Folk Alliance International (FAI), the foremost global nonprofit for folk music and the producers of the International Folk Music Awards (IFMAs) presented by Yamaha, presented awards to this year’s recipients and announced the Best of 2021 winners in an awards ceremony that took place Wednesday May 18 on the opening night of the 34th annual Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City and was broadcast online.
The awards show opened with a song by gospel artist Isaac Cates & Ordained, and later included performances by nominees John Smith and Diana Jones as well as winner Crys Matthews.
Previously announced recipients were presented with awards during the 2 hour event, and the winners of Best of 2021 were announced. Allison Russell won both Album of the Year for her album ‘Outside Child’ and Artist of the Year. Crys Matthews’ “Changemakers” garnered her Song of the Year honors.
Russell spoke of attending her first Folk Alliance International Conference in 2001, saying “I cannot tell you how much this means to me coming from this community in particular… It was at Folk Alliance [International Conference] where I first met JT [Nero] and so many of the people who would become a part of my chosen family… This is a beautiful community. It’s growing and I’m very proud of the fact that we understand collectively and truly believe that tolerance is not enough. Tolerance is for mosquitos. We tolerate mosquitos. Humans require love… This is like a family reunion. We know and understand, we have the conviction that art and music is an essential service and a sacrament. It saves lives. It saved my life. And it reduces harm in the world. It bridges the gulfs between. It turns fear into love. It’s magic.”
The nominees were as follows (winners in bold):
Album of the Year
They’re Calling Me Home by Rhiannon Giddens with Francesco Turrisi
Wary + Strange by Amythyst Kiah
Un Canto por México, Vol. 2 by Natalia Lafourcade
Outside Child by Allison Russell
The Fray by John Smith
Song of the Year (sponsored by Yamaha)
“On Solid Ground” by Reggie Harris
“Painted Blue” by Sarah Jarosz
“We Believe You” by Diana Jones
“Call Me A Fool” by Valerie June
“Changemakers” by Crys Matthews
Artist of the Year
The Longest Johns
John Francis Flynn
The Elaine Weissman Lifetime Achievement Awards are presented each year to honor the cultural impact of legendary folk music figures: one Living, one Legacy, and one Business/Academic. This year’s honorees were legendary accordionist Flaco Jiménez; the late legendary songwriter and interpreter Nanci Griffith; and Denver-based folk music center Swallow Hill Music.
Jason Mraz, the multi-platinum GRAMMY Award-winning singer-songwriter known for his positivity and a consistent attention to conservation, human rights, and LGBTQIA+ issues, received The People’s Voice Award, which is presented to an individual who unabashedly embraces social and political commentary in their creative work and public careers. On receiving the award Jason Mraz said, “I was a little shy at first, thinking I”m too young for this award, that I haven’t done or said enough. Then I realized those thoughts and feelings never go away, that nagging thought that I haven’t done enough. But it’s that nagging thought that is indication that we still have energy to give and want to and will. In my few years lapping the planet, I found solace in seeing political and geographical borders dissolve when the lights go down and a concert begins, a clear reminder that we are all just humans connected by stories and/or the energy and vibe of a song… It’s always good to inspire in a song because you never know who’s listening… Thank you for this acknowledgement. It really means a lot. I’m honored.”
Mali Obomsawin, a Smithsonian Folkways Recordings artist from Odanak Wabanaki First Nation, member of the band Lula Wiles, journalist; and founder and Executive Director of the Bomazeen Land Trust non-profit, received the Rising Tide Award. The award was launched in 2021 to celebrate a new generation (under 30) artist who inspires others by embodying the values and ideals of the folk community through their creative work, community role, and public voice.
