Today, the Americana Music Association announced this year’s slate of Lifetime Achievement Award honorees for its 20th Annual Americana Honors & Awards show on September 22. This group of top-honor recipients includes the Fisk Jubilee Singers (Legacy Award, co-presented by the National Museum of African American Music), The Mavericks (Trailblazer), Keb’ Mo’ (Performance), Trina Shoemaker (Producer/Engineer) and Carla Thomas (Inspiration Award). This year’s honorees will be celebrated during the prestigious ceremony held at the Ryman Auditorium, which serves as the hallmark event of the association’s annual AMERICANAFEST, taking place Sept. 22-25 in Nashville, Tenn.
The Legacy of Americana Award will be presented to the Fisk Jubilee Singers in partnership with the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) to shine a light on their extraordinary accomplishments and influence on American roots music. The modern brand of “Music City USA” dates to 1950, but it was the Fisk Jubilee Singers that were in the music business long before the industry was known. One can fairly argue that Nashville’s music story actually begins with the formation of this world-renowned choir, 150 years ago this year.
When Fisk University was born as the Fisk Free Colored School in the wake of the Civil War, literacy, not music, was its primary mission. But when its finances were foundering in 1871, the school’s treasurer and choirmaster Frank White had a notion. He was already encouraging the students in the singing of a repertoire of sacred songs that had emerged as important ritualistic music during slavery. Working with the help of his African American assistant Ella Sheppard, White organized fund-raising tours for a nine-member group, spreading the refined and deeply emotional genre of the Negro spiritual through the US and then across Europe. These were grueling journeys that evoked a mix of enchantment and racist maltreatment, for the Jubilee Singers were the first black performers from America to pursue authentic cultural uplift as opposed to the blackface minstrelsy that defined and confined black musicians after the Civil War. Most places they performed, they were rapturously received and written about. On their first overseas run in 1873, the singers raised enough money to finance Jubilee Hall, the first permanent building on campus and a Nashville landmark.
As the Fisk Jubilee Singers settled into an ever-changing cast of students over the decades, they were invited to be part of key Nashville civic landmarks, including the inaugural broadcast of WSM radio in 1925. The choir was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2000 and granted the National Medal of Arts in 2008. This year, NMAAM is celebrating the Fisk Singers with a special exhibit.
Widely celebrated for forging their own path in music, the 2021 Americana Trailblazer Award will be given to The Mavericks. Formed in the eclectic alternative rock and punk scene of Miami in 1989, the combo, led by singer/songwriter Raul Malo, fused country music with claves and string-band textures from Malo’s family heritage in Cuba. Their second MCA Album, “What A Crying Shame,” produced four top 40 hits and helped secure a handful of country industry awards in the mid-1990s. Their 1995 single “Here Comes The Rain” netted The Mavericks a GRAMMY® Award, while 1998’s “Dance The Night Away” proved the global appeal of the band by charting as a Top 5 pop hit in the UK.
In 2000, the ensemble took a pause, leading Malo to release a string of acclaimed solo albums. But The Mavericks came roaring back in the 2010s as one of the finest live bands in the business. Their shows surge with danceable rhythm, horns, bilingual singing and the dark twang of guitar player Eddie Perez. Malo and drummer Paul Deakin have been Mavericks since the beginning, but the talented current lineup, which released the band’s first-ever all-Spanish album in 2020, suggests a fruitful future. Having re-asserted the Hispanic heritage of country music in the Americana format, they are truly trailblazers who will add more chapters to the story.
Keb’ Mo’ will receive the Americana Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance. When guitarist and songwriter Kevin Moore set the course of his unique career as Keb’ Mo’ in the mid-1990s, it was a bold and counter-cultural direction. Traditional blues was a niche legacy genre and popular music was synthesized and keyed to MTV’s style-over-substance formula. But Keb’ Mo’ made it fly. He introduced legions of mainstream fans to the fingerstyle acoustic blues and brought new songs and a contemporary character to the legacy. His dynamic and joyful pop/blues fusion has netted him five GRAMMY® Awards and made him a pioneer in the recent affirmation of the African American foundations of Americana music.
