Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and record producer Fred Foster graciously accepted awards honoring their unique leadership in country music during an invitation-only event on Sunday night (Aug. 29) in Nashville.
During the quick-moving, two-hour ceremony at the Renaissance Hotel, the three men each received the Dale Franklin Award and were serenaded by friends like Rodney Crowell, Jamey Johnson, Lyle Lovett, Lorrie Morgan, Dolly Parton, Randy Travis, Lee Ann Womack and several others. The award is named for the first executive director of Leadership Music, an industry networking organization that hosts the annual gala event.
While introducing Nelson, host Vince Gill brought laughs by carrying a brownie to the stage, which he said was a gift from Nelson. He also elicited a round of whoops and hollers when he said Nelson’s face belonged on Mount Rushmore.
“He’s done more for this country as a man than just about anybody,” Gill said. “He’s a great mentor and a great man to look up to. He is truly what I think America is about at its best. He’s got some great eclectic fans, all over the world, that love Willie.”
Johnson crooned a few lines from Nelson’s poetic 1974 album, Phases and Stages, before easing into a commanding acoustic rendition of “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.” Morgan came on next with a sultry “Crazy,” while Travis followed with a low-key “Funny How Time Slips Away.”
After the musical portion, Brenda Lee recalled meeting Nelson when she was a child and praised his kind personality.
“You don’t get any more real than Willie,” she said. “I’ve known him since I was 10 years old, and all these years later, I can honestly say that Willie Nelson hasn’t changed a bit. More important than that, the spirit of Willie Nelson has never changed. … I’ll tell you, Willie may look laidback, but he is absolutely one of the most disciplined, focused people I have ever known when it comes to his craft. I’ve always wondered how somebody could be that laidback and cool and still get so much done.”
Lee spoke briefly about a 1982 album that featured Kristofferson, Nelson, Parton and herself titled The Winning Hand, which was produced by Foster.
“What a joy to get to record with someone who was one of my musical heroes when I was just a child and who turned into a dear friend,” she said. “We all know how rare someone like Willie is as an artist, a prolific songwriter and as a human being. And I’m so happy that I could be here tonight to celebrate and honor him.”
After thanking the entertainers and presenters, Nelson spoke of “a town that’s been really good to me — Nashville, Tennessee,” earning a grateful round of applause. “I want to thank all of my friends, and all the people in this town, that made it possible to be standing here, getting all these nice things said about me. I almost gave myself a standing ovation. I held back, though.”
When the laughter died down, Nelson added, “Somebody asked me if I was writing any songs, and I’ve got a couple of lines going. One of them starts out, ‘You gotta go crazy to know how I feel/I’m taking back shit that I didn’t even steal.’ So I’ll let you all know how that one turns out and if we can get some play somewhere. But anyway, thank you all very much for a wonderful, wonderful evening, and I appreciate it very much.”
Kristofferson’s unusual career trajectory — Rhodes Scholar, U.S. Army captain, helicopter pilot, Columbia Records’ janitor, acclaimed songwriter — brought an distinct element of storytelling into tribute speeches from music publisher Bob Beckham, business associate Tamara Saviano and quirky singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett. Bandleader Shawn Camp, who was celebrating a birthday, led the musical tribute with “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” which he said reminded him of his Sunday walks when he first moved to Nashville. Lovett offered the essential “Me and Bobby McGee” (which Foster co-wrote) while Lee Ann Womack concluded the set with an exquisite reading of “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again).”
Accepting his award, Kristofferson told the audience he was speechless.
“To be up here, getting an award along with Fred Foster and Willie Nelson, is something that I’ve got to feel like I was dreaming,” he said. “I forgot everything I wanted to say before I got up here, and I can’t remember anymore. My memory’s gone bad, but I’m so honored to be up here with Fred Foster and Willie Nelson. I can’t tell you what it means to me.”
As a music publisher for Combine Music and founder of Monument Records, Foster helped lay the career groundwork for artists like Kristofferson, Roy Orbison and Dolly Parton, as well as Larry Gatlin, Billy Grammer, Boots Randolph, Jeannie Seely, Billy Swan and Tony Joe White. His recent credits include producing Nelson’s 2006 album, You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker, and a 2007 collaborative album with Merle Haggard, Nelson and Ray Price called Last of the Breed, which won a Grammy. Gill told the audience that Foster’s advice to aspiring producers was simply to “frame the picture,” thus allowing the artist to be the focus of attention, not the frame.
For the first song of the night, Crowell chose Orbison’s catchy “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream).” The tune received a boost from famed harmonica player Charlie McCoy, who followed with a lively instrumental take on “Today I Started Loving You Again.” Swan then revived “I Can Help,” his energetic No. 1 pop and country hit from 1974.
A surprise guest, Parton treated the crowd to her perky 1967 hit single, “Dumb Blonde,” which was her first release on Monument Records. She also spoke highly of the early days of Combine and Monument in Hendersonville, Tenn. She said she remembered knowing Kristofferson and Nelson before any of them became country music icons.
“They were all sitting out there writing and working and I was running in and out,” she said. “They were all clean-shaven and handsome boys then — and they’re still pretty. It’s amazing how far we’ve come and how many miles we’ve traveled.”
Parton said Foster believed in her when nobody else did.
“He saw something that a lot of people didn’t see, and a lot of people argued with him about,” she noted. “Fred, thank you for believing in me. And thank you for helping me get started on a wonderful life. I wouldn’t take nothing for the years I spent with you. When I went to work with Porter Wagoner, you were always gracious enough to let me go, although you had spent all that time and money trying to dress me down, clean me up and make me look like somebody I wasn’t! You finally gave up on that and said, ‘Oh, hell, she can’t be no pop star. Let’s just let her sing what she wants to.’”
After exchanging a few loving words with Parton, Foster joked with the audience about his humble origins in North Carolina, saying that nothing there could have compared to this event.
“Well, I’m just happy to be here and so happy to be a part of this music family,” he said. “I never really envisioned this sort of stuff when I started out. I had the choice to become an executive with Marriott, because Mr. Marriott wanted to send me out to Salt Lake [City] to go to school, or to go into music, so I chose music, thank God.
“What moves me so much tonight is that so many of my old friends are here. Most of the time, I get to see my old friends at a funeral, and this is a far better venue by a damn sight, if you ask me! I’ve had wonderful experiences with wonderful people, talented beyond describing.”
At the conclusion of the night, Gill encouraged the younger people in the audience to learn from the honorees, then invited all the musicians on stage to sing Nelson’s anthem, “On the Road Again,” a fitting tune for three longtime friends who remain iconic figures in country music.