The Spirit of Folk Awards are presented to honor and celebrate people and organizations actively involved in the promotion and preservation of folk music through their creative work, community building, and demonstrated leadership. The 2022 recipients included musician, educator, and documentary producer Eugene Rodriguez of Los Cenzontles; composer, producer, performing artist, and Louisiana Red Hot Records Vice President and Head of A&R Lilli Lewis; NPR Tiny Desk Contest winner, musician, and disability rights activist Gaelynn Lea; Canadian Live Music Association President & CEO Erin Benjamin; Bolivian-American multi-instrumentalist, composer, and instrument maker Amado Espinoza; and Sound Diplomacy founder Shain Shapiro.
Colorado-based Planet Bluegrass received the Clearwater Award (sponsored by the Levitt Foundation), which is presented to a festival that prioritizes environmental stewardship and demonstrates public leadership in sustainable event production.
Angela Page and Dr. Johnathan Øverby were inducted into the the Folk DJ Hall of Fame, which has been established to recognize radio DJs who have made an outstanding contribution to the preservation, promotion, and presentation of folk music, and who have demonstrated and inspired leadership in the broadcast field. Page has hosted Folk Plus since the early nineties on hydro-powered WJFF 90.5 FM Radio Catskill in Jeffersonville, New York. Dr. Øverby is a DJ and Wisconsin Public Radio host who is an internationally recognized ethnomusicologist, and scholar, has traveled extensively with multiple independent research and music tour group-led excursions.
In his remarks, executive director Aengus Finnan, who is stepping down next month after eight years, said, “We are not a music alliance. We are a Folk Alliance. And that means something. If folk music is the music of the people and we are to examine that and we are to be a Folk Alliance International, that means that we are to be aligned internationally and look at the big picture and the many sounds and the many voices and the many people.” He later said, “It has been the personal and professional honor of my life to serve this community and this organization.”
About Folk Alliance International
Folk Alliance International (FAI) was founded in 1989 to connect folk music leaders aiming to sustain the community and genre. Today FAI is the leading international voice for folk music with a network of more than 3,000 members: a worldwide community of artists, agents, managers, labels, publicists, arts administrators, venues, festivals, and concert series presenters.
From its U.S. headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri, FAI produces the world’s largest conference for the folk music industry, the International Folk Music Awards (IFMAs), an Artist in Residence program, the Folk ExChange market development program, the Ethno USA gathering (on behalf of JM International), community outreach, and a Finest Folk concert series.
FAI values diversity, equity, inclusion, and access, strives to ensure gender parity in all its programming, celebrates multiple languages and cultures, and actively welcomes participation from marginalized, disenfranchised, and underrepresented communities.
FAI defines folk broadly as “the music of the people” (reflective of any community they are from), and programs a diverse array of sub genres including, but not limited to, Appalachian, Americana, Blues, Bluegrass, Celtic, Cajun, Global Roots, Hip-Hop, Old-Time, Singer-Songwriter, Spoken Word, Traditional, Zydeco, and various fusions.
About Allison Russell (Album of the Year, Artist of the Year)
On May 21st, 2021, Allison Russell released her first ever solo project, Outside Child, on Fantasy Records. Russell, a self-taught singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and co-founder of Our Native Daughters and Birds of Chicago, unpacks her youth in searing detail throughout the album. Raised in Montreal, Russell imbues her music with the colors of her city – the light, the landscape, the language – but also the trauma that she suffered there. It is a heartbreaking reflection on a childhood no one should have to endure, and at the same time a powerful reclamation – asserted from a place of healing, of motherhood, of partnership – and from a new home made in Nashville. The record features many of the artistic family members she has found there including Yola, Erin Rae, The McCrary Sisters, Ruth Moody, Jamie Dick, Dan Knobler and her partner JT Nero.
About Crys Matthews (Song of the Year)
American Songwriter Magazine called Crys Matthews music “hopeful, impassioned.” Already being hailed as “the next Woody Guthrie,” Matthews is among the brightest stars of the new generation of social justice music-makers. A powerful lyricist whose songs of compassionate dissent reflect her lived experience as what she lightheartedly calls “the poster-child for intersectionality,” Justin Hiltner of Bluegrass Situation called Matthews’s gift “a reminder of what beauty can occur when we bridge those divides.” She is made for these times and, with the release of her new, hope-fueled, love-filled social justice album Changemakers, Matthews hopes to take her place alongside some of her heroes in the world of social-justice music like Sweet Honey in the Rock and Holly Near. Of Matthews, ASCAP VP & Creative Director Eric Philbrook says, “By wrapping honest emotions around her socially conscious messages and dynamically delivering them with a warm heart and a strong voice, she lifts our spirits just when we need it most in these troubled times.
