It was a glorious evening of song and sentimentality at Nashville’s Renaissance Hotel Sunday evening (Oct. 7) as Mary Chapin Carpenter, Larry Henley, Kim Williams and Tony Arata were welcomed into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Garth Brooks topped a list of performers who entertained the wall-to-wall crowd by singing selections from the dozens of hits the four honorees wrote or co-wrote.
Each honoree was inducted by a Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member.
Richard Leigh, who cited Henley’s achievements, said he would never forget the first time he saw Henley perform. It was in 1989 at the Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas, and Henley was on a show with Jerry Jeff Walker.
As Henley sang his best-known hit, “Wind Beneath My Wings,” Leigh recalled, a bird flew out of the rafters, down into the spotlight beam, banked left and then right before flying straight back up the spotlight’s beam.
“I thought to myself, ‘Man, that guy brings his own props,'” Leigh said.
Leigh noted that Henley was the lead vocalist of the 1960s pop group, the Newbeats, and in that capacity had toured with Roy Orbison and the Rolling Stones, among others, and headlined shows with such acts as the Dave Clark Five, the Supremes and Marvin Gaye.
Following Leigh’s introduction, Billy Burnette and Bekka Bramlett came to the stage to offer a sampler of Henley’s finest, specifically “Is It Still Over” (for Randy Travis), “Lizzie and the Rainman” (Tanya Tucker), “He’s a Heartache (Looking for Place to Happen)” (Janie Fricke) and “‘Til I Get It Right” (Tammy Wynette).”
Next Trisha Yearwood emerged to sing “Wind Beneath My Wings” with husband Garth Brooks accompanying her on guitar. The crowd rewarded the pair with a standing ovation.
“I’m not ready for this. I’m about to cry,” said Henley as he accepted his award. “I’ll always remember this moment, and I’ll always treasure it.”
Still cradling his guitar, Brooks returned to the stage to induct Williams. He said he met Williams in 1988 (the year before Brooks charted his first song). Told that a songwriter named Kim Williams wanted to co-write with him, Brooks said he visualized swapping lyrics with a pretty girl.
“The first thing you notice when you meet him,” Brooks said forlornly, “is that Kim Williams is a guy.”
That initial collaboration led to Brooks and Williams co-writing “New Way to Fly,” a cut on Brooks’ second album, No Fences. Brooks then sang that song.
Brooks was recording his third album, Ropin’ the Wind, on a very tight schedule, he said, when he and his producer decided they needed one more song. They put out the call to songwriters, and Williams was carrying a newspaper when he arrived at the studio where Brooks was recording.
“Do you have a song?” Brooks said he asked.
Williams responded that, indeed, he did.
“Can I hear it?” Brooks inquired.
“I haven’t written it yet,” Williams confessed.
He pointed to a small news item in the newspaper about a truck running into a motel.
“That’s the song,” Williams asserted.
“Twenty minutes later,” Brooks said, “we had the final song for Ropin’ the Wind.”
With that, he began singing “Papa Loved Mama,” the tale of a jealous and homicidal truck driver who gets his revenge for being cuckolded by plowing into the motel where his wife and her lover are amusing themselves.
Brooks then offered a sample of that lyrical epic.
On a more serious note, Brooks said God wanted Williams to be a songwriter, but Williams had instead gone to work in a factory. An explosion there gravely injured and disfigured Williams and kept him in and out of hospitals from 1974 to 1985, Brooks said. It was while he was hospitalized that he began writing poems and songs.
Later, Brooks continued, Williams also successfully battled alcoholism, painkiller addiction and a serious car accident caused by his sleep apnea.
Nonetheless, Brooks, Williams and co-writer Kent Blazy scored again with the No. 1 “Ain’t Goin’ Down (Til the Sun Comes Up).”
Brooks said it took an extraordinary songwriter to revive an artist’s career and that Williams had done that for Randy Travis with “Three Wooden Crosses,” the song he co-wrote with Doug Johnson, and which, in 2003, gave Travis his first No. 1 in nine years.
