A wall-to-wall crowd of music business figures and their families stood repeatedly to cheer Sunday night (Nov. 2) as the Nashville Songwriters Foundation welcomed Rodney Crowell, Paul Overstreet, John Prine and the late Hal Blair into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. The black-tie ceremony, which traditionally launches the annual Country Music Week, took place at Nashville’s Loews Vanderbilt Plaza.
Prior to the inductions, the Nashville Songwriters Association International named the prolific Jeffrey Steele songwriter of the year, Toby Keith songwriter-artist of the year and “Three Wooden Crosses” song of the year. In addition, the NSAI honored the writers of 11 songs in the songwriter achievement category, a division now familiarly dubbed as “songs I wish I’d written.”
While the nationally telecast CMA (Country Music Association) Awards Show, scheduled for Wednesday (Nov. 5) this year, gets the most publicity, the Hall of Fame soiree is clearly developing into a more entertaining event, at least among the locals. That’s because it spotlights songs that have become classics or sentimental favorites, performances that are simple but heartfelt and an endless flow of songwriting stories.
Blair, who died in 2001 after a long career of writing both for records and the movies, was the first inductee of the evening. Music historian Robert K. Oermann said that bringing him into the Hall of Fame was “the right thing to do,” noting that his frequent co-writer, Don Robertson, was already a member. In a letter sent for the occasion, Robertson labeled his old friend “a real American original.” Music publisher Dean Kay, who also used to write with Blair, spoke of what an inspiring force he was. Riders in the Sky sang the Blair familiars “When It’s Autumn on the Trail,” “Please Help Me I’m Falling,” “Ringo” and “One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart),” the last of which is deemed one of country music’s first “cheating” songs.
Speaking via a prerecorded video, Randy Travis gave the induction commentary for Overstreet, who had provided him such hits as “On The Other Hand,” “Forever And Ever, Amen” and “Deeper Than A Holler.” In co-writing with Overstreet, Travis admitted, “Sometimes I felt like I was sitting at his feet and taking dictation.” Fellow composers Jim Collins and Rory Lee, accompanying themselves on guitars, sang a seven-song sampler from Overstreet’s rich catalog, including “A Long Line of Love,” “Seein’ My Father In Me,” “Daddy’s Come Around,” “When You Say Nothing at All” and “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.” When he took the stage to accept his “Manny” (for manuscript) Award, Overstreet was quick to praise his fellow nominees. “A lot of these guys I learned to write from by co-writing with them and listening to them on the radio.”
Producer Tony Brown rolled out the verbal welcome mat for Crowell, his friend and one-time fellow member of Emmylou Harris’ band. Alluding to the fall early this year that put him in a coma and almost cost him his life, Brown joked, “I know you’re all wondering: Can he speak full sentences?” He could and did. Brown told of first meeting Crowell in 1977 and of how the songwriter had become his faithful friend in the ensuing years, a closeness that was particularly evident after Brown’s injury. He said he was dazzled by the poetry of Crowell’s lyrics and quoted as an example, “Down every road that lies before me now/There are some turns where I may spin,” from “’Til I Gain Control Again.”
Oddly enough, when Vince Gill and Harris walked on stage to perform some of Crowell’s songs, Harris tripped as she approached Brown and fell hard. “I can’t believe I did that,” Harris said pluckily, as she attempted to regain her feet. After satisfying himself that Harris was all right, Gill cracked, “If you hadn’t been so late, we wouldn’t have gotten so drunk.” “Well,” said Harris, “my leg ain’t broke, so you don’t have to shoot me.” With order restored, the two streamed through the Crowell gems “I Ain’t Living Long Like This,” ’Til I Gain Control Again,” “Song for the Life” and “Leavin’ Louisiana in the Broad Daylight.”
In accepting his award, Crowell spoke of his mother and father and their grounding in country music that encouraged him. “My mother and father met at a Roy Acuff concert in Buchanan, Tenn., in 1942,” he related. Ten years later, when Crowell was 2 years old, his father took him to see Hank Williams perform. Forever after, he said, his father would tell him, “Now you remember, I took you to see old Hank. . . . I finally realized my father wanted to say, ‘That’s me up there. That’s who I want to be.’ Somehow, I just think of my father [and wonder] what would he think [about this].”
Crowell expressed gratitude to his cousin, Larry Willoughby, now an executive with Capitol Records. “We used to play this game called ‘Elvis Presley and Tommy Sands.’ He was Elvis and I was Tommy Sands.” (Sands was a short-lived teen idol of the late 1950s, whose biggest hit was “Teen-Age Crush.”) His cousin got the Elvis role, Crowell explained, because he was “older and cooler.” To summarize his own good fortune and that of songwriters in general, Crowell proclaimed, “My life is filled with love — and we get to make stuff up.”