Matthews cemented her acclaim at Lincoln Center as the 2017 New Song Music and Performance Competition grand prize winner. Matthews also won the People’s Music Network’s Social Justice Songs contest at the Northeast Regional Folk Alliance. Loyal fans quickly followed as Matthews racked up performances at large music festivals and prestigious venues across the country including the Sundance Film Festival, Kerrville Folk Festival, and locally at venues like The Birchmere, TheHamilton, Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center, and Jammin’ Java. In her TedTalk about difficult conversations called “Sing, Don’t Shout—An Alternative Approach,” Matthews spoke about being born and raised in a small town in southeastern North Carolina by an A.M.E.preacher, and how she witnessed the power of music from an early age.
Crys Matthews’s thoughtful, realistic and emotional songs speak to the voice of our generation and remind us why music indeed soothes the soul.
About Jason Mraz (The People’s Voice Award)
A vegan “short supply-chain” organic farmer, Mraz is an investor in Café Gratitude and a supporter of Why Hunger, founded by the late folk singer Harry Chapin and radio DJ Bill Ayres. To raise awareness about the environment, he has visited Antarctica, endorsed The Nature Conservancy, and participated in Farm Aid. Mraz took part in a non-profit rescue mission in Ghana to liberate children sold into slavery, performed in Myanmar to raise awareness about human trafficking, and was present at Standing Rock.
His own foundation benefits multiple organizations addressing issues he is committed to, and in 2020, Mraz donated all profits from his Look for the Good album to Black Lives Matter and other groups working toward equality and justice.
About Planet Bluegrass (Clearwater Award)
For over 30 years, Planet Bluegrass (producers of Telluride Bluegrass, Rockygrass Festivals, and Rocky MTN Folks Festival) has embraced a “Leave No Trace” ethic and demonstrated environmental leadership engaging in strategic community-level plans and programs to center the idea of stewardship. In 2018, after rigorous external review of its operations, Plant Bluegrass became a certified Public Benefit Corporation in 2018 — a legal entity recognized formally as committed to business practices that are sustainable and beneficial to society and the environment.
At each of its respective festivals, Planet Bluegrass incentivizes reuse over recycling. This includes a reusable plate program, annually monitoring and reporting on waste diversion of over 60% (twice that of the national average), employing solar power to offset over 10 tons of CO2 emissions annually, providing composting and compostable bottles, offering free filtered water on site, and donating leftover festival food to local community organizations.
About Eugene Rodriguez (Spirit of Folk Award)
Rodriguez is an acclaimed musician, educator, and documentary producer who founded Los Cenzontles, both as a band and as a non-profit music academy and community space for Latinx artists, youth, and families in the San Francisco Bay area. He has produced over 30 recordings of Mexican roots music and cross-cultural projects and was nominated for a GRAMMY for the bilingual recording “Papa’s Dream”. He has produced three documentaries for the Cultures of Mexico in California series and conceived of the film project Linda and The Mockingbirds. He serves as a board member of the Arhoolie Foundation and has received numerous awards for his cultural and community service.
About Lilli Lewis (Spirit of Folk Award)
Lilli Lewis is a composer, producer, and performing artist with three critically acclaimed releases on Louisiana Red Hot Records where she serves as VP and the Head of A&R. She conceived of and hosted the ongoing “Committing to Conservation” initiative to develop safe space for diversity within the folk community and spearheaded the “Country Soul Phone Book” as a developing directory of BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and disabled artists under served by the music industry. She co-produced the inaugural “Black Opry Fest”, an event designed to reclaim the legacy of Black artists in Americana, folk, and country music. She also co-wrote/produced and performed “Mask Up” as an anthem for a New Orleans-focused public health campaign.
