T.J. Martell Foundation Presents a Night of Bright Stars and Cold Cash

Ronnie Dunn, Vince Gill, Martina McBride, Emmylou Harris Among Performers

Vince Gill, Bruce Hornsby, Ronnie Dunn, Emmylou Harris, Martina McBride, Charlie Daniels and K.T. Oslin provided the entertainment as more than 400 glitterati from the music, business and medical sectors packed a banquet hall at Nashville’s Hutton Hotel Monday evening (March 26) for the T. J. Martell Foundation’s honors gala.

In addition to the banquet, the event included a cocktail party, a silent and a regular auction and the presentation of awards to songwriter Kris Kristofferson, former RCA and Sony Music Nashville chief Joe Galante, surgeon C. Wright Pinson and businessmen Colin V. Reed and Tom Cigarran.

The T.J. Martell Foundation was established in 1975 to fund research to find cures for leukemia, cancer and AIDS.

Gill hosted the affair with his usual display of wit, irreverence and affability.

Still looking good and sounding sassy, Oslin opened the ceremonies with the always applicable “80’s Ladies,” her Grammy-winning breakthrough hit from 1987.

When she exited to only modest applause, Gill, who described himself as “calorically challenged,” confided to the crowd that hearty and sustained cheering was a good way to avoid overeating.

Former Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen presented Cigarran the foundation’s Spirit of Nashville award.

Cigarran, co-owner of the Nashville Predators hockey team, noted in his acceptance remarks that his 99-year-old mother was in the audience and that, when he suggested giving her a birthday party, she brushed him off by saying, “Wait until next year.”

That setup was too good for Gill, a rabid Predators fan, to let pass. When he returned to the stage, he said, “I just got word from Tom’s mother. She said in lieu of a birthday gift, she’d like a Stanley Cup.”

Silver-topped Emmylou Harris was up next. Professing her love and respect for Kristofferson, she sang his “The Last Thing to Go,” and, to her obvious embarrassment, forgot some of the words.

Harris joined Frances Preston, the retired CEO of the BMI performance rights organization, in presenting Kristofferson his lifetime music industry award.

Standing at her table for support and speaking into a wireless microphone, Preston said, “How long it’s taking me to get up tells me how long [Kris and I] have known each other. … I want to thank you for the contributions you’ve made to our industry. … I love you.”

Said Kristofferson, “The only person who should get credit for the growth of BMI and respect for songwriters is Frances Preston. …. I can’t think of an honor that means more.”

Gill called a break in the ceremonies while various prizes were auctioned off.

A trip for four to an away game for the Predators, including flying on the team airplane and dining with the coaches, went for $11,000.

Two package trips for two to next year’s Grammy Awards show, including two nights at the Beverly Wilshire hotel and admission to the after-party, brought in $17,000.

A catered dinner for 10 on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, 10 “Gold Circle” tickets to the Grand Ole Opry and a dinner performance by Gill netted $12,000.

A clearly star-struck Ronnie Dunn paid $12,000 for a Kris Kristofferson model Gibson guitar. Kristofferson autographed the instrument and posed with Dunn and the guitar for a picture.

Apparently caught up in auction fever, Kristofferson offered to do a private house concert anywhere in the U.S. for the highest bidder. That prize yielded $25,000.

Finally, a Vince Gill bobble-head doll went for $4,500.

As the event edged toward its third hour — with three awards and five performances still to go — it seemed entirely conceivable that a cure for cancer might be found before the evening ended.

But Gill again enlivened the proceedings with his ringing performance of “Together Again,” which he called his “favorite country song of all time.”

He marveled that his bobble-headed image had fetched such a high price.

“I’ve got a trunk-load of them out in the parking lot,” he asserted. “Twenty bucks apiece.”

Gill stayed onstage to sing the praises of Colin V. Reed, who’s both his golfing buddy and CEO of the Gaylord Entertainment Company, which owns Nashville’s Opryland Hotel and Convention Center and the Grand Ole Opry.

Reed was the recipient of the lifetime humanitarian award.

Gill and fellow presenter Lew Conner recounted how quickly, decisively and humanely Reed reacted when the historic flood of 2010 inundated the Opryland Hotel and the Grand Ole Opry House. Both were restored and upgraded over a period of months and at great expense.

Gill said he phoned Reed with an idea on how the hotel could make money during the disaster. He suggested the advertising slogan, “Fish from your room.”

