Sturgill Simpson. Arlo McKinley. Nick Jamerson. Branden Martin. Tough company to be in if you're trying to win an award for Americana music.
Turns out, Kevin Dalton was the fiercest competition after all.
Dalton and his band the Tuesday Blooms took home the "Best Americana Artist" Appy Award this past Saturday as part of the first-ever Appalachian Arts and Entertainment Awards.
"I’ve honestly never won an award or a trophy in my life, except YMCA basketball league when I was 10," said Dalton. "So (it was) a huge surprise and I was and still am blown away by it."
However, Dalton quickly corrected himself to recall that the basketball trophy was just a participation award. "So yeah. My first win of anything ever."
Dalton and the Tuesday Blooms were nominated for their 2019 album "Paper Airplanes," the first record released by the band, though Dalton has had some others in the past.
"The album is a mixture of songs inspired by my life over the past six years. Like most things in life, a series of ups and downs," said Dalton. "'Paper Airplanes' became the title based on the concept of letting things go. It's symbolic of physically releasing 12 paper airplanes, each song, folded and prepared for it's own individual flight. Sometimes they sail, sometimes they crash. As does everything we put our hearts into."
Dalton has made a name for himself in the region over the years, a regular performer at nightspots across south and central Kentucky. But in the "Americana" category, he found himself facing heavyweights like Simpson and Jamerson — the type of artists with Grammy Awards and Billboard hits to their name.
"(I) absolutely did not expect to win," said Dalton. "Sturgill Simpson is huge. And the other nominees are much more well-known than us. And with the likes of Chris Stapleton winning 'Best Country Artist' and Tyler Childers winning 'Best Male Vocalist,' I completely expected Sturgill to win the category. Sturgill has won a Grammy before, so I was blown away."
To be in contention, an artist or group could submit themselves or fans could submit them — as long as the nominee is living in or originally from the 13-state Appalachia region. The public was able to vote on their top five, and those five then went to "our esteemed judging panel," said Jill Hamlin, Assistant Fine Arts Director for Big Sandy Community and Technical College. She noted that the panel is made up of music industry songwriters, actors and actresses, and recording engineers who have worked with the best of the best. "This was not just somebody's cousin stepping in to say, 'Hey, we like these tunes,'" she said. "... Obviously, (Dalton's album) caught their ear and they really liked it."
It was the first edition of the Appalachian Arts and Entertainment — or "Appy" — Awards, which represents the whole swath of Appalachian talent, from New York all the way down to Mississippi. That includes not only musicians but visual artists, short films and documentaries, and more. It was originally supposed to be a true "red carpet event" like other awards shows, but because of COVID-19 concerns, it was held virtually as a pay-per-view event, filmed at the Mountain Arts Center in Prestonsburg, Ky. — Dalton and bandmate Tommy Cate attended an official "watch party" and played live before and after the show at The Twisted Cork in Lexington.
"The Appalachian region is a lot bigger than what people think," said Hamlin. "It's a big deal to really highlight the arts and entertainment district in Appalachia — up-and-comers and people who have already made it in the industry. ... It's kind of a way to show that, listen, we have all these great things, all these great talents, we're educated people, more than what you see in the media where this negative stigma is portrayed. We have so much to offer."
In particular, to have all five of the artists in the "Americana" category to have very real Kentucky roots is a feather in the cap of the Commonwealth, considering the reach of the Appalachia region. "Kentucky is a big proponent for Appalachian music," said Hamlin. "It's a big proponent for music and the arts in general. Take Sturgill Simpson, Tyler Childers, Loretta Lynn, Dwight Yoakam — all of those came from Kentucky."
As for why he and the Tuesday Blooms were chosen over such stiff competition for the award, Dalton replied, "Well, I hope it’s the songwriting and performances. It was recorded in my basement. I engineered and produced it myself. It was a year-and-a-half long process of learning how to do so. ... But the album's all true-life songs with all my heart and soul in them. So I’d like to think (the judges) recognize that as well as the unique style. I really don’t think we fit in a genre, I’ve tried to create our own. But most people including us find it easiest to throw us in under the Americana blanket."
Dalton wrote all the songs and played guitars, mandolin drums and sang lead vocals. His "amazing" band included Tommy Cate on harmonica, Owen Reynolds on bass, Cory White on keyboards and Kelly Caldwell sang harmony.
"So I’ve been super proud of the CD since its release New Years Eve 2019, but this absolutely takes the cake," said Dalton. "To be nominated alone with such amazing artists was incredible, let alone win."
Dalton said that Hamlin told him they'd be contacting him within the next week about when and how to pick up the band's well-earned reward, and do a photo shoot and press release as well. Dalton already knows where his award is going.
"That will absolutely go on my mantel," he said, "along with pictures of my bandmates."