Gaelynn Lea (Spirit of Folk Award)
Lea was the 2016 winner of the NPR Tiny Desk Contest and has since toured 45 states and nine countries, captivating audiences with haunting original songs and traditional fiddle tunes. A champion of disability rights and venue accessibility, she uses her music as a platform to advocate for disabled people, to engage and inform allies, and to promote positive social change. Gaelynn is the co-founder and Vice President of RAMPD – Recording Artists and Music Professionals with Disabilities, and is an in-demand speaker as featured on TEDx Talks, The Moth Radio Hour, PBS NewsHour, and On Being with Krista Tippett. She is currently creating original music for a Broadway production of Macbeth starring Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga.
Erin Benjamin (Spirit of Folk Award)
Benjamin began her career as a singer-songwriter and label owner before becoming the inaugural Executive Director of Folk Music Ontario, establishing the organization’s conference as the national gathering of the Canadian folk music community. She went on to lead the Canadian Arts Presenting Association and currently serves as the President and CEO of the Canadian Live Music Association providing industry leadership, advocacy, and resources. She is the founder of the Ottawa Women in Music Industry group and led major community relief fundraising. She is an FAI Board alum and continues to serve multiple organizations including Unison Benevolent Fund, Ontario Creates, and the Ottawa Board of Trade.
Amado Espinoza (Spirit of Folk Award) is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, and instrument maker from Cochabamba, Bolivia, who has called Kansas City home since 2014. Amado specializes in the Charango and Andean flutes, performs with multiple ensembles, and is the co-founder of Resonation Music and Arts, using educational programming to inspire curiosity and respect for world cultures through music, dance, and storytelling. He is a Charlotte Street Foundation Performing Arts Fellow, Lighton International Artist Exchange recipient, TedxKC presenter, and Adjunct Professor in the Graduate Student Theatre Department at UMKC.
Shain Shapiro (Spirit of Folk Award)
Shapiro, PhD, is the founder and CEO of Sound Diplomacy. Focused on assessing the value of music, his work has influenced over 75 cities and countries to invest in music and culture and his co-founded Music Cities Convention has become the world’s largest convening of city planners, developers, policy makers, and music industry representatives. He is also the Managing Director of the Center for Music Ecosystems, a global non-profit. A writer, consultant, and speaker, his music advocacy work has influenced the UN, OECD, European Commission, and Greater London Authority.
Flaco Jiménez (The Elaine Weissman Lifetime Achievement Awards LIVING)
Flaco Jiménez is an accordionist from San Antonio, Texas, known for playing Norteño, Tex Mex, and Tejano music. Jiménez has been a solo performer and session musician as well as a member of the Texas Tornados and Los Super Seven. Over the course of his seven decade career, he has received numerous awards and honors, including Lifetime Achievement Awards from the GRAMMYs, Americana Music Awards, Tejano Music Awards, and Billboard magazine. He is featured in the film This Ain’t No Mouse Music, and Hohner has even released a Flaco Jiménez Signature series line of accordions. He has worked with Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder, The Rolling Stones, and recorded on the number one Billboard Country song “Streets of Bakersfield” by Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens.
Nanci Griffith (1953 – 2021) (The Elaine Weissman Lifetime Achievement Awards LEGACY)
Born in Seguin, Texas, Nanci Griffith began performing in a local coffeehouse at age 12 and released her first album “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods” at age 25. Winner of the 1994 GRAMMY Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album for her cover album entitled “Other Voices, Other Rooms”, she affectionately called her style “folkabilly”. Her style was humble and poignant, perhaps best exemplified in her song “Love at the Five and Dime” and her interpretations of others’ work were intimate and reverent, including her version of Julie Gold’s “From a Distance.” Living in Nashville, Griffith recorded duets with many artists including John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Mary Black, Don McLean, Jimmy Buffett, Dolores Keane, Willie Nelson, and the Chieftains. She was inducted into Austin Music Hall of Fame in 1995, was awarded the 1995 Kate Wolf Memorial Award, the 2008 Americana Trailblazer Award, and the 2010 BBC Radio 2 Folk Lifetime Achievement Award.
