Performances by LeAnn Rimes, Joe Nichols, Amy Grant, Raul Malo, Connie Smith, Jon Randall, Ernie Haase & Signature Sound and pianist-vocal impressionist Gordon Mote highlighted the Academy of Country Music’s special awards presentation held Wednesday night (Sept. 17) at the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville.
Among those on hand to accept their trophies during the ACM Honors ceremony were the Oak Ridge Boys, Brenda Lee, Bill Anderson, producer Mark Wright, audio engineer Justin Niebank and stellar studio musicians Stuart Duncan, Jerry Douglas, Michael Rhodes and Dan Huff. The evening also served to honor Dick Clark and the late Conway Twitty, Porter Wagoner and Fred Rose.
Unlike the high-profile performer awards the Los Angeles-based ACM presents on its network television special each May, the special honors are not annually conferred and are voted on by the Academy’s board of directors, rather than the organization’s general membership. This is the first time the prizes have been awarded separately from the telecast and in Nashville.
Anderson and songwriter-music publisher Fred Rose were honored with the Academy’s newest distinction: the Poet’s Award. Lee, the Oak Ridge Boys, Twitty and Wagoner won Cliffie Stone Pioneer Awards for their trailblazing work in country music. Television personality and producer Dick Clark received the Jim Reeves International Award for his efforts in expanding country music’s geographical boundaries.
The awards were presented in front of a small audience of industry insiders at the museum’s performance hall. Martina McBride hosted the event.
Songwriter Rivers Rutherford demonstrated Rose’s way with a lyric by performing two of his classics, “Kaw-Liga,” which Rose co-penned with Hank Williams, and “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” a solo composition.
Rutherford improvised freely in “Kaw-Liga,” confessing afterward that his father, from whom he had learned the song, had taught him “all the wrong words.”
To illustrate Anderson’s lyrical artistry, Nichols, Smith and Randall sat side by side on stools and took turns wowing the audience. Nichols began with a heart-tugging rendition of “I’ll Wait for You” that had the crowd hanging on each line.
Then Smith virtually ripped out the rafters with “Once a Day,” which, as one listener whispered in awe, was fully as gorgeous and powerful as when she made it a hit 44 years ago.
Intimidating as the vocal competition was, Randall rose to the task by singing the infinitely doleful “Whiskey Lullaby,” which he co-wrote with Anderson. “I learned from writing with Bill Anderson,” Randall observed, “that he’s erased better lines than I’ve ever written.”
Taking his cue from “Whiskey Lullaby,” which has a “la, la, la” refrain, Anderson said, when he came on stage, “Who would have ever thought you could win a poet’s award for writing ’la, la, la’?”
Rimes, Grant and Malo sang tributes to Brenda Lee. Grant had several in the crowd chiming in as she twirled through “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” Malo rocked out mightily on “Jambalaya.” But it was Rimes who electrified the room with her volcanic and palpably rueful rendition of “I’m Sorry.”
After making a joke about her reading glasses and mile-high hairdo (“I had to get a building permit for it”), the diminutive Lee turned serious to thank the “giants” whose shoulders she had stood on to reach her dreams. She singled out recording artist and television host Red Foley, who gave her the first career boost, manager Dub Albritten and producer Owen Bradley.
The Southern gospel group Ernie Haase & Signature Sound tipped their hats to the Oak Ridge Boys by sounding exactly like them as they breezed through a medley of “Jesus Is Coming Soon,” “Y’All Come Back Saloon” and the inescapable “Elvira.”
With fellow Oaks Duane Allen, William Lee Golden and Richard Sterban at his side, tenor Joe Bonsall thanked the Academy by recalling stories of the group’s earliest appearances at ACM award shows. He also singled out for praise the quartet’s longtime manager, Jim Halsey, who sat in the audience. “He’s put us on eBay,” Bonsall quipped.
Mote was devastatingly on target as he told stories and jokes and sang songs in Porter Wagoner’s voice, right down to the slight sibilant hisses. His selections included “Satisfied Mind,” “Carroll County Accident” and “Green, Green Grass of Home.”
In a videotaped greeting, Dolly Parton spoke affectionately of her long-ago mentor and duet partner. “I was with Porter when he went to Hillbilly Heaven,” she said with a sad smile. Wagoner’s son and two daughters accepted his trophy.
Glen Templeton and Emily Portman, the lead characters in It’s Only Make Believe, the forthcoming musical about Conway Twitty’s life, kicked off the Twitty tribute with uncannily faithful vocal recreations of “Lovin’ What Your Lovin’ Does to Me” and “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man.”
Luke Bryan followed with Twitty’s “I’d Love to Lay You Down,” a personal favorite he said he sings in all his shows. Then Josh Turner rounded off the salute with a growling version of “Slow Hand.” Twitty’s daughter, Joni, accepted his trophy.
Duncan copped the top musicians award for fiddle, Rhodes for bass, Huff for guitar, Shannon Forrest for percussion-drums and Douglas for specialty instrument. Wright was voted top producer and Niebank best audio engineer.
The evening gave rise to several remarks worth preserving that were either uttered live or encapsulated in video commentaries:
Introducing presenter Richie McDonald, who has departed the group that made him famous, McBride said, “They keep saying Lonestar — and now he is.”
“So, no demo sessions tonight?” smirked Douglas as he looked out on all the musicians in the audience.
“Greetings from the engine room,” said Rhodes, whose formidable bass has powered many a session.
Leading into the Bill Anderson segment, McBride quoted his lyrics, “I had your love on the tips of my fingers/And I let it slip out of my hands,” before adding, “That’s a man who knows how to write heartache.”
On receiving his award, Anderson observed, “There are thousands of poets out there. I think I got [the award] because they’re giving them out in alphabetical order.”