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Arts & Culture

The Highwomen Win Big At 2020 Americana Awards

Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires of The Highwomen.
Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires of The Highwomen.

The Highwomen's "Crowded Table," an exuberant anthem evoking both the progressive political spirit of 2020 and the longing for connection at the heart of this complicated year, won song of the year Tuesday as part of the 19th annual Americana Honors & Awards.

The prize was part of a three-category sweep by the genre-crossing supergroup, which includes Brandi Carlile (2019's artist of the year), Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires. The four women also won duo/group of the year and album of the year for The Highwomen.

John Prine, Americana music's humble beacon, who died this year from complications of COVID-19, was named artist of the year. Upon his passing, myriad artists whom Prine inspired began an outpouring of tributes that continues to this day, and this award acknowledges the music he was still making up until his final illness, as well as the powerful presence he maintained in Americana circles. Prine's classic songs shed light on the vulnerability and defiant resilience of ordinary, often lonely souls, and this win is particularly poignant coming in the middle of a pandemic that has taken the lives of so many.

Black Pumas, the Austin psychedelic soul group blending soul, funk, rock and Latin elements within a sound that's both future-leaning and historically aware, claimed the award for Best New Artist. Led by polymath producer and guitarist Adrian Quesada and riveting singer and songwriter (and former street musician) Eric Burton, Black Pumas are ascendant: They're also nominated for three Grammys, including best new artist, album of the year and record of the year (for the utopian "Colors").

But the biggest winners were The Highwomen, a strategic alliance uniting longtime Americana favorite Shires with country music paradigm-shifters Morris and Hemby, and multi-genre success story Carlile. The group succeeded in exerting women's power in the country mainstream, hitting No. 1 on Billboard's country albums chart upon its September 2019 release.

"Crowded Table," the album's second single, was cowritten by all four members and their close ally, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Lori McKenna. A celebration of chosen family and a call for spiritual generosity released at a time when evidence of America's cultural divisions was mounting, "Crowded Table" resonates with its refrain, "Everyone's a little broken, and everyone belongs."

It was an abbreviated year for the Americana Honors & Awards, which usually recognizes at least a dozen artist and features live performances during a ceremony at the Ryman Auditorium. The last prize of 2020 went to innovative fiddler Brittany Haas for best instrumentalist of the year. Haas' style brings together traditional "old time" playing with Scandinavian approaches and jazz-informed "freestyle" playing.

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