Swallow Hill Music (The Elaine Weissman Lifetime Achievement Awards BUSINESS/ACADEMIC)
Founded in 1979, Swallow Hill Music is a Denver-based nonprofit providing music education, outreach, programming, and concerts for more than 138,000 people annually. Focused on diverse music traditions on stage and in the classroom, the organizational values promote inclusiveness. Their school offers music education to all ages, in private lessons, workshops and camps, and group class formats. Swallow Hill also hosts open stages and jams open to members and non-members alike, and are designed to be a collaborative and educational experience for all participants. Community and school outreach programs have also been a central part of Swallow Hill’s activities, reaching well over 12,000 students in the Denver Metro area through assemblies, field trips, and in-school and after-school enrichment programs.
Mali Obomsawin (Rising Tide Award)
Mali is an award-winning Smithsonian Folkways Recordings artist from Odanak Wabanaki First Nation. She is a bassist, singer-songwriter, and composer who embraces multiple music traditions and has toured internationally as part of the band Lula Wiles. She is also a proud member of Welcome to Indian Country, an Indigenous performance production, and has worked with Red Sky Performances. Her latest project, Sweet Tooth, explores concepts of Indigenous identity, colonization, and resistance. Known for her sardonic songwriting, beyond the stage Mali is also a freelance journalist, penning insightful must-read articles for The Boston Globe, National Performance Network, and Smithsonian Folklife Magazine. She is a tireless advocate for Indigenous sovereignty and collective liberation, and works with the organizations Racial Equity and Justice as well as the Sunlight Media Collective. She is the founder and Executive Director of Bomazeen Land Trust, a Wabanaki-led nonprofit for land rematriation and food sovereignty. Mali is currently scoring and serving as musical supervisor for the upcoming film We Are The Warriors, addressing racist mascots and verbiage.
Angela Page (Folk DJ Hall of Fame)
Angela Page has hosted Folk Plus since the early nineties on hydro-powered WJFF 90.5 FM Radio Catskill in Jeffersonville, New York. A blend of music from the contemporary folk scene, Angela draws from her experience of music gathered from over years of running college folk venues in the late 70s, the SpeakEasy in Greenwich Village through the early 80s, and her involvement with the production of the Fast Folk Musical Magazine. Angela has been a North East Regional Folk Alliance (NERFA) showcase judge for both the formals and Tri-Centric Showcases, as well as the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. She presented at various conferences including Folk Music Ontario and reviewed for SingOut! Magazine. Angela believes that “the definition of folk music can vary as greatly as the difference in space between a living room and a stadium. Each week I explore a theme with the music and artists that I call Folk.”
Dr. Johnathan Øverby (Folk DJ Hall of Fame)
Dr. Johnathan Øverby is a Wameru Chief, artist, lecturer, ethnomusicologist, producer, and radio host. He began his broadcast career as a student on-air at WAUK in Milwaukee. His four-hour program entitled “The Road to Higher Ground with Jonathan Øverby”, is heard weekly on the NPR News and Music Network of Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR). His world music research and guided tours have seen him travel the globe, and inform his latest WPR program “The Odyssey Series”. The University of Wisconsin conferred Dr. Øverby with the title of “Distinguished” Wisconsin Public Radio Broadcaster and later presented him with the “Wisconsin Idea” Award for his “outstanding contributions to service and education to society, and the quality of life in Wisconsin, the nation, and the world.” Dr. Øverby holds that “people might better understand the human condition through varied traditions of sacred world music, which may have the potential for building bridges between diverse groups while illuminating and celebrating cultural diversity and the inclusion of marginalized groups.”
Watch the full awards show below.