HOT DISH: Current Stars Pay Tribute to Legends at ACM Honors Event

Carrie Underwood, Jamey Johnson, Kellie Pickler Among Those Singing Country Classics

(CMT Hot Dish is a weekly feature written by veteran columnist Hazel Smith. Author of the cookbook, Hazel’s Hot Dish: Cookin’ With Country Stars, she also hosts CMT’s Southern Fried Flicks With Hazel Smith and shares her recipes at

Can you imagine attending an event with current superstars Carrie Underwood, Joe Nichols, Jamey Johnson, Kellie Pickler, Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton providing the entertainment? And also featuring Lee Ann Womack, who not only sang her butt off, but also hosted the event?

The Academy of Country Music Honors celebration, which took place Tuesday (Sept. 22) at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, was an event where the current superstars were as wide-eyed as the rest of the audience just to be in the presence of Kenny Rogers, Randy Travis and Merle Haggard. It was that kind of night.

ACM executive director Bob Romeo and his team, along with TV producers R.A. “Rac” Clark and Barry Adelman, waited until they traveled to Music City to reveal that ticket sales to the taping of a CBS-TV special, George Strait: ACM Artist of the Decade All Star Concert, resulted in a $750,000 donation to ACM Lifting Lives, the organization’s philanthropic fund.

But back to the ACM Honors — and what a show it turned out to be!

None of the honorees were surprised at receiving the awards. They’ve known they were winners since April, but they were still thrilled. Even the great Merle Haggard got a lump in his throat.

The nightclub of the year trophy went to Joe’s Bar, a place that showcases country music in Chicago. I shook hands with the two owners when they returned to the table and sat down with me. “Congratulations,” I told them. “I’m Hazel Smith.” Smiling, they said in unison, “We know who you are.”

Casino of the year honors went to the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, N.Y. Fran Romeo of Romeo Entertainment won the talent buyer award, and Louis Messina of the Messina Group received the nod as top promoter. The venue of the year prize went to Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, naturally. There’s none better.

Rodney Atkins took front and center to award 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) and Glenn Worf (bass).

Chuck Ainlay was named the top audio engineer, and I was thrilled for my dear friend, Tony Brown, who has been producing records for two decades or more. Still, he was once again named producer of the year.

Looking stunning in an aqua satin top with a white skirt, Womack took to the podium to announce the evening’s first Cliffie Stone Pioneer award recipient — Hank Williams Jr. The Grascals woke up the crowd with a rousing medley of Hank’s “Born to Boogie,” “Women I’ve Never Had” and “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight.” Jamey Johnson followed with “A Country Boy Can Survive,” “Family Tradition” and “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound.” Dressed in a strapless blue-green knee-length dress and looking good, Miranda Lambert slayed the crowd with “Anymore Love Songs.”

According to Hank’s three daughters Holly, Hilary and Katie, who accepted the award in his absence, “Daddy is attending to family business in Paris, Tenn.” I must say, the most entertaining video of the night was Kid Rock, who teased Hank about his feelings toward award presentations.

Legendary singer-songwriter Merle Haggard said it was an honor to accept the Poets Award the same year it was given to his late friend, the great country music songwriter Harlan Howard. Hag spoke of fishing with Harlan. “Once all night,” he laughed, “we never caught a fish.”

It’s so incredible to feel the presence of Haggard, who has such charisma. Hag was complimentary of marvelous Joe Nichols (who honored him with “Okie From Muskogee”) and plumb perfect Vince Gill (whose version of “Holding Things Together” brought tears to my eyes).

Harlan Howard was a songwriter’s songwriter. He worked hard and was competitive. He’d often visit a bar, listen to the conversation and leave with a hit idea — like the night he heard a hat-bearing drinker declare, “I’ve always been honky-tonk crazy.”

Patty Loveless performed her Harlan-written No. 1, “Blame It on Your Heart,” and Jim Lauderdale sang a medley of Harlan’s songs, including “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down,” “Heartaches by the Number” and “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail.”

