely, his speechwriter, to best define it when Joe Biden said in a tribute statement: "His witty, wistful songs celebrate a uniquely American cast of characters and seaside folkways, weaving together an unforgettable musical mix of country, folk, rock, pop and calypso into something uniquely his own."
It was the anniversary of, rather than an actual death, which proved significant in 2023. For September 19 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of country rock pioneer Gram Parsons of a drugs overdose in a motel near the picturesque Joshua Tree National Park, California, in 1973. His death would have been seen as just another sad sex-drugs-and-rock’n roll cliché of the 1970’s had it not been for the grotesque events associated with the tragedy.
On hearing of his sudden death, close friend and sometime tour manager Phil Kaufman remembered a drunken pact he once had with Parsons whereby they agreed that whoever died first would have their body cremated in the Joshua Tree Park.
Kaufman discovered Gram’s body was currently at L.A. Airport en route to New Orleans. Along with another associate of Parsons, Michael Martin, they got hold of a hearse and drove to LAX where they convinced the authorities they were to transport the body. The pair then headed into south-eastern California with their kidnapped cargo. When they arrived at Cap Rock, a prominent feature of the Joshua Tree Park, they placed the open coffin on the ground, poured five gallons of petrol over it and ignited it all in a ball of flames.
Before the bizarre ritual could be completed, Kaufman and Martin were disturbed by approaching car headlights and, fearing it was the police, fled into the night. The partly-crèmated body was found by a road maintenance crew early the next morning and Gram was eventually buried in the Garden of Memories Cemetery in Metairie, Louisiana.
Park officials have long debated how to acknowledge the sordid event. For many years, the official policy was to ignore it, but that stance had softened in recent years, especially as the 50th anniversary approached. Park guides are given the option to tell the story during tours, but there is no mention of the botched cremation in official maps or brochures.
In complete contrast, the motel where Parsons died, the Joshua Tree Inn, has, in recent years, fully embraced the notoriety of the sad event. Located in the small town of Joshua Tree, the Inn has built a massive shrine to the singer, with concert posters and hand-drawn art of Parsons covering nearly every wall.
And for $198 you can rent infamous room 8 – with a two-night minimum. Just the place to see in the New Year and ponder – beneath Gram’s portrait - what 2024 may bring for Americana and its musicians!
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation