The Academy of Country Music honored Merle Haggard, Kenny Rogers, Randy Travis, Hank Williams Jr., Dolly Parton and the late Jerry Reed and Harlan Howard Tuesday night (Sept. 22) for their creative and commercial contributions to country music. The ceremony was held at Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
Haggard, Rogers and Travis were on hand to receive their awards. Parton accepted via a video. Williams canceled at the last minute for what his publicist described as “family reasons.” Three of his daughters stood in for him.
The evening’s performers were John Anderson, Bobby Bare, Vince Gill, the Grascals, Jamey Johnson, Miranda Lambert, Jim Lauderdale, Patty Loveless, Joe Nichols, Brent Mason and the Jerry Reed Band, James Otto, Kellie Pickler, John Rich, Blake Shelton, Carrie Underwood, Steve Wariner and Lee Ann Womack (who also hosted the event).
Although the performances were first-rate, the attendees, most of whom were music industry veterans, were only politely responsive. That may have had something to do with the fact that the performances were not projected onto large screens for easy viewing, as they now are at most concerts.
“I know this is a pretty laid-back crowd, but you shouldn’t be laid back when we’re honoring Mr. Kenny Rogers,” scolded Rich as he encouraged the audience to sing along with his version of “Lucille.”
Rogers, Travis, Williams and Reed were given the Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award. Haggard and Howard were honored with the Poet’s Award (for their songwriting) and Parton received the Jim Reeves International Award (for spreading country music abroad). The Tex Ritter Award, which honors movies that make prominent use of country music, went to Toby Keith’s project, Beer for My Horses. Keith accepted via video.
The Grascals kicked off the evening with bluegrass versions of Williams’ “Born to Boogie,” “Women I’ve Never Had” and “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight.” Williams features the Grascals on “All the Roads,” a cut on his latest album, 127 Rose Avenue.
Calling it her “favorite Hank Jr. song,” Lambert followed with “I Don’t Have Any More Love Songs,” and Johnson concluded the musical tribute with a medley of “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound,” “A Country Boy Can Survive” and “Family Tradition.”
In a video tip of his hat to Williams, Kid Rock deadpanned, “I know how much awards mean to you. … So hold on there. It’ll be over in a minute.”
Williams’ daughters Holly, Katie and Hilary thanked the Academy on their dad’s behalf. Noting that a lot of singers have covered his songs, Holly Williams added, “These performers were the best I’ve ever seen, hands down.”
Next came the Poet’s Award presentations. In a video taped not long before he died in 2002, Howard, while acknowledging he’d written many a country classic, asserted, “The new song is still the most fun.”
Loveless sang “Blame It on Your Heart,” her Howard-penned No. 1 single from 1993, and Lauderdale offered a medley of the songwriter’s most revered hits, including “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down,” “Heartaches by the Number” and “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail.”
Howard’s widow, Melanie, came to the stage with a drink in her hand, a fitting gesture to her famously bibulous husband. “I think we should have a toast in his honor,” she announced. “So if you have a glass, raise it. … Thank you for keeping his memory, his songs — and his family — in business.”
Nichols opened the Haggard segment with “Okie From Muskogee,” Lambert did “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star” and Gill finished with the heart-breaking “Holding Things Together.”
Clutching his hat in his right hand, Haggard took a stately stroll to the stage and immediately marveled at the depth of Gill’s performance: “I’m the guy who wrote the song, and I heard things I didn’t know were in there.”
He said he and Howard were old friends but, oddly enough, had never written songs together. “Harlan and I used to fish together,” he recalled. “We went out 24 hours one time, and we didn’t catch any fish and didn’t write one song. … It’s a lump in my throat to be here this evening. Thank you very much.”
There followed a video that summarized Parton’s globe-spanning career as a singer, songwriter and actress.
“May we all make beautiful music for years to come,” Parton said in her video thank you.
Speaking on video, as well, actor and comedian Adam Sandler gave an affectionate account of how Jerry Reed auditioned for and acted in the role as a football coach in his 1998 movie, The Waterboy.
Sandler noted that Reed brought both humor and amiability to the set and suggested people remember him as “the man who pioneered being a nice guy.”
