It was more like a family reunion than a conventional awards show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium Tuesday night (Sept. 10) as the Academy of Country Music paid tribute to the format’s trailblazers and out-of-the-spotlight stalwarts.
Between tributes, there were performances by Dierks Bentley, who also hosted the event, Vince Gill and Paul Franklin, Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Robert Earl Keen, the Mavericks, Jamey Johnson and Holly Williams, Lorrie Morgan and Jesse Keith Whitley, Kree Harrison and Thompson Square.
The ACM Honors, as the ceremony is called, is designed to focus attention on those whose achievements can’t be recognized adequately during the ACM’s annual televised awards show presented earlier each year.
There being no television cameras to play to, no rigid time constraints and no distracting special effects, the show moved along casually. Performers waved at or spoke directly to their friends seated in the audience. Stagehands roamed about freely, tearing down after one number and setting up for the next.
Bentley opened with “I Hold On” and then pretended to believe he was in Las Vegas hosting the “real” ACM Awards.
“No TV?” he asked incredulously as the awful truth slowly dawned on him.
David Nail presented the first round of awards to the top concert venues and talent buyers, including Red Rocks Casino & Resort in Las Vegas (casino), the Ryman (venue), Joe’s Bar in Chicago (nightclub), Ed Warm of Joe’s Bar (promoter) and Jerry Hufford of Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace in Bakersfield, Calif. (talent buyer).
Bentley said he had fond memories of Red Rocks Casino, having worked a Hooters convention there in 2008.
Singer-songwriter Deana Carter — whose father Fred Carter Jr. was a celebrated studio musician — conferred the musician of the year awards to Jimmie Lee Sloas (bass), J.T. Corenflos (guitar), Michael Rojas (piano, keyboards), Ilya Toshinsky (specialty instruments), Mike Johnson (steel guitar), Aubrey Haynie (fiddle), Matt Chamberlain (percussion, drums), Chuck Ainlay (audio engineer) and Jay Joyce (producer).
Haynie, Chamberlain and Joyce were unable to attend the event.
Next in line for kudos was Tommy Wiggins, one of the founders of the West Coast organization that evolved into the ACM. He won the Mae Boren Axton Award.
Picking up on the West Coast theme, Vince Gill and steel guitarist Paul Franklin, who are currently promoting their tribute album Bakersfield, walked onto the stage to rapturous applause.
The applause became even louder as they launched into their version of Buck Owens’ “Together Again.” They exited to a standing ovation.
Darius Rucker then came forward to present Lady Antebellum the Jim Reeves International Award for the trio’s efforts in taking country music to the world on its 2012 tour.
Lady A’s Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood accepted the trophy and stayed onstage to salute the next honoree, ACM songwriter of the year Dallas Davidson.
Nodding to Blake Shelton, who sat with his wife Miranda Lambert a few feet in front of the stage, Kelley joked, “The question everybody asks is, ’Do you know Blake Shelton? Yes, and he’s an asshole.”
The good-natured Shelton beamed at the mock insult — and at other humorous barbs thrown his way throughout the evening.
Don Schlitz, an earlier recipient of the ACM’s songwriter of the year prize, presented Davidson his trophy and spoke of Davidson’s generosity to others in his field.
“I can’t remember him making a jealous remark about any songwriter,” Schlitz said. “He loves all of us.”
Schlitz went on to praise the “young and fresh elements” Davidson brings to his songwriting.
“That’s how we grow,” Schlitz asserted.
Alabama’s Randy Owen took center stage to say good things about Jason Aldean, who received the Crystal Milestone Award for his concert triumphs, among them selling out Boston’s Fenway Park twice within an hour — a total of 70,000 tickets.
“I was coming up here today and drove across the Tennessee River,” Owen told the crowd. “And I realized how good that river has been to me.”
He was referring to the song of that title which, in 1980, became Alabama’s first No. 1. Owen also wrote the song, and Aldean sings it with the band on the new album, Alabama & Friends.
Aldean asserted he has been an Alabama fan virtually since infancy. He said one of the first concerts he attended was during the band’s 40 Hour Week tour in 1985 when he was in the second grade.
He and Owen walked off the stage with their arms across each other’s shoulders.
There was a pause in the awards presentations to honor George Jones, who died April 26. First there was a video showing Jones accepting various ACM trophies. Then Young came out and sang snippets of the Jones standards, “The Window Up Above,” “The Race Is On” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
His strong, sure vocals and sensitive reading of the lyrics earned him a standing ovation.
