Lucinda Williams, Fiona Apple, Joe Ely performances spark Austin Music Awards

Shinyribs accepts awards for Album of the Year and Band of the Year during the 36th annual Austin Music Awards at ACL Live on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

As the marquee name on the bill for Wednesday’s Austin Music Awards at ACL Live, Lucinda Williams was on hand to perform a couple of songs with her onetime producer Charlie Sexton and the house band. But she was here also because she has a deep connection to the city.

PHOTO GALLERY: More from the 36th annual Austin Music Awards

Williams was a natural choice to present local hotel executive Liz Lambert with the Margaret Moser Women in Music Award, explaining in an emotional introduction that the late Moser was the one who first introduced her to Lambert around 20 years ago. But it was what Williams said after her two-song performance that got to the heart of her connection to our city.

“Austin is one of my homes,” said Williams, who has lived here for at least a couple of stretches during her long and winding musical career. “It’s where I cut my teeth, playing out on the street, down on the Drag.”

Lucinda Williams speaks about Margaret Moser and Liz Lambert during the Austin Music Awards at ACL Live on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

That last phrase was especially fitting given that the night’s other special honor, the Townes Van Zandt Songwriter Award, was presented to Joe Ely, whose 1979 album “Down on the Drag” helped to cement his reputation as one of Austin’s great troubadours. Retelling the famous story about how he picked up a hitchhiking Van Zandt in the Texas panhandle in 1968, Ely credited that unlikely occurrence as a spark that lit up his future creative path: “He introduced me to a whole new world of writing songs.”

READ MORE: Our 2015 interview with Joe Ely

Alejandro Escovedo, who introduced Ely and presented the award to him, also paid tribute by singing Ely’s “Silver City” with the house band. John Hiatt, who has done several acoustic tours with Ely, followed with “Cold Black Hammer” before Ely closed out the segment with a one-two punch of “Dig All Night” and “Fingernails.”

Townes Van Zandt Songwriter Award winner Joe Ely, second from right, gets a salute from pals John Hiatt (left), Charlie Sexton and Alejandro Escovedo (right) during the Austin Music Awards at ACL Live on Thursday, March 1, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

That was arguably the best musical moment of an evening that showcased the range of Austin’s talent. Songwriters Adam Torres, Phoebe Hunt and David Ramirez set the pace with an opening segment drawing on folk, rock, indie and world-music influences. Dynamic collective Third Root steered the show toward hip-hop territory in a short but lively set with guests including Riders Against the Storm and middle school teacher Bavu Blakes. A two-song tribute to the late Jimmy LaFave, who won Musician of the Year honors and was one of several inductees into the Austin Music Hall of Fame, featured stellar singers Michael Fracasso and John Fullbright.

An unannounced special guest had been promised, and that turned out to be singer-songwriter Fiona Apple. Now 20 years removed from her striking late-’90s rise as a teenage dramatic-pop phenom, Apple delivered two songs, including a new one she’d apparently written for the occasion. (Her Austin ties don’t run as deep as those of Lucinda, but Apple does have connections here, with longtime local musician David Garza having played guitar in her band.)

Fiona Apple performs during the Austin Music Awards at ACL Live on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Presentations of awards were scattered between musical performances throughout the evening. Highlights included Shinyribs, who took home Band of the Year and Album of the Year honors (just before psychedelic rockers the Black Angels closed the night with a bang); Willie Nelson’s “Still Not Dead” for Song of the Year, with Sirius/XM DJ Dallas Wayne accepting on his behalf (Willie is on tour in the Southeast); Trouble in the Streets, winner of Best New Band; and the late George Reiff, whose award for best bass player was accepted by his brother Michael Reiff.

Another big winner toward the end of the three-and-a-half-hour show was Ray Wylie Hubbard, who followed up last weekend’s induction into the Texas Heritage Songwriters’ Association Hall of Fame by getting the Best Songwriter award. “There are those condemned by the gods to write,” Hubbard said. “And I’m OK with that.”

READ MORE: Our 2017 interview with Ray Wylie Hubbard

In addition to LaFave, others receiving Hall of Fame recognition were Toni Price, Beto & the Fairlanes and the (Expletive) Emos, whose name provided grist for a humorous aside during mayor Steve Adler’s subsequent presentation of the Best Radio Station award to KUTX.

But the best testimonial for the city’s music scene came not from the mayor, or show presenters Louis Black and Nick Barbaro, or its KUTX co-hosts Rick McNulty and Laurie Gallardo. Rather, it was a simple statement from fiddler Warren Hood, who once again won the Best String Player award. His promise: “I’ll never leave, because there’s nowhere else like this.”

The full list of awards presented on Wednesday, in chronological order:
Best Electronic Band: Night Drive
Best New Band: Trouble in the Streets
Best None of the Above Act: White Ghost Shivers
Best Guitarist: Eric Tessmer
Best Blues/Soul/Funk Act: Carolyn Wonderland
Best Keyboardist: Emily Gimble
Best Cover Band: Bidi Bidi Banda
Best Under-18 Act: Tiarra Girls
Best Folk Act: The Deer
Best Country/Bluegrass Act: Whiskey Shivers
Austin Music Hall of Fame: Toni Price
Best Punk Act: Sailor Poon
Best Metal Act: The Sword
Austin Music Hall of Fame: (Expletive) Emos
Best Bassist: George Reiff
Best Hip-Hop Act: Magna Carda
Best World Music Act: Hard Proof
Best Horn Players: Grupo Fantasma Horns
Best Latin Act: Grupo Fantasma
Best Radio Station: KUTX
Musician of the Year: Jimmy LaFave
Austin Music Hall of Fame: Jimmy LaFave
Best Song: “Still Not Dead,” Willie Nelson (written with Buddy Cannon)
Best Jazz Act: Ephraim Owens
Best Female Vocalist: Tameca Jones
Best Male Vocalist: Guy Forsyth
Best String Player: Warren Hood
Margaret Moser Women in Music Award: Liz Lambert
Best Avant Garde/Experimental Act: Octopus Project
Best Rock Band: A Giant Dog
Best Drummer: John Spiece
Best Songwriter: Ray Wylie Hubbard
Townes Van Zandt Songwriting Award: Joe Ely
Austin Music Hall of Fame: Beto & the Fairlanes
Album of the Year: Shinyribs
Band of the Year: Shinyribs

READ MORE: Recap of Sunday’s Austin Music Industry Awards

Author: Peter Blackstock

Music writer for the Austin American-Statesman and Twitter: @Blackstock360

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