Hank Williams Jr. Celebrated as BMI’s Newest Icon

Casey Beathard, "Teardrops on My Guitar," Sony/ATV Tree Win Top Awards

Hank Williams Jr. moved one step closer to his father’s exalted status Tuesday (Nov. 11) when BMI, the performance rights organization, presented him its Icon award for extraordinary musical achievement. The presentation, which capped BMI’s 56th annual country awards celebration, was held at the organization’s Nashville office building.

BMI also declared Casey Beathard its songwriter of the year (his second time to win that prize) and named Taylor Swift’s “Teardrops on My Guitar” song of the year. Sony/ATV Tree won the country publisher of the year honor for the seventh time in a row.

A line of fans stood across the street from BMI’s brightly decorated entrance, watching attentively as limousines and SUVs disgorged their glittering cargo.

Spotted alighting from their carriages were Billy Ray and Miley Cyrus, Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn, Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood, Jay DeMarcus and Joe Don Rooney of Rascal Flatts, Kristian Bush of Sugarland, Big Kenny, John Michael Montgomery, Rodney Atkins and Kenny Chesney. Also, Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert, Gary Allan, Jason Michael Carroll, Luke Bryan, Clay Walker, Craig Morgan, Jake Owen, Hal Ketchum, Bucky Covington, Jennifer Hanson, Bruce Robison, Kelly Willis, Eric Church, Jack Ingram and Kid Rock.

Several members of the Country Music Hall of Fame trod the red carpet as well, notably Bill Anderson, Tom T. Hall, Mel Tillis, Ray Walker and Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires, Alabama’s Randy Owen, Phil Everly, Harold Bradley, Frances Preston, Jo Walker-Meador and Jim Foglesong.

The evening began with an hour-long cocktail party in BMI’s cavernous reception hall, after which the guests were whisked by elevator to an enclosed and ornately decorated fourth-floor parking area for the banquet and awards. The band Belleville Outfit from Austin, Texas, provided pre-dinner music.

For those who earn their living on Music Row, it was like attending the best class reunion one could imagine. There was even a smoking corner for the incorrigibles.

Presiding over the awards were BMI president and CEO Del Bryant, vice president of writer-publisher relations Jody Williams and assistant vice president Clay Bradley.

In recounting “the many ways country music gives back,” Bryant cited a host of good works — from entertaining American troops abroad to bringing humanitarian relief to Darfur — and the specific artists who are supporting them.

Williams, while acknowledging the current economic downturn, asserted that “a hit song is more valuable today than it’s ever been in BMI history.” He and Bradley then began calling to the stage the writers, publishers and artists behind BMI’s 50 most performed songs of the past year.

The final portion of the program was devoted to chronicling and celebrating Hank Williams Jr.’s 50-plus years as a performer. (Now 59, he made his singing debut at the age of 8.)

Bryant called Williams “an American hero” and documented that contention with a video narrated by Merle Haggard that showed the singer-songwriter at various stages of his career.

Fabled pedal steel player Robert Randolph kicked off a musical tribute to Williams with a languid, bluesy performance of “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound.” Backing himself with an acoustic guitar, Gregg Allman came next with a ragged and halting rendition of “Come and Go Blues.”

Then Chesney took the stage with his acoustic guitar, seated himself on a stool and spoke of how had looked up to Williams when he was starting his own career. He thanked him for being “a constant source of inspiration” before easing into the Williams gem, “Old Habits.”

When Chesney reached the part that goes, “I chewed Life Savers to help me get off cigarettes/But you know for your love I ain’t found no life savers yet,” he paused, grinned broadly and said, “great line!”

Lynyrd Skynrd wrapped up the musical toast with a turbulent take on “Born to Boogie.”

Williams, who sat at a table near the edge of the stage, smiled and paid rapt attention throughout each performance, sometimes nodding his head with enthusiasm at what he was hearing.

The rowdy singer was brief in his acceptance remarks.