Bentley saluted the members of Jones’ family who sat in the audience, including his widow, Nancy.
Steve Wariner summoned Shelton to the stage to give him the Gene Weed Special Achievement Award, principally for his work on the TV series, The Voice.
Wariner said he was first drawn to Shelton as an artist when the tall Oklahoman scored his debut No. 1 “Austin” in 2001.
“I first met him in the men’s room at Loews Vanderbilt Plaza [in Nashville],” Wariner continued, leading to his punch line. “You know when a tall guy with a mullet approaches you in the men’s room and tells you he likes you, you’ve got to pay attention.”
Shelton told the crowd how Mae Boren Axton — a fellow Oklahoman and longtime supporter of the ACM — encouraged him in 1994 to come to Nashville where such country singers as Wariner, Gill and Wynonna Judd were then flourishing.
“I didn’t know what the job even paid,” Shelton said. “I just wanted to be one of them.”
He confessed that although he sees himself as well versed in country music, he didn’t know who the namesake of his award was until he looked it up in Google.
(For those similarly mystified, Gene Weed produced and directed the ACM Awards show for more than 30 years. He died in 1999.)
The Poet’s Award honored Hank Williams and Guy Clark. Williams, who would have been 90 this year, continues to be the gold standard of country songwriters.
“If you’re a songwriter and you haven’t studied Hank Williams, you should be ashamed of yourself,” Schlitz said in video clip that summarized Williams’ artistic importance.
The Mavericks swept onto the stage to do a high-voltage rendition of Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” (The band’s debut chart single in 1992 was a cover of Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’.”)
Next up to pay tribute were Williams’ granddaughter, Holly Williams, and Jamey Johnson, each playing acoustic guitar. They hushed the room with the inconsolably mournful “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (a song that’s now a member of the Grammy Hall of Fame) and finished with an equally low-key rendering of “I Saw the Light.”
Big & Rich presented Williams’ award to his daughter, Jett Williams, and to Holly, who embraced each other afterward.
Honoring Clark with performances were two of his songwriting disciples — Robert Earl Keen (who sang “Let Her Roll”) and Rodney Crowell (who, with Emmylou Harris, delivered “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.”)
Gill, another Clark acolyte, presented the award, recalling that one of the highlights of his life was opening a show for his idol at the Troubadour in Los Angeles when he was just 19 years old.
“I always consider what I do poetry,” Clark said in accepting the honor. “Some don’t. That’s all right.”
He wrapped up his acceptance remarks by quoting two verses from Townes Van Zandt’s surrealistic “Two Girls,” the last line being, “And I’m a-playin it by ear.”
In toasting Keith Whitley, whose tragically brief career in country music lasted only five bright years, Bentley and Skaggs sang “Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown.” Whitley’s widow Lorrie Morgan and their son, Jesse Keith Whitley, performed “’Til a Tear Becomes a Rose.”
Young Whitley sounded very much like his father and easily held up his end of the duet.
Former RCA Records executive Joe Galante, who presented Morgan and her son the award, said that while Whitley “didn’t sell a lot of CDs,” he nonetheless created music that was “timeless.”
The last prize of the long evening — the Pioneer Award — went to the Judds, mother Naomi and daughter Wynonna. Naomi did not attend.
Following the tribute video, which included clips of the Judds’ triumphant return to performing after Naomi’s near-fatal illness, American Idol finalist Kree Harrison crooned an especially affecting version of “Love Is Alive,” the Judds’ 1985 hit.
Thompson Square concluded the musical toast with a dreamily reminiscent medley of “Why Not Me,” “Grandpa (Tell Me ’Bout the Good Ole Days)” and “Love Can Build a Bridge,” all three of which were Grammy winners.
Chatty as ever, Wynonna used her closing remarks to muse about the Judds’ glory days and joke about her sometimes fiery relationship with her “little prissy butt” mother.
“I miss my mama sometimes onstage,” she said. “Offstage, I miss her a lot.”
She also acknowledged her husband, Cactus Moser, who sat with her in the audience and is still recovering from a motorcycle accident last year that cost him a leg.
Recalling the state of country music when the Judds were at their zenith, she said, “It was a sweeter time.”
The applauding crowd seemed to agree with her.