Moore, a native of South Los Angeles, came up as a blues and rock guitarist, including a stint with Papa John Creech, the Jefferson Airplane’s eclectic black violinist, in the 1970s. He became a signed professional songwriter and recording artist, but his style galvanized after taking on the Keb’ Mo’ persona, inspired by a role he played in a stage musical. His 1994 self-titled debut inspired Sony Music to revive the historic Okeh Records brand for his release.
From there, Keb’ Mo’ became ubiquitous at festivals and important stages, from Sessions at West 54th to Sesame Street to the Crossroads Festival to The White House. His open-hearted presentation and mix of traditional and original repertoire helped him introduce the blues to thousands, and he has been an in-demand collaborator as well, including his GRAMMY®-winning 2017 duo album with Taj Mahal. Keb’s most recent album “Oklahoma” won the 2020 GRAMMY® for Best Americana Album.
The 2021 Americana Lifetime Achievement Award for Producer/Engineer will be presented to Trina Shoemaker. “I guess I’m a rogue,” Shoemaker told an audio engineering magazine a few years ago. “Sometimes I get work because of it, and sometimes I’m passed over because of it.” With that indie spirit and consummate studio skills, she became a vital contributor to distinctive roots and rock recordings by Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, Brandi Carlile, Nanci Griffith and others.
Shoemaker grew up in the Chicago suburb of Joliet, Ill., obsessed with her father’s record collection and stereo gear. She chased her passion to become a record producer to Los Angeles and then London, where she found some mentorship, and on to New Orleans on a whim when she was struggling to find substantial opportunity. There, she got noticed by producer Daniel Lanois who made her a tape op and then a full engineer. She worked on albums by Iggy Pop, Giant Sand and fatefully, Emmylou Harris’s landmark “Wrecking Ball.” Soon she happened into a slot with Sheryl Crow, tracking her self-titled smash and her “Globe Sessions” album, which garnered Shoemaker her first GRAMMY® Awards, including one specifically for her engineering.
Since getting established, Shoemaker has tracked a wide range of music, but she’s thrived in roots and Americana where she’s recorded, produced or mixed for Whiskeytown, Victoria Williams, Matthew Ryan, Shannon McNally, Andrew Duhon, Amy Ray, Josh Ritter and her husband Grayson Capps. More GRAMMY® success followed her work on The Secret Sisters’ recent “You Don’t Own Me Anymore” and Tanya Tucker’s comeback album, “While I’m Living.” She is the first woman to receive the Americana Producer/Engineer Lifetime Honor.
Carla Thomas will receive the Americana Inspiration Award. After Valerie June released her recent track “Call Me A Fool,” she told NPR that her collaborator on the vocal duet, Thomas, “remains a queen and total superstar, Aretha-equivalent.” She’s not as world-famous as the divine Ms. Franklin, but Carla Thomas’s run of recordings for Stax and Atlantic Records through the 1960s made her the “Queen of Memphis Soul.” With an effervescent and romantic voice that laid bare her teen and 20-something emotions, Thomas bridged soul, country and gospel as one of the key artists of a great musical and social movement.
Thomas’ father Rufus was the charismatic DJ, singer and performer who helped Memphis become a great and influential music city after World War II. She grew up at the Palace Theater on Beale Street where Rufus was an emcee. Inspired by singers Jackie Wilson and Brenda Lee, Thomas was singing early, joining WDIA’s Teen Town Singers at age 10. Her first record release, a duet with her father, came out on Satellite, the precursor label to Stax. On her own, she hit early with the pop and R&B charter “Gee Whiz (Look At His Eyes).” She’d be popular on the label for more than a decade, appearing on American Bandstand and cutting a full album of duets with Otis Redding months before his death in 1967. She was also a top performer at the influential Wattstax concert of 1972.
In later years, Thomas turned more of her energy to Artists In The Schools, a youth-focused non-profit. The Rhythm & Blues Foundation honored her in 1993 with its exclusive Pioneer Award. The Inspiration Award has been granted only once before, to Thomas’s Stax/Atlantic colleague Mavis Staples.
“We are beyond humbled to recognize this group of artists with our highest awards,” said Jed Hilly, Executive Director of the Americana Music Association. “All of these artists have transformed the way we listen and experience music and have helped to build a perennial foundation for Americana music to prosper as an art form today. Our community looks forward to welcoming them with open arms on our biggest night of the year in September.”