There was wall-to-wall glamour and lots of hugging and backslapping Tuesday evening (Oct. 30) as BMI, the performance rights organization, honored its top songwriters and music publishers with a cocktail party and awards dinner at its Nashville headquarters.
It was a long evening, too, wrapping up at 11:20 p.m., just after BMI chief Del Bryant announced that Dallas Davidson and Luke Laird had tied for the songwriter of the year award. “Take a Back Road,” co-written by Laird and Rhett Akins, won as country song of the year.
Sony/ATV Music Publishing emerged as the year’s top publisher, with its name on 24 of the 50 most performed country songs.
After being proclaimed a BMI Icon, the regal Tom T. Hall wowed the crowd with his irreverent acceptance remarks, proving yet again that he’s earned his decades-old honorific, the Storyteller.
Guests began arriving for the cocktail party at 6 p.m. The more recognizable ones alighted from their limousines and SUVs to the shouts and screams of fans clustered across the street from the entrance.
Within minutes, the lobby where the cocktails were served was shoulder-to-shoulder full of essentially the same people who had partied together at the ASCAP shindig the night before and the SESAC blowout the night before that. On Music Row, partying is a marathon sport.
There was plenty to gawk at. Joey & Rory, she in cowgirl togs and he in his usual uniform of freshly pressed bib overalls, stood just inside the entrance talking with songwriter friends.
A few yards away, football great (and sometimes country singer) Terry Bradshaw alternately hugged Toby Keith or rubbed his back as they conversed with Keith’s always dashing manager, T.K. Kimbrell.
Kimbrell’s fellow talent manager, Dale Morris, breezed by with his client Kenny Chesney in tow. Hall and producer Tom Collins edged purposefully through the crowd, slowing only to recognize an occasional well-wisher.
Sugarland‘s Kristian Bush planted himself back to the wall and grinned broadly as one reveler after another pushed forward to greet him. The Avett Brothers perched on a stairway overlooking the social clamor.
Guitarist Kenny Vaughan and drummer Harry Stinson of Marty Stuart‘s Fabulous Superlatives band found a column to lean against and chatted while the crowd swirled by.
At around 7:30, girls holding flashing signs high above their heads ushered the guests toward the elevators that would take them to the broad sixth-floor parking garage where the stage and banquet tables were laid out.
After dinner, songwriter Layng Martine Jr. began the official ceremonies by reading a tribute to Frances Preston, BMI’s previous CEO and one of the great movers and shakers in the music industry, who died in June.
Current BMI president and CEO Bryant spoke to the crowd about country music’s integration into the larger music world.
“This is an unprecedented era for our community,” he said, noting that “you’re just as likely to meet Jack White as Clint Black” on the streets of Music Row.
“Country music thrives,” he continued, “when innovation meets tradition.” Reminding the crowd that “Country Is” was one of Tom T. Hall’s defining hits, Bryant riffed, “Country is not an exclusive club.”
Among the publishers who came to the stage to accept an award was former Highway 101 drummer Cactus Moser, who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident in August. Visibly limping, Moser nonetheless stood and moved about largely on his own. Sitting with him at a table near the stage was his wife, Wynonna Judd.
When about half of the awards for individual song had been handed out, it came time for the Icon presentation. Bryant returned to the stage as the harmonica intro to Hall’s “(Old Dogs, Children and) Watermelon Wine” wafted from the speakers.
Outlining Hall’s musical odyssey, Bryant noted that the Olive Hill, Ky., native won his first of 31 BMI songwriting awards in 1964, the year he moved to Nashville. That year Grand Ole Opry star Jimmy C. Newman scored a Top 10 hit with Hall’s “D.J. for a Day” and Dave Dudley reached No. 6 with “Mad.”
It was also at a BMI awards show around this time that Hall met journalist Dixie Deen, whom he would marry and dub “Miss Dixie.”
She and Hall now write bluegrass songs together and serve as mentors to young singers and songwriters.
“He writes about what he sees, who he knows and where he’s been,” Bryant said of Hall’s journalistic approach to lyrics — a trait to be expected from a man whose literary heroes, as Bryant pointed out, are Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis and Ernest Hemingway.
While Alan Jackson‘s version of Hall’s “Little Bitty” played, the Avett Brothers came to the stage and to loud and persistent applause to sing “That’s How I Got to Memphis.” The crowd responded with a standing ovation.
Next harmonica wizard and Country Music Hall of Fame member Charlie McCoy came to the stage with a backup band consisting of bassist Mike Bub, guitarist Kenny Vaughan, drummer Harry Stinson and pianist Dirk Johnson.
“You not only let me play on a lot of your records,” McCoy told his fellow Hall of Famer, “you made me a hero in my hometown.” With that, the band kicked off a medley of such Hall classics as “I Love,” “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died,” “Old Dogs” and “Harper Valley P.T A.”
