ACM Honors Keith Urban Among Pioneers, Pickers and Proselytizers

Kenny Rogers, Randy Travis, Martina McBride, Marty Stuart, Mary Chapin Carpenter Perform

The compartmentalization that usually afflicts country music was nowhere in evidence Monday night (Sept. 20) at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium as the Academy of Country Music bestowed honors on significant figures in all phases and eras of the business.

The event was as ecumenical as a Unitarian cocktail party, and if a ceremony with spotlights and an audience can be called cozy, this one was surely that.

Mel Tillis and the late Marty Robbins were honored individually with the Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award for their years of service in the development of country music.

Keith Urban accepted the Jim Reeves International Award for taking his brand of country music to venues all around the world.

Songwriters Don Schlitz and the late Cindy Walker each won a Poet’s Award in recognition of their compositions that have become classics.

Crazy Heart, the movie starring Jeff Bridges, was cited with the Tex Ritter Award, a trophy conferred on films having to do with country music.

Talent booker Rod Essig took the Mae Boren Axton Award for his years of dedication and service to country music.

The ACM also singled out studio musicians, a producer and an engineer for their essential contributions. The winners were Dann Huff (producer of the year), Justin Niebank (audio engineer), Stuart Duncan (fiddler), Randy Scruggs (specialty instrumentalist), Shannon Forrest (percussionist-drummer), Brent Mason (guitarist), Michael Rhodes (bassist), Paul Franklin (steel guitarist) and Michael Rojas (keyboardist).

Going even deeper behind the scenes, the ACM conferred other annual industry awards to Todd Boltin of Variety Attractions (talent buyer of the year), Brian O’Connell of Live Nation (top promoter), Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth (top nightclub), Green Valley Ranch Resort, Spa and Casino in Las Vegas (top casino) and Bridgestone Arena in Nashville (top venue).

For the second year in a row, singer Lee Ann Womack hosted the event. Producer and publisher Frank Liddell, who is also Womack’s husband, handed out the musicians’ awards, and Luke Bryan announced the general industry trophies.

The elements that gave the evening its intimacy were the remarks made and stories told by both winners and presenters.

Kix Brooks, who presented to Urban, recalled how producer Scott Hendricks called him years ago about this young guitar player he had to go see. That player, of course, was Urban, who was then picking at an out-of-the-way joint in Nashville called the Guitar Bar.

“For once in his life, Scott Hendricks was right,” Brooks observed. He noted that the Guitar Bar “seated maybe 13 people, and it was packed.” After witnessing Urban’s guitar pyrotechnics for a while, Brooks said, “I knew I could practice guitar all day and I’d never play like that. … He’s a rock star, but he’s heart and soul country music.”

Accepting his award, Urban noted he was a child when he attended his first concert in his native Australia. It was a Johnny Cash show.

“I couldn’t say it was life-changing — I was 5 years old,” he said. “But it was impactful.”

Urban praised other country artists who have toured abroad in recent years, among them Sugarland, the Dixie Chicks, Tim McGraw, Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley.

“This music is global,” he asserted. “It crosses all language barriers.”

He said he and producer Huff left a recording session to attend the awards show. “We had to leave the studio and discuss what does ’cocktail attire’ [which the invitations called for] really mean,” he joked.

The event was also enlivened by some great performances. Leading a band made up of the other award-winning musicians, Scruggs set the tone for the evening with a cascading rendition of “Passin’ Thru,” a song he co-wrote with Johnny Cash and recorded with Joan Osborne.

Buxton Hughes — the duo of singer-songwriters Sarah Buxton and Jedd Hughes — tipped their hats to Essig with a supremely melodic reading of “Big Blue Sky.” Martina McBride followed with “In My Daughter’s Eyes.”

Randy Travis, looking as suave and centered as ever, thrilled the crowd by singing two Schlitz songs he had made into hits: “On the Other Hand” and “Forever and Ever, Amen.”

The grizzled Kenny Rogers ambled out to sing “The Gambler,” the song that established Schlitz as a first-rate songwriter and which gave Rogers’ own career an inestimable boost.

“See, I told you I knew Kenny and Randy,” the whimsical Schlitz shouted out to his family after he accepted his award. “The most wonderful thing about this honor for me,” Schlitz mused as he walked back and forth across the stage, “is that all three of my children took the time to be here. … I know my songs are not my children because my songs are not as wonderful.”

Ever the plugger of his own music, Schlitz promoted his upcoming performance and cover charge at a popular Nashville club.

“I’ll be at the Bluebird [Café] a week from tomorrow,” he told the crowd. “It’s still only a dollar.”

After finishing his remarks, Schlitz picked up his guitar and sang a fragment of “When You Say Nothing at All,” a hit he wrote for Keith Whitley and which later became a staple for Alison Krauss. He then called out Mary Chapin Carpenter and sang along with her on “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” a hit they co-wrote.

The Secret Sisters paid tribute to Cindy Walker and her vast array of hits by crooning “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream).” Womack came next with a bluesy arrangement of “You Don’t Know Me,” perhaps Walker’s most recorded song.

The final honors of the evening were the Pioneer Awards.

Marty Stuart strode on to honor Marty Robbins, after whom he was named. Backed by a band that included two of Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives — Kenny Vaughan and Paul Martin — plus Woody Paul and Joey “the Cowpolka King” Miskulin of Riders in the Sky, Stuart rolled through Robbins’ gunfighter epic, “Big Iron.”

Stuart pointed out that “Big Iron” has “eight verses and 750 words” and suggested the crowd should also “give a hand” to the Teleprompter.

Ronny Robbins sang his father’s most acclaimed hit, “El Paso,” with Larry and Steve Gatlin chiming in with the harmony vocals.

To honor Tillis for his hits, John Rich rocked out with “Coca Cola Cowboy,” a No. 1 country hit featured in the Clint Eastwood film, Every Which Way but Loose. Kenny Rogers returned to the stage to sing “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” and tell the story behind it.

In 1969, Rogers explained, he was recording as a member of the First Edition. They had just cut three songs and had 20 minutes left in the session. He suggested to producer Jimmy Bowen that the group record the Tillis-penned “Ruby,” which he’d heard on a Roger Miller album. They did the song in one take, and it became a massive pop hit.

Noting he moved to Nashville in 1956, the 78-year-old Tillis came forward to accept his trophy and quipped, “I didn’t know they gave awards to dinosaurs.”

View photos from the ACM Honors ceremony.
Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to