On Tuesday 17th February, Dale Watson’s Ameripolitan movement hosted its second annual awards ceremony at the Paramount State Theater in Austin, Texas. The venue – an airy and ornate 100-year-old building a few hundred yards from the State Capitol – was a significant step up from the Wyndham Garden Hotel that hosted last year’s event, and a suitably large crowd was in attendance.
For those not familiar with Ameripolitan, its intention is to throw the spotlight on original music in the traditional vein – particularly honky tonk, outlaw, western swing and rockabilly. Of course, such an endeavour wouldn’t have left the ground, much less grown as it has, if some serious names weren’t involved. And they were. Those present on the night in various capacities included Ray Benson, Joe Ely, Johnny Bush, James Burton, Johnny Knoxville (of Jackass fame), Bobby Flores, Justin Trevino, Amber Digby and, of course, Watson himself among many others.
I was attending the awards for the first time. As one of the few recognised Ameripolitan artists in the UK – and a frequent Austin visitor – I regretted not being there for the inaugural year, so was intent on making up for it. I bumped into all kinds of interesting people in the foyer of the theatre; notably James Hand, who I met for the first time since writing a song about him - but more on that later.
The show itself started somewhat late, with a video presentation documenting the history of the music that Ameripolitan celebrates, including great vintage clips of Waylon Jennings, Jerry Lee Lewis and Rosie Flores. Following this, hosts Mojo Nixon and Elizabeth Cook took the stage for the second year running. Nixon, dressed in a garish suit with shorts in place of trousers, began swearing immediately and didn’t stop for the rest of the show. This wouldn’t have been such an issue if much of the audience hadn’t been either staunchly Christian or elderly or if, as I’m told, Nixon hadn’t already done the exact same routine the previous year. Sitting near the front I wasn’t aware of many people leaving but apparently a significant number did. Outlaw artist Peewee Moore took to Facebook the next day to apologise to any fans offended by Nixon’s words and behaviour, and Watson moved quickly to quell further criticism by announcing Ray Benson as master of ceremonies for the 2016 awards soon after.
Nevertheless, the show started brilliantly with Johnny Bush performing on his 80th birthday (and receiving a cake), along with the quite brilliant house band who were the true stars of the night. Comprised of Watson’s Lonestars (Chris Crepps on bass, Mike Bernal on drums, Don Don Pawlak on pedal steel) along with guitar virtuoso Redd Volkaert, piano legend Earl Poole Ball and ex-Asleep at the Wheel fiddle man Jason Roberts, you’d be hard pressed to find any better house band in this galaxy. Performances from James Hand and Rosie Flores followed, before the awards presentations started. It should be noted here that a UK artist was among the early nominees: Charlie Thompson was nominated for Honky Tonk Male (ultimately won by James Hand). Charlie also presented an award alongside Big Sandy and had performed an Ameripolitan showcase gig on the Sunday prior. With any luck he and more UK representatives will be back in future!
As the awards continued to be handed out, it has to be said that most were to either the clear favourites or very well-known nominees (Amber Digby, Jesse Dayton, The Derailers to name a few), which was perhaps to be expected. However, there was a big turn-up for the books when California band Freightshakers surprisingly won the Outlaw Group award. The band – who range in size from average to enormous – were genuinely thrilled with the win and everyone seemed equally pleased for them. Another surprise recipient was the Ameripolitan Festival winner, the Legends of Western Swing festival in Wichita Falls, TX. The gong for this was accepted by the charming Gloria Miers, who genuinely couldn’t understand why she would be given an award for doing something she loves.
Of course, one of the big awards of the night had already been decided. Billy Joe Shaver was to be inducted as a Founder of the Sound, as W.S. Holland and Johnny Bush were last year. Most people in attendance were very excited to see Shaver. Sadly he did not make it due to illness, and the disappointment in the room when Dale Watson delivered this news was palpable. However, the honouree had hand-picked a replacement to save the day in the shape of Joe Ely, who performed a poignant version of Billy Joe’s ‘Live Forever’ to rapturous applause.
After an intermission (which probably overran), the show resumed with a performance from The Cactus Blossoms. By this time it had become clear that most of the presenters and hosts were drinking quite heavily backstage, which while not unheard of in this genre of ours did tend to cause some confusion on stage and see spots missed etc. Mojo Nixon failed to appear on stage at least twice, forcing Dale Watson to fill in, while Wayne Hancock and Johnny Knoxville both struggled to correctly announce nominees and winners. Naturally though, the excellent house band picked up the pieces to make things as seamless as possible.