Brooks concluded his tribute to Williams by singing “Three Wooden Crosses.”
“You can’t believe everything Garth says, I’ll tell you that,” said Williams when he came to the stage. He recalled the convoluted connections that first brought him face to face with Brooks and said that of the roughly 150 million albums sold that his songs have appeared on, 77 million of them are by Brooks.
Williams reserved his warmest and most emotional praise for his wife, Phyllis, whom he said had insisted on staying with him and supporting him even as he had tried in his bad days to drive her away.
Don Schlitz stepped to the podium to speak on Carpenter’s behalf.
“She has no idea the effect her songs have had on the Nashville songwriting community,” he intoned.
As she was trying to launch her career, Schlitz explained, Carpenter hung around the Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, Va., near Washington, D. C., where she lived.
It was at Birchmere that she overheard bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice lament that he would like to record a song about Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth if he could find one.
Carpenter hastened to the library, Schlitz recounted, did some quick research on Booth, wrote a song and took it to Rice. Good as his word, he recorded it.
Carpenter was still a part of the Washington folk scene when Columbia Records signed her to its country division in 1987. Two years later, she charted her first song.
But it wasn’t until 1990 that she attracted massive national attention through her hilarious performance on the CMA Awards show of the sardonic gem “Opening Act,” a lament that summarized the indignities suffered by beginning artists who have to open concerts for big stars.
After that performance, Schlitz reminded the crowd, “The world fell in love with her.”
Schlitz said when he let it be known he would like to co-write with Carpenter, he heard that her response was, “I don’t want to write with him because he writes all those happy songs.”
Schlitz paused for effect and continued, “I wrote [in ‘The Gambler’] ‘the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.’ That’s evidently too happy for some folks.”
Ultimately, the two did end up writing “seven or eight” songs together, two of which became No. 2 singles, “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” and “I Take My Chances.”
“I learned that she didn’t need a co-writer,” Schlitz said. “She has stayed true to herself even when that meant not being on the radio. … She’s an artist in a business where the word ‘artist’ usually means ‘not an artist.’ … She’s sui generis.”
Marc Cohn, of “Walking in Memphis” fame, sang “The Hard Way,” Carpenter’s 1993 single.
Yearwood, backed by the lead guitarist and pianist from her road band, then came out to sing “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” which chronicles the ordeals of a dutiful wife of a neglectful and indifferent husband.
Before beginning the song, Yearwood said Carpenter has asked her to make one alteration in the lyrics and added, “I guess since she’s a Hall of Fame songwriter, I gotta do it.”
Thus, when Yearwood came to the part in which the wife walks out on her husband, instead of singing the original lines — “When she was 36 she met him at the door/She said I’m sorry, I don’t love you anymore” — Yearwood substituted, “She said you’re an asshole, I don’t love you anymore.”
Carpenter read her acceptance remarks, first tipping her hat to Schlitz.
“He’s been a collaborator and a teacher to me,” she said. “I am a humble graduate of the Don Schlitz School of Songwriting.”
Schlitz, she explained, had imparted two unbreakable principles to her: “to share [feelings] without embarrassment” and “to write in perfect rhymes.”
When Schlitz called her to tell her she had been selected for the Hall of Fame, she said, “It was a great and grand sunny day.”
She said music had been the “one constant” in her life “since [she] was in the second grade with an old gut-string guitar singing ‘Cielito Lindo.'”
She praised songwriters for their individuality.
“We do not have to be like anyone else. Our uniqueness is our calling card and our treasure,” she maintained.
“Someone I wish was here, but is not, is my father,” Carpenter said, noting her father loved music and that he might have been a musician had he not had the burden of taking the train to and from work each day to support his family.
She said her father’s belief in her kept her going when she wasn’t able to believe in herself.
“Dad, I did become an artist in the world thanks to you. . . . I love you, Dad.”