Not one to let a commercial opportunity pass, Reed looked out over the jammed and sold-out banquet hall and said, “If you wish, we [at the Opryland Hotel] will double the size of the Martell dinner next year.”

Backed by the six-piece house band and wielding an electric guitar instead of his usual fiddle, Charlie Daniels entertained the throng with “Folsom Prison Blues,” after noting that Johnny Cash had been one of the first to encourage him when he was a young musician trying to establish himself in Nashville.

Daniels and retired school teacher Julie Damon summarized the achievements that earned C. Wright Pinson the organization’s lifetime medical achievement award.

Damon gave a spellbinding account of how she was near death from liver failure in 1991 when Wright performed on her the first liver transplant done at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

She said the 11-hour operation enabled her to see and enjoy her grandchildren who now call her every Feb. 23 to wish her “Happy Liver Day.”

Damon also pointed out that Pinson is the drummer in a band of local doctors and medical administrators called Soul Incision.

“I’ve been in music for 50 years,” said Gill (a slight exaggeration since he’s still a few days shy of 55), “and I’ve finally met a drummer I would let do major surgery on me.”

Pinson accepted his award with reservation.

“The ’lifetime’ part of this thing disturbs me,” he said. “I’m not finished.”

That assertion sparked a roar of approval from the crowd.

Virtually every honoree who addressed the audience thanked his wife and recited how many years they’d been married, a few 40 years or more.

These displays of devotion prompted Gill to comment on his own domestic state.

“I’ve been married for 29 years,” he said. “When you add ’em all up.”

He was especially lyrical in appreciation of his second and current wife, singer Amy Grant. He said that after Grant returned recently from a visit to her doctor, he found her in the bathroom with her “top” off, checking herself out.

“What’s that about?” he inquired.

“My doctor says have the breasts of a 25-year-old,” Grant supposedly responded.

“Oh, yeah?” Gill said he asked. “What did he say about that 50-year-old ass?”

“Oh, your name never came up,” she assured him.

Three artists whose careers he played a big part in took turns on the stage to pay tribute to Joe Galante. First up was Martina McBride, who rocked the room with her signature hit, “Independence Day.”

Dunn was still grinning from his auction purchase when it came his turn in the spotlight.

“Hi, folks,” he said. “My name’s Ronnie Dunn. I bought Kris Kristofferson’s guitar.”

Even though they no longer work together, Dunn said Galante still exerted a powerful hold on him.

“He not only told me what to sing [tonight] but what key to sing it in,” he said.

Bowing to Galante’s commands, Dunn turned in the most emotionally powerful performance of the evening, a resounding rendition of the Brooks & Dunn hit, “Believe.”

Bruce Hornsby reckoned he represented “Joe’s New York years,” the period in the early 1990s when Galante oversaw all of RCA’s artists and worked with Hornsby on two of his solo albums.

Seated at the piano, Hornsby sang the image-rich “A Night on the Town” and earned some of the loudest applause of the show.

Kenny Chesney and Dolly Parton came forward to declare their devotion to Galante and confer on him the lifetime entertainment achievement award.

Chesney recalled he hugged Galante when they first met and that the diminutive record executive responded stiffly. Eventually, though, he learned to accept this Nashville expression of camaraderie.

“I take full credit for teaching Joe Galante how to hug” Chesney boasted.

But Parton was not to be outdone in this intimacy fest.

“I traveled all over this country with Joe,” she joked, “and slept with him many times.”

After giving that confession time to sink in, Parton went on to explain that she hadn’t slept with Galante “that way” but in “airplanes, car seats and limousines.”

Galante said he moved to Nashville in 1974 under duress from RCA and with the firm assurance he could return to New York within two years.

He didn’t like Nashville, he admitted, or what little he knew of country music.

However, a promotional trip he took with Parton to New York made him re-think his animosities. Later on, he became friends with RCA artists Waylon Jennings and Ronnie Milsap.

From then on, he said, it was comparatively smooth sailing.

Galante credited his former boss, Jerry Bradley, BMI’s Frances Preston, the late publisher and pressing company executive Joe Talbot and the late producer of the CMA Awards show, Irving Waugh, with teaching him the sometimes painful lessons of how Music City operated.

“I know I’m home now in Nashville,” he concluded serenely.

At 10:30 p.m., three and a-half hours after the ceremonies began, the crowd arose to go home.

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