The 2019 Austin Music Awards
by Sarah Kitchel
Photographs by Alison Narro and Dave Pedley
Louis Black’s response to what he was most excited about for this year’s Austin Music Awards is immediate. “The music,” he says. “A lot of times the music really gets to me.” As co-founder of the Austin Chronicle and South by Southwest, the music and the Austin music scene are things Black knows well. He stresses that there are few, if any, other cities in the world that can boast what Austin has in the way of music.
The first Austin Music Awards in 1983, based off of the results of the Austin Chronicle Music Poll, were more about the people — the fans at the clubs every night — than about the music critics. According to Black, local acts were often ignored by critics who came to town to write about the same big-name artists and bands. In a way, he adds, the annual poll and awards are the best history of Austin.
Although the Austin Music Awards predate SXSW and the music at the first SXSW festival was based on the awards, as the event gained attention and prestige it began to take on a life of its own. This year marks only the second year that the AMAs have been separated from SXSW.
The awards event itself is not glitzy or sleek, but possesses the same Austin-grown quality as the music and musicians being honored. Although the level of professionalism has grown over the years Black said, the heart of the AMAs remains the same quintessentially and intimately Austin. While the vibrancy and creativity of the city’s music scene shines through, the vibes of the evening remain exactly what one would expect — relaxed, casual and refraining from taking itself too seriously.
The Moody Theater at ACL Live, an Austin institution, proved an ideal setting to host and celebrate. The mood alternated between attending a concert and listening to old friends jam in your living room. The word that repeatedly comes up in my conversation with Black is community, and this theme ran deep through the show. Spanning generations and genres from jazz to Americana to punk to hip-hop, each award recipient and each set felt like a family member taking their place around the dinner table.
The evening had the feel of a reunion, an eclectic and intimate gathering bound together by a love of all kinds of music and of Austin itself. Friends came together to celebrate and reflect on the past year and to get excited for the coming one. Memories of 37 years of hometown favorites filled in the spaces between the best music of right now and the best of the music yet to come.
The first musical set of the evening featured a combination of elegant strings and moody vocals, thanks to the Tosca String Quartet with Jon Dee Graham, Ricky Ray Jackson, Glover Gill, Chris Maresh and Kevin Lovejoy. Tomar Williams, Rosie Flores and the Peterson Brothers paid tribute to Dianne Scott, a fixture in the Austin music scene and this year’s recipient of the Margaret Moser Women in Music Award.
Special guest and Grammy and Oscar-winner Ryan Bingham, cowboy hat-clad and boot toe-tapping, provided a steady, rocking twang. Donning a black top hat for a subtle hint of sass, Suzanne Vega, backed by the Tosca String Quartet, skillfully and confidently held the crowd captive for two songs.
Black Pumas, winners of Best New Austin Band and Best Song of the Year, employed rich vocals and instrumentals to create a story with their set, in which each lyric and note developed a character and advanced the plot.
Alejandro Escovedo drew a standing ovation as he accepted the Townes Van Zandt Songwriting Award, then took the stage himself after a performance by John Doe. He was joined by Carrie Rodriguez (winner of Best Strings) on the fiddle, Jakob Dylan and Bingham. The pace picked up as the group started rocking. More people on the floor rose from their seats as the fiddle responded to the guitars and vice versa; by the end of the set, Rodriguez had broken at least two strings on her fiddle.
The audience was treated to rap and hip-hop to finish off the night. Abhi the Nomad delivered a fun beat and a tribute to MC Overlord, the late pioneer of Austin hip-hop, by Smackola, DJ Crash, Tee Double, Traygod Tha MC, Bavu Blakes and Grooveline Horns proved a venue-rocking last set of the night.
These are people who had a really good year, Black says of the award winners, and next year’s awards will honor others continuing the creative and collaborative traditions of Austin music. “I’m thrilled to be here and be a part of the music scene,” he adds. “It’s an honor.”