Pat Alger supplied the summing up for the evening’s final inductee, Arata, whose stature as a songwriter soared after Brooks recorded his contemplative masterpiece, “The Dance.”
By Alger’s account, fellow Georgian Arata began writing songs at the age of 15, inspired principally by the 1971 Rod Stewart album, Every Picture Tells a Story. In college, he formed a short-lived bluegrass band.
He graduated from college with a degree in journalism, a career choice that served him well after he moved to Nashville and had to find a day job to sustain his songwriting and performing. At one point, Alger reported, Arata served as editor of a trade magazine for bus operators.
Arata’s wife, Jaymi, Alger explained, took the lead in persuading the budding songwriter to move to Nashville. He said Arata returned to his home in Georgia one day to find his landlord there. When he asked him what was wrong, the landlord told him his wife had given a 30-day notice of their intent to depart the premises and that he was there to show their home to the next prospective tenant.
In the early 1980s, Arata got a record deal with Noblevision Records, an independent label on which he charted two ephemeral singles, “Come on Home” and “Sure Thing.” Shortly before this, however, he had three songs recorded by Noblevision’s chief artist, Jim Glaser, including the title cut of Glaser’s album, The Man in the Mirror.
Arata’s luck shifted into high gear in 1987 (although he didn’t know it at the time), when a young unsigned singer from Oklahoma named Garth Brooks heard him sing “The Dance” at Nashville’s fabled Bluebird Café. Brooks told Arata he wanted to record “The Dance” if he ever succeeded in getting a record contract.
Three years later, Brooks, then signed to Capitol Records, took “The Dance” to No. 1, where it remained for three weeks.
Riffing on Arata’s modest and unassuming ways, Alger said, “He mows his own lawn. Hell, he cuts his own hair.”
At the conclusion of Alger’s remarks, the trio of Fred Knobloch, Jelly Roll Johnson and Pete Wasner came forward to do a medley of Arata’s songs that included “Here I Am” (a hit for Patty Loveless), “I’m Holding My Own” (Lee Roy Parnell), “The Change” (Garth Brooks) and “I Used to Worry” (Delbert McClinton).
Brooks returned to cap the evening’s performances with “The Dance.” Before singing it, he told how his producer, Allen Reynolds, had pleaded and finally prevailed with Capitol’s new label chief, Jimmy Bowen, to release the song as a single.
“I think it might go down as one of the greatest songs ever written,” Brooks mused. He told of the countless funerals he had attended or heard of that used “The Dance” as farewell music and of the many tombstones he’d seen on which its lyrics were engraved.
“This song will speak forever,” he proclaimed.
The room was the quietest it had been all evening when Brooks sang the first verse of “The Dance,” but it erupted into cheers when he began the chorus.
“Given the gravity of this situation, I’m remarkably calm,” Arata said when he came to the microphone. “But I’ve heard that just before you freeze to death, you get remarkably warm.”
He recalled his father’s response when he learned Arata was uprooting for Nashville: “Son, I swear to God that you’ve lost your damn mind.”
“I love that man,” Arata said with a grin. “We all come here with one hope,” he observed of himself and his fellow songwriters, “that one sweet morning we’ll pick up a pen and commit to paper something that will last.”
Prior to the Hall of Fame inductions, the Nashville Songwriters Association International presented its song of the year award to Dolly Parton‘s “I Will Always Love You,” its songwriter/artist of the year prize to Taylor Swift and its songwriter of the year trophy to Dallas Davidson.
After having been a No. 1 country song twice for Parton and a No. 1 pop hit for Whitney Houston, “I Will Always Love You” returned to radio this year in a big way following Houston’s untimely death on the eve of the Grammy awards.
Via a video clip, Parton thanked her former mentor, Porter Wagoner, for inspiring the song, Kevin Costner for convincing Houston to record it for the soundtrack of their movie, The Bodyguard, and Houston for recording it.
“That little song has just been around forever,” Parton chirped.
This marked the fifth time in six years that Swift won the songwriter/artist honor. She also responded by video, noting that she “would be there freaking out” were she not currently performing in England.