Mark Alan Springer, chairman of the Nashville Songwriters Foundation, brought Kris Kristofferson to the stage with a story of how, as a farm kid in Arkansas, he was so impressed by Kristofferson’s music that he spent his hard-earned money on an eight-track tape, which he eventually wore out. It was his first inclination, he said, to become a songwriter himself. Ambling into the spotlight during the applause that followed Springer’s introduction, Kristofferson observed, “I told somebody back there that I felt like I was at my own funeral.”
Krisofferson’s duty was to tell the crowd about Prine, whom he first met in Chicago when he was touring nationally and Prine was still a strictly local attraction. He explained that he heard of Prine through Steve Goodman, the writer of “City of New Orleans.” Goodman implored him to go to the Earl of Old Town club to hear Prine. Kristofferson said he had been touring incessantly at the time, was sick and was being besieged by songwriters who hoped to catch his ear. “I was throwing up in a toilet down there, and this guy was singing me a song about his mother dying.” Nonetheless, he said, he went to the club, accompanied by an unlikely retinue of fellow celebrities that included songwriter Paul Anka and actors Melvin Van Peebles and Samantha Eggar. When they got there, the club had closed for the night, and Prine was sleeping in a booth. Once awakened, Kristofferson continued, Prine did “about a dozen” songs that would eventually become folk standards. “I asked him if he would go back and sing them all again and anything else he had written.” It was through Kristofferson’s enthusiasm and intercession that Prine got his first recording contract. “If God’s got a favorite songwriter,” Kristofferson concluded, “I think it’s John Prine.”
Jack Clement and Roger Cook, who, like Krisofferson, are already members of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, sang Prine’s “Souvenirs,” “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness,” “I Just Want to Dance With You,” “Hello in There” and “Paradise” (with which the crowd sang along). Cook, who co-wrote “I Just Want to Dance With You,” said he and Prine used to sit up late at night playing dominoes and writing songs. “Sometimes,” he added, “we wrote songs, waiting for our second wives to come home.”
Just as it looked as through the evening was about to close, Bonnie Raitt came on stage to sing her praises of Prine, whom she said she had known and admired for 30 years. “Boy, I tell you it was worth coming from California for this,” she exclaimed. “I’m so moved by [their performance of] ‘Hello in There,’ I don’t know if I can sing. . . . I’m so verklempt, I sound like Stevie Nicks.” With that, Raitt invited Nashville singer-songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman to join her in performing Prine’s ageless “Angel From Montgomery.”
Appearing nearly overcome by the rampant adulation, Prine spoke only briefly, praising his benefactor, the late Steve Goodman, and thanking Kristofferson for his support, as well as his longtime manager and record label chief, Al Bunetta. He also had warm words for Nashville songwriters. “I never had anybody in this town who ever told me to go back to Chicago and not write country songs.”
The NSAI awards preceded the inductions. Responding to his songwriter of the year award, Steele said, “I’ve got to thank my wife, Stephanie, who’s been putting up with me for the past 22 years.” He also paid tribute to Kristofferson, “who’s been the biggest influence on my life. I was rock ’n’ rolling on the Sunset Strip, and my dad said, ‘Son, you ain’t s**t if you don’t listen to Kris Kristofferson.'” Doug Johnson and Kim Williams accepted song of the year honors for their “Three Wooden Crosses.” Toby Keith was cited as songwriter-artist of the year for “Beer for My Horses” and “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).”
Songwriter achievement plaudits were given to the writers of “A Lot of Things Different” (Bill Anderson, Dean Dillon); “Almost Home” (Craig Morgan, Kerry Kurt Phillips); “Celebrity” (Brad Paisley); “Drift Away” (Mentor Williams); “I Believe” (Donny Kees, Skip Ewing); “Somebody Like You” (John Shanks, Keith Urban); “Stay Gone” (Jimmy Wayne, Billy Kirsch); “The Impossible” (Kelley Lovelace, Lee Thomas Miller); “Then They Do” (Jim Collins, Sunny Russ); “Three Wooden Crosses” (Johnson, Williams); and “Travelin’ Soldier” (Bruce Robison). Because they were touring, Keith, Paisley and Urban were not on hand to accept their awards
In a prelude to the inductions, Fred Knobloch and Karen Staley sang “Bye Bye Love,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “I Still Miss Someone,” “Tennessee Waltz” and “Fever.”
NSAI executive director Bart Herbison warned of the dangers confronting songwriters from the illegal downloading of their songs, and U. S. House of Representatives member from Tennessee, Marsha Blackburn, spoke about the recent establishment of the Congressional songwriters caucus.