Guitarist Brent Mason and Reed’s band showcased the late singer-songwriter’s inspired zaniness with excerpts from “Amos Moses” and “Guitar Man.” Bobby Bare nodded toward Reed’s softer side with “A Thing Called Love,” and Steve Wariner brought back memories of Reed’s genius as a picker, lyricist and character actor with a breakneck run through “East Bound and Down” from Smokey and the Bandit.
Reed’s grandson, Jerry Roe, spoke on his behalf, remarking, “I’m honored to accept this award, but I’m even more honored to have his blood running through my veins.”
After Rich sang his initial tribute to Rogers, Jamey Johnson and Kellie Pickler followed with a reprise of “Every Time Two Fools Collide,” the Rogers-Dottie West hit from 1978. (Randy Houser was originally scheduled to sing with Pickler but had to bow out because of illness.)
“Oh, my God, he’s right in front of me,” Blake Shelton gasped as he prepared to conclude the Rogers musical segment. Shelton then went into a long tale about how Rogers had once intimidated him.
Shelton began by noting that Rogers had recorded the song “Ol’ Red” before Shelton cut it and made it a Top 15 hit in 2002. That same year, with only one other hit under his belt, Shelton was booked on a package show with Rogers in Virginia.
Before he went onstage to open the show, he said Rogers’ tour manager came to his dressing room and told him that if he really wanted Rogers to “like him,” he wouldn’t sing “Ol’ Red.” So Shelton didn’t, and he said the crowd hated him. “I sucked,” he declared.
Then Shelton spoke directly to Rogers: “I’ll trade you ’Ol’ Red’ for this song any day.” With that, Shelton sang “The Gambler.” (Don Schlitz, who wrote “The Gambler,” was in the audience.)
“Hey, Kenny, you old pioneer,” gibed Parton via video to her one-time duet partner. “We go back to when fire was just a good idea.”
“I actually asked Blake Shelton not to sing that song, too,” Rogers quipped when he came to the stage. “Guess he’s got a mind of his own.”
Otto, Anderson and Underwood paid their respects to Travis with “Deeper Than a Holler,” “Diggin’ Up Bones” and “I Told You So,” respectively. In a welcome switch from its characteristic torpor, the audience began applauding Anderson before he’d finished singing his first line.
Slim, confident and beaming, Travis told the crowd he was still adjusting to the idea of being a “pioneer,” despite his 24-year span of recording and touring. “I feel like I need to be older — or dead,” he said.
He singled out his wife and manager, Lib Hatcher, and his longtime producer, Kyle Lehning, for special praise. And he thanked country radio for its part in advancing his career, adding dryly, “They’re less accommodating as time goes by.”
Travis had kind words for the songwriters in the room, as well. “I’m a sporadic writer at best,” he said, “and always have been.” (He wrote “I Told You So.”) “It’s an honor to be in this room,” he concluded, “and to be reminded of why I love this business so much.”
Earlier in the evening, Rodney Atkins announced the industry award winners: Joe’s Bar, Chicago (nightclub of the year), Turning Stone Casino (top casino), Fran Romeo (top talent buyer), the Ryman Auditorium (top venue) and Louis Messina (top promoter).
Eddie Montgomery (of Montgomery Gentry) and radio consultant Charlie Cook announced the musician/bandleader/instrumentalists of the year: Aubrey Haynie (fiddle) Eric Darken and Kirk “Jelly Roll” Johnson (specialty instrument players), Greg Morrow (drummer), Dan Dugmore (steel guitar), Tom Bukovac (guitar), Gordon Mote (piano), Glenn Worf (bass), Chuck Ainlay (audio engineer) and Tony Brown (producer).
Bukovac, Mote, Worf and Ainlay were not present to accept their honors.
Brown told the crowd he was particularly happy to receive his award since such younger producers as Nathan Chapman, Dann Huff, Frank Rogers and Brett Beavers were carving out big reputations.
“I’m glad this says I’m still a contender,” he said. “I needed the award.”
The Academy gave its Mae Boren Axton prize to former ACM executive David Young.
This event served as an extension of the 44th annual ACM Awards show, which was broadcast on CBS in April. As television exposure has become more valuable, the ACM and its counterpart, the Country Music Association, have sidelined relatively low-profile honors that were once announced or celebrated on the main awards show. The CMA now celebrates each year’s entrants to the Country Music Hall of Fame via the separate and non-telecast medallion ceremony.View photos from the ACM Honors event in Nashville.