Calling Hall “one of the greatest songwriters to ever walk the face of the earth,” Justin Townes Earle serenaded him with “Homecoming,” Hall’s gut-wrenching dramatic monologue uttered by a feckless and wayward son as he makes a feeble attempt to assure his father that all is well.
The final musical tribute came from Toby Keith and his writing and singing partner, Scotty Emerick.
Before singing the song they were assigned, Keith told of being in Afghanistan to entertain American troops and hearing Emerick play a riff on his guitar that sounded familiar — sort of like Hall’s “Ravishing Ruby.” Keith and Emerick then sailed into a segment from “Ravishing Ruby” and rolled on to a sampling of “I Like Beer.”
“We wanted to honor you,” Keith said, “with these two songs we do all the time.” That done, they sang their assigned tune, “Faster Horses,” Hall’s wry assessment of the things that really matter in life.
Bryant beckoned Hall to the stage and presented him the Icon “bucket” trophy, on which was engraved, “In recognition of your unique and indelible influence on generations of music makers.”
Looking dapper in his tailored black tux, the silver-haired songster accepted the award with characteristic self-deprecating humor.
“I thought you might like to know what an icon looks like,” he told the crowd. “They’re old, aren’t they? You wouldn’t want to be one.” (Hall is 76.)
“Tonight would be the second luckiest night of my life,” he said, implying that his luckiest one was the night he met “Miss Dixie” at a BMI soiree.
Hall started to read from John Donne’s “Meditation 17,” which begins, “No man is an island entire of itself,” remarking, “It’s a very important poem to me.” But possibly noting the lateness of the hour, he put the poem aside and proceeded directly to thanking people who have been important to him.
It was a long list, and Hall interrupted it to say that the last time he was similarly honored, “somebody reviewed [the event] and said that I’d thanked everyone but my dog. So I’d like to rectify that terrible mistake and thank my dog.”
The animal in question, he explained, was “a five-thousand-dollar dog” for which he had traded “two twenty-five-hundred dollar chickens.”
One of the people he thanked was his bookkeeper. “She has been counting my money for 38 years and has now reduced her workload to 30 minutes a week.”
Hall said he wanted to make it clear he was not “one of those old farts” who have nothing good to say about the new generation of songwriters. His only complaints, he stressed, are that “they’re too talented, too good-looking and have too much money.”
He also had kind words to say about Tom Collins, who bought his publishing catalog and lured him out of retirement. But he was less flattering to Collins’ son, Bradley, who works for BMI.
Assuming a mock-censorious tone, Hall grumbled that Bradley was nothing but a drain on BMI coffers. “He comes out every two or three months and takes me and Miss Dixie to lunch — on your dime. You songwriters pay for it. And we don’t go to Shoney’s [a chain restaurant] either.”
Hall explained that he lives on a farm and generally associates with people unfamiliar with the music industry. He said he feared that when the people at the store where he buys his feeds and seeds hear he’s been named an icon, they’ll assume that means he’s “a gay communist.”
At last he reached the end of his list. “I’m sorry if I forgot anybody,” he said, looking not the least contrite. “Hell, if I did, I’ll buy you a car.”
After that, the songwriting awards resumed and Hall sat there watching until the end.
Here is the complete list of BMI’s 2012 Top 50 country songs.
“A Little Bit Stronger”
“All Your Life”
Brian Henningsen, Clara Henningsen
“Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not”
Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird, Miranda Lambert
“Barefoot Blue Jean Night”
Andrew Dorff, Tommy Lee James
“Dirt Road Anthem”
Colt Ford, Brantley Gilbert
Jon Henderson, Joel Shewmake
“Here for a Good Time”
Dean Dillon, Bubba Strait
“I Don’t Want This Night to End”
Rhett Akins, Luke Bryan, Dallas Davidson
“I Got You”
Paul Jenkins, Shawna Thompson
“If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away”
Dallas Davidson, Rob Hatch Jr.
“I’m Gonna Love You Through It”
Sonya Isaacs, Jimmy Yeary
“Just a Kiss”
Dallas Davidson, Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley
Casey Beathard, Monty Criswell, Ed Hill
“Keep Me in Mind”
Zac Brown, Nic Cowan, Wyatt Durrette
Coy Bowles, Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, Jeffrey Steele
“Live a Little”
“Love Done Gone”
Shawn Camp, Marv Green
“Made in America”
Toby Keith, Bobby Pinson, Scott Reeves
“Smoke a Little Smoke”
Eric Church, Jeff Hyde, Driver Williams
“Take a Back Road”
Rhett Akins, Luke Laird
“Tattoos on This Town”
Michael Dulaney, Wendell Mobley
“We Owned the Night”
Dallas Davidson, Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley
“What Do You Want”
Rachel Bradshaw, Richie Brown, Jerrod Niemann
Dave Pahanish, Joe West
Luke Laird, Chris Young
“You Gonna Fly”
Preston Brust, Chris Lucas
Aaron Henningsen, Brian Henningsen, Clara Henningsen