You win some, you lose some. Ameripolitan Music Awards organizers had hoped to cap the fourth annual ceremony at the Paramount Theatre on Wednesday night with a performance by living legend Jerry Lee Lewis, recipient of this year’s Master Award. In the end, “The Killer” couldn’t make it, as AMA co-founders Brett and Sylvia Neal explained in accepting the award on his behalf at the end of the three-plus-hour affair.
But Sylvia was able to visit Lewis beforehand and tape his acceptance speech, which was received warmly by the crowd. And while having Lewis be there in person would’ve been delightful, Wimberley pianist Lance Lipinsky filled in admirably for a closing performance of Lewis material — a role he has literally already played to wide acclaim, as a member of the “Million Dollar Quartet” musical cast.
Meanwhile, the presentation of this year’s other special award was a grand success. Keeper of the Key, given to artists who have played a major role in keeping alive the traditional roots forms that make up the Ameripolitan genre, went to former Austin guit-steel ace Junior Brown, who was on hand to perform. Perhaps even more poignant that Brown’s own acceptance, capped by a performance of the late Red Simpson’s classic “Highway Patrol” with his wife Tanya Rae and band, was the introduction by the Continental Club’s Steve Wertheimer.
It was at the Continental, just a couple of years after Wertheimer had reopened the historic South Congress club in the late 1980s, that Brown began playing a weekly show on Sunday nights which soon became the talk of the town. Wertheimer vividly recalled how those nights grew from a handful of devoted fans to a packed house, and eventually led to a major-label record deal that vaulted Brown into the national spotlight.
If the Continental played a key role in launching Brown’s career, Wertheimer preferred to extend credit in the opposite direction. “I owe a ton of the success of the Continental Club to Junior Brown,” he said sincerely, before Brown came onstage to accept graciously.
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That was the high point of an evening that featured award presentations to a few well-established acts alongside many rising stars. Hank Williams III as Best Outlaw Male and Pokey LaFarge as Best Western Swing Male brought name recognition, but neither was on-hand to accept (though both taped short video statements).
The award presentations are most valuable when lesser-known hopefuls get their moment to shine. The crowd loved the humble acceptance speeches from Jake Penrod of Athens, Texas, for Best Honky Tonk Male, Seattle’s Darci Carlson for Best Outlaw Female and Austin’s Gary P. Nunn & the Bunkhouse Band for Best Honky Tonk Group, among others.
The wins of Carlson, Arkansas rockabilly band the Silvershakers and a few others marked a welcome broadening of the Ameripolitan scope beyond Texas acts, who had dominated the past couple of years’ events. Texas still had its winners, including Lipinksy for Rockabilly Male, Kristyn Harris of McKinney for Western Swing Female, and Lil’ Red’s Longhorn Saloon of Fort Worth (with a colorful acceptance speech from owner Craig Copeland). But Nashville was notably better represented on the industry side, winning Best Festival (Nashville Boogie) and Best DJ (WXNA’s James Riley).
Co-hosts Dale Watson (who co-founded the Ameripolitan awards along with the Neals) and Ray Benson kept things rolling at a reasonable pace throughout, helping the show finish about a half-hour earlier than the last two four-hour marathons. Though they have their own project to push — the recently released “Dale & Ray” duo album — they kindly gave the best performance spots to other artists, doing their one song as folks were returning from a mid-show intermission.
Also essential to keeping the show on-track was the first-rate house band: guitarist Redd Volkaert, fiddler Jason Roberts, drummer Mike Bernal, bassist Chris Crepps, pianist Danny Levin, pedal steel guitarist Don Pawlak, and the horn section of Rick White, Ken Mills and Joey Colarusso.
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The full list of winners:
Honky Tonk Female: Leona Williams
Honky Tonk Male: Jake Penrod
Honky Tonk Group: Gary P. Nunn & the Bunkhouse Band
Outlaw Female: Darci Carlson
Outlaw Male: Hank Williams III
Outlaw Group: Dallas Moore Band
Western Swing Female: Kristyn Harris
Western Swing Male: Pokey LaFarge
Western Swing Group: Western Flyers
Rockabilly Female: Lara Hope
Rockabilly Male: Lance Lipinsky
Rockabilly Group: Silvershakers
Musician of the Year: Chris Casello
Venue: Lil’ Red’s Longhorn Saloon (Fort Worth)
Festival: Nashvill Boogie (Nashville, Tenn.)
DJ: James Riley, WXNA (Nashville, Tenn.)
Keeper of the Key: Junior Brown
Master Award: Jerry Lee Lewis