The Tex Ritter Award went to Toby Keith for the movie, Beer for My Horses. If you remember, Tex Ritter achieved success as an actor long before he started having hit records. Toby, on the other hand, is becoming quite the actor after scoring hit after hit on the country chart.

Dolly Parton accepted the Jim Reeves International Award via video. Dolly said her overseas shows are still sellouts, whereas in the states it’s not the case. Dolly is such a great artist, I cannot imagine her having even one empty seat wherever she performs. Like I’ve always said, Dolly Parton is the smartest person ever born in the state of Tennessee, including governors, vice presidents, presidents and my grandchildren! Womack virtually blew us away with her renditions of “9 to 5,” “Here You Come Again” and “Eagle When She Flies.” If you want a country song sung, go no further than Lee Ann. The girl is incredible as a singer and a dadgum great awards show host, too.

The Pioneer Award for multi-talented Jerry Reed was bittersweet. Reed died too soon and left a huge void. An actor, singer, songwriter, guitarist and performer, he was absolutely a genius in each category. His first charting single, “Guitar Man,” was covered by Elvis Presley. Reed honored Elvis with “Tupelo Mississippi Flash.” His friendship with Burt Reynolds during the ’70s took Reed away from the country charts and put him into the hearts of moviegoers with outstanding performances in the Smokey and the Bandit series as well as a bevy of other movies. Reed’s self-penned hit “East Bound and Down” was included in the first Bandit flick. In the ’80s, Reed segued back to music and hit again with “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft).” Later, he co-starred with Adam Sandler in the hit movie, The Waterboy.

At the ACM Honors event, Reed’s fishing buddy, the always lovable Bobby Bare, honored him by performing “A Thing Called Love.” Bare was followed by guitar specialists Steve Wariner (who turned his guitar every way but loose as he honored Jerry with “East Bound and Down”) and Brent Mason (who was backed by Reed’s band to play “Amos Moses” and “Guitar Man”). Jerry Reed’s grandchildren accepted on his behalf.

Kenny Rogers, another Pioneer Award winner, has had a colorful career. Singing hits with his raspy voice, he’s captured fans with pop, soul and country music. During the tribute, Jamey Johnson and Kellie Pickler performed “When Two Worlds Collide,” a hit duet Kenny recorded with the late Dottie West. John Rich sang “Lucille,” and Blake Shelton delivered “The Gambler.”

The last Pioneer Award went to Randy Travis, the pure country singer from Marshville, N.C. One of the biggest hitmakers of the ’80s, Randy was lucky that his producer, Kyle Lehning, did not try to change his recognizable baritone vocals. He was also lucky that songwriters such as Paul Overstreet and Don Schlitz were writing songs that fit Randy perfectly. James Otto paid tribute by singing “Deeper Than the Holler,” and John Anderson offered a wonderful version of “Diggin’ Up Bones.” Carrie Underwood sang “I Told You So,” her hit single that was written by Randy.

While I was attending the show, Universal Music Group Nashville execs Luke Lewis and Ken Robold both stopped by for a smooch and a howdy, as did Capitol Nashville chief Mike Dungan and Universal South’s Fletcher Foster. I just can’t help it. It’s me and CMT and Southern Fried Flicks keeping the world spinning. I think another friend, Joe Galante of Sony Music Nashville, was there, but somehow I missed seeing him.

It was an incredible night of great music by great country music stars. But I have a huge complaint about this industry event. By the time the show was over — around 8 or 8:30 p.m. — half of the audience was gone! Kaput! Shame, shame on you. What a spoiled bunch of people are working in the music business. They could not sit through an evening of great music by top-of-the line singers and musicians honoring country music legends — people who are the reason we have jobs in the first place. Unless you were sick, shame on you for leaving before the show was over.

See the new Hot Dish recipe of the week: Veggie Dip.

View photos from the ACM Honors event.