Another planned award was given out in the shape of the Keeper of the Key gong, awarded to influential rockabilly trio High Noon, who also performed. Other awards and performances followed, including from Hot Club of Cowtown and the extremely talented Jason Roberts, who as well as being in the house band was also nominated for a Western Swing award. One of the stranger moments of the night occurred when Mojo Nixon was announced as the winner of the Ameripolitan DJ award: a huge groan came over the audience, partly because many were supporting lesser known DJs, and partly because Nixon’s antics had become tiresome. His lewd celebration and statement that “bullshit is my business, and business is good!” were received with equal weariness.
Janie Price, the widow of Ray, appeared on stage to help Ray Benson present an award, with Benson then restoring morale in the room with a sing-along version of ‘Miles and Miles of Texas’. Rockabilly piano maestro Jason D. Williams was also due to perform but was stranded by the awful Tennessee weather, so Big Sandy stepped in to give a super-charged rockabilly performance. Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys also subsequently won the Rockabilly Group award, prompting Sandy to call the band on his phone during his speech. By this time things were unsurprisingly running over, but I must say that the show never seemed to drag. The last few awards were dished out, leading up to the second Founder of the Sound presentation.
A video package introduced James Burton as the recipient of the award, and it became apparent that Burton has played with virtually everyone from Merle Haggard to Elvis and beyond. Burton not only innovated some of the best-loved guitar riffs we know today, but also played a big part in the evolution of the guitar, including introducing different gauges of strings; it’s fair to say he was deserving of this award. Following some tributes from friends, Burton then took to the stage to play his riff from Haggard’s ‘The Fugitive’, with Dale Watson naturally providing the vocals. They followed this with ‘Working Man’s Blues’ before the guitarists took the spotlight with Chris Casello, Paul Pigat, Redd Volkaert, Burton and his friend Casper Rawls taking turns to fly across the frets. It really was a stunning ending to the show.
As the gathered throng spilled out onto the street and, in many cases, on to the after-party at The Continental Club (which incidentally won the best venue award), it was natural to think about the future of these awards. They really are invaluable as a means of championing traditional-leaning acts that get little or no publicity elsewhere. However, the awards show and the Ameripolitan movement itself suffer from a similar lack of exposure. It may take a very big established act to align themselves with it or a smaller act to break out to draw the attention that this thing truly deserves. That said, these awards are to celebrate the uncelebrated and it would’ve been tough look at the star power, talent and sheer numbers outside the theatre and think of it as anything but a resounding success.
My meeting with James Hand had been all too brief. The following night I played a show at The Rattle Inn, while James was playing up the road at The Hole in The Wall. A while back, he had heard my song ‘I Saw James Hand’ and, thankfully, loved it. My set was a late one though, and much to my surprise in walked James not too long after I’d got going. He sat at the end of the bar and listened to me play the song for him. He stuck around for a while, wrote me a note asking me to call him, then left. It was a great moment for me, and I couldn’t help thinking that without Ameripolitan music it may never have happened. Maybe, maybe not. It’s not like I needed an incentive to plan next year’s trip anyhow.
HONKY TONK FEMALE Amber Digby HONKY TONK MALE James Hand HONKY TONK GROUP The Derailers
ROCKABILLY FEMALE Kim Lenz ROCKABILLY MALE James Intveld ROCKABILLY GROUP Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys
WESTERN SWING FEMALE Elana James WESTERN SWING MALE Bobby Flores WESTERN SWING GROUP Hot Club of Cowtown
OUTLAW FEMALE Sarah Gayle Meech OUTLAW MALE Jesse Dayton OUTLAW GROUP The Freightshakers
AMERIPOLITAN VENUE The Continental Club, Austin TX AMERIPOLITAN MUSICIAN Kenny Sears - Fiddle AMERIPOLITAN DJ Mojo Nixon – Sirius XM Outlaw AMERIPOLITAN FESTIVAL Legends of Western Swing, Wichita Falls TX 2015 "Founder of the Sound" Awards: BILLY JOE SHAVER and JAMES BURTON 2015 "Keeper of the Key" Award: Texas Rockabilly Trio HIGH NOON