Indeed, the first telecast of the CMA Awards wouldn’t happen until the following year in a grainy, black-and-white debut. But for those in attendance at Tuesday evening’s (May 17) Dale Franklin Leadership Awards ceremony at Nashville’s Renaissance Hotel, they were given the next best thing — a glimpse back at country music history.
With a little direction and imagination from the evening’s host and five-time CMA Award winner Martina McBride, the night began with a reenactment of the never-before televised ’67 awards show.
“The envelope please,” McBride said as she began to reveal the names of those nominated for the first CMA female vocalist of the year award. With a dramatic delivery, she said, “And the winner is … Loretta Lynn!”
To the room’s roaring delight, the eight-time CMA Award-winning Lynn appeared onstage to perform her autobiographical and signature song, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
The Dale Franklin Award, named after the first executive director of Leadership Music, was created to recognize leaders within the music industry who exemplify the highest quality of leadership. As the CMA was bestowed the night’s coveted honor, the grand ballroom transformed into a living, breathing CMA timeline featuring a dazzling bill of presentations and performances by some of the industry’s biggest names.
Marking the first time an organization, rather than a few handpicked individuals, has been presented with the honor, a video message followed Lynn’s performance detailing the Country Music Association’s noteworthy history. Ranging from its 1958 inception to the creation of the Country Music Hall of Fame, the CMA Awards and Fan Fair (now known as the CMA Music Festival), the message also reflected upon the organization’s charitable contributions ranging from musical education to last year’s most recent flood relief efforts.
Nashville Mayor Karl Dean added to this grateful sentiment as he addressed the CMA.
“Thank you for improving our schools,” he said. “Thank you for making our city more compelling. Thank you for making our city a destination for visitors from all over the world.”
One such visitor — and eventually the 1977 CMA entertainer of the year — was North Carolina native Ronnie Milsap. Before he made the move to Music City, however, he was informed his future as a musician was unpromising.
“I was told at school, even though I studied 10 or 11 years of classical music, that I could not be in music,” he explained to the crowd. “They said, ‘We can’t have you be a musician because you might wind up out on the street. Not only that, you’ll be a liability. You can’t be a musician. You need to do something academic. You need to be a lawyer or something like that.’”
However, after finding his way backstage to meet Ray Charles following one of the music legend’s shows in Atlanta, Milsap gushed to him about his passion for making music. At Charles’ request, Milsap played him a few impromptu tunes on the piano, impressing his future musical collaborator.
“Well, son,” Charles told him, “you can be a lawyer if you want to, but there’s a lot of music in your heart, and if I were you, I’d follow what my heart tells me to do.”
With his advice, Milsap’s tenacity and the CMA’s proper exposure, he was able to boost his blossoming career.
Performing a few of his well-known arrangements, Milsap included his appropriately titled “(I’d Be) A Legend in My Time” as well as Mickey Newbury‘s, “The Future Is Not What It Used to Be.” He continued with Hank Williams‘ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” before breaking into a zealous rendition of his former mentor Ray Charles’ “Danger Zone” and “What’d I Say.”
Sprinkled throughout the night’s performances were video montages of past CMA Awards shows, including highlights from over the last four decades. McBride recognized a few special guests of the evening including past and present CMA executives and board members as well as honorary co-chairs, lifetime CMA board member Bill Denny and veteran music executive Joe Galante.
The celebration also focused closely on the humanitarian efforts of the organization, which donated thousands of dollars to flood victims following the devastating storms that rocked the city of Nashville last May. Metro Nashville Public Schools director Dr. Jesse Register noted the CMA’s financial support of music education. The Swing Thing, a band from the Nashville School of the Arts, demonstrated the positive results with an impressive interpretation of an Everly Brothers classic, “Walk Right Back.”
As the music continued, McBride introduced eight-time CMA nominees Little Big Town for their sassy number, “Little White Church.” Group members stressed the importance of the CMA’s decision to now induct songwriters into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“So many times when we sit down to write a song, we say, ‘Well, let’s just try to write a song like Kris Kristofferson,’” Little Big Town member Kimberly Schlapman said. She added with a laugh, “And we’re still tryin’,” before the quartet offered a harmonious and spiritual cover of Kristofferson’s legendary cry for help, “Why Me.”
Keith Urban, who served as ambassador for last year’s All for the Hall benefit concert to raise money for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, explained how his infatuation for country music began at an early age.
“When I was 7, I said to my dad, ‘I want to move to Nashville and make records and tour,’” Urban detailed. He said his father cleverly retorted, “That’s great. Take out the trash.”
“But it was quite true what I wanted to do then at a very early age,” said Urban.
Paying homage to Glen Campbell, one of his chief musical influences, Urban performed an acoustic version of “Wichita Lineman” before joining the house band for a lively version of his own “Somebody Like You.”
Reigning CMA entertainer of the year Brad Paisley kept with the evening’s high-energy momentum. Performing a vigorous set including Buck Owens‘ 1965 No. 1 classic, “Tiger by the Tail,” the energetic entertainer slowed down the tempo with a solo acoustic performance of his most recent single, “This Is Country Music.”
“I am so proud to be one of those people who represents the CMA, the greatest organization we ever had in country music,” said Paisley, who has co-hosted the CMA Awards three times. “It’s truly the honor of a lifetime to stand up there for a couple of years representing.”
McBride, too, shared her gratitude as well as a few stories regarding one of her musical inspirations, three-time CMA female vocalist of the year Tammy Wynette. It was Wynette who first gave McBride, still a Nashville newcomer, the opportunity to open a few of her shows.
“The only thing bigger than her voice, was her heart,” said McBride. “She truly was a gracious, sweet woman.”
Covering her idol’s “‘Til I Can Make It on My Own,” the evening’s host literally ended on a high note with the vocally challenging “Independence Day,” a song McBride performed during her first appearance on the CMA Awards back in 1994. In fact, a then eight-month pregnant McBride would go on to win her first CMA for the song’s video later that evening.
“I think as an artist we hope for a song like this, a song we get to sing for the rest of our lives,” she said.
To conclude the evening’s commemorative salute to the Country Music Association, McBride invited Little Big Town and Paisley back to the stage for the one final touch — a group singalong to the Carter Family‘s, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”See photos from the Leadership Music Awards.