“I guess you all know that this was none of my idea,” he drawled. He recalled that his late friend and longtime manager, Merle Kilgore, used to nag him to come to BMI social functions.

Kilgore argued that such socializing would enable Williams to get an advance on his royalties. When he told Kilgore he didn’t need an advance, the manager snapped, “Not for you — for me.”

“The ride has been real good and it’s been real sweet,” Williams said. “I’ve probably written more songs in the last six months than I have in the last six years.” As the crowd applauded this burst of productivity, Williams brandished his trophy and left the stage.

The gala ended with the crowd going back downstairs to forage on fancy desserts, liqueurs and coffee, while Harold Bradley and his all-star country band played the songs that made Nashville famous.

Actually, it was better than a class reunion.

Here’s a list of BMI’s winning songs and songwriters for 2008:

“All-American Girl”
Writer: Carrie Underwood

“All My Friends Say”
Writers: Luke Bryan, Jeff Stevens

“Another Side of You”
Writers: Carson Chamberlain, Jamey Johnson

“As If”
Writer: Sara Evans

“Because of You”
Writers: David Hodges, Ben Moody

“Cleaning This Gun (Come On In Boy)”
Writer: Casey Beathard

“A Different World”
Writers: Jennifer Hanson, Tony Martin, Mark Nesler

“Don’t Blink”
Writer: Casey Beathard

Writer: Keith Urban

“Everyday America”
Writer: Kristian Bush

Writers: Sonny Lemaire, Shane Minor

“Famous in a Small Town”
Writer: Miranda Lambert

“A Feelin’ Like That”
Writer: Ira Dean

“Find Out Who Your Friends Are”
Writers: Casey Beathard, Ed Hill

Writers: Shawn Camp, Pat McLaughlin, Josh Turner

“Free and Easy (Down the Road I Go)”
Writers: Brett Beavers, Robbie Dale Harrington

“Good Directions”
Writer: Luke Bryan

“High Maintenance Woman”
Writers: Toby Keith, Danny Simpson, Tim Wilson

“How ’Bout Them Cowgirls”
Writers: Casey Beathard, Ed Hill

“I Need You”
Writer: David Lee

“I Told You So”
Writer: Keith Urban

“If You’re Reading This”
Writers: Tim McGraw, Brad Warren, Brett Warren

“International Harvester”
Writers: Shane Minor, Danny Myrick, Jeffrey Steele

“Johnny Cash”
Writers: Rodney Clawson, Vicky McGehee

“Last Dollar (Fly Away)”
Writer: Big Kenny

“Livin’ Our Love Song”
Writer: Jason Michael Carroll

“Long Trip Alone”
Writers: Brett Beavers, Steve Bogard

“Lost in This Moment”
Writer: Rodney Clawson

“Love You”
Writers: Jay Knowles, Trent Summar

“Lucky Man”
Writer: David Lee

“More Than a Memory”
Writers: Lee Brice, Billy Montana

“Never Wanted Nothing More”
Writer: Ronnie Bowman

“Our Song”
Writer: Taylor Swift

“Proud of the House We Built”
Writers: Ronnie Dunn, Marv Green, Terry McBride

“Ready, Set, Don’t Go”
Writers: Casey Beathard, Billy Ray Cyrus

Writer: Kristian Bush

Writer: Troy Jones

“So Small”
Writers: Luke Laird, Carrie Underwood

Writer: Blair Daly

“Startin’ With Me”
Writers: Kendell Marvel, Jake Owen, Jimmy Ritchey

“Stealing Cinderella”
Writer: George Teren

“Take Me There”
Writer: Wendell Mobley

“Teardrops on My Guitar”
Writer: Taylor Swift

Writers: Monty Criswell, Joe Leathers

Writers: Marv Green, Troy Verges

“Watching Airplanes”
Writer: Jim Beavers

“What Do Ya Think About That”
Writer: Anthony Smith

“What Kinda Gone”
Writer: Chip Davis

“Winner at a Losing Game”
Writer: Jay DeMarcus

Writer: Bruce Robison

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.