Davidson claimed his prize for co-writing such chart classics as “We Owned the Night,” “Just a Kiss,” “I Don’t Want This Night to End,” “Country Girl (Shake It for Me),” “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away,” “Where I Come From,” “This Ole Boy,” “Take It Off” and “A Buncha Girls.”
After noting it was his wife Sarah’s birthday, Davidson said, “There are so many great songwriters who could be up here. I’m truly blessed to be the guy this year.”
Also singled out for trophies were the writers of “Songs I Wish I’d Written,” as voted on the NSAI’s professional songwriters division:
These were “A Woman Like You” (written by Phil Barton, Johnny Bulford and Jon Stone), “Better Than I Used to Be” (Ashley Gorley, Bryan Simpson), “Cost of Livin'” (Phillip Coleman, Ronnie Dunn), “Even if It Breaks Your Heart” (Will Hoge, Eric Paslay), “Fly Over States” (Michael Dulaney, Neil Thrasher).
Also, “I Will Always Love You” (Parton), “Just Fishin'” (Casey Beathard, Monty Criswell, Ed Hill), “Red Solo Cup” (Brett Beavers, Jim Beavers, Brad Warren, Brett Warren), “Springsteen” (Eric Church, Jeff Hyde, Ryan Tyndell) and “You and Tequila” (Matraca Berg, Deana Carter).
The late music publisher Donna Hilley was cited with the Frances Williams Preston Mentor Award for her service to songwriters. Both Preston and Hilley died earlier this year.
Kix Brooks, producer Paul Worley and songwriter-producer Don Cook all worked for Hilley when she headed Tree International, now a part of Sony/ATV Music Publishing.
“She was truly the guardian of the flock,” Cook said. He recalled confronting Hilley to renegotiate his songwriting contract and making the mistake of taking his 6-year-old daughter with him. When he raised his voice to make a bargaining point, he said, his daughter turned to him and reprimanded, “You can’t talk to Miss Donna that way!”
Hilley moved a chair to her side of the desk and Cook’s daughter sat beside her in solidarity until the meeting ended.
“She was not a person impressed with herself,” Worley remembered. He told of how she hired him and allowed him time to grow into the talents he didn’t even know he possessed. “She had a way not only of believing in you but in making you believe it, too.”
Worley said his mantra in tough situations was “WWDD — What would Donna do?”
Brooks had a couple of tales of his own to tell about the dynamic executive. He said Hilley liked to give parties for songwriters and that when he and Ronnie Dunn had one of their early Brooks & Dunn hits, she told him she was giving him a party and would hire a band for the occasion.
When he got to the party, to which he had taken his father, he discovered that the “band” she had hired was Merle Haggard & the Strangers.
Brooks said he was particularly proud when Brooks & Dunn sold out their first arena, which just happened to be the one in Nashville now called Bridgestone Arena.
“Did I just hear you sold out [the place]?” Hilley inquired of him sweetly. When he confirmed that happy news, Hilley said, “I want you to give all that money to Vanderbilt [University’s] Children’s Hospital.”
It took Brooks some time to come to terms with the enormity of that request, especially since he knew nothing about Vanderbilt other than “that was where rich people went.” But he gave in.
“I’ve been on the board of Vanderbilt’s Children’s Hospital for 20 years now,” he said, still sounding puzzled. “She was so much smarter than I was.”
Hilley’s three daughters accepted the award.
Troy Tomlinson, who succeeded Hilley at Sony/ATV and serves as a board member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame Foundation, asked the crowd to donate to build and support the Hall of Fame section of the new Music City Center, a convention complex now under construction in downtown Nashville.
He said the foundation needs to raise $1 million “immediately” to build the Hall and another $1 million for an endowment.
Each table was furnished with pledge cards and envelopes for checks.
Tomlinson said the new facility, as envisioned, will be large enough to accommodate the plaques and memorabilia both of current Hall of Fame members and of incoming members for the next 40 years.