Friends, family and music industry insiders filled the grand ballroom of Nashville’s Music City Center to witness Sunday night’s (Oct. 13) induction of Jeffrey Steele, Layng Martine Jr., Will Jennings and Alabama’s Randy Owen into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Among those honoring the four new members by performing their songs were Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Connie Smith, Ray Stevens, Richard Leigh, Craig Wiseman, the Shuggah Pies, Aaron Lewis, Jamey Johnson, Striking Matches and American Idol runner-up Kree Harrison.
Before the inductions, Nashville Songwriters Association International — the Nashville Songwriter Hall of Fame Foundation’s sister organization — presented Taylor Swift her sixth songwriter-artist of the year award and revealed its member-voted list of “The 10 Songs I Wish I’d Written.”
In addition, NSAI named Rodney Clawson its songwriter of the year and “I Drive Your Truck” its song of the year.
Amy Kurland, the founder and former owner of Nashville’s Bluebird Café, the internationally fabled songwriters’ haven, was given the Frances Williams Preston Mentor Award.
Counting the cocktail party, which commenced at 4:30 p.m., the event ran for almost six hours.
Songwriter Bob DiPiero, himself a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, welcomed Steele into the ranks.
Chronicling Steele’s trajectory from growing up in Southern California as the son of an aspiring songwriter up through Steele’s membership in the group Boy Howdy, DiPiero said, “It’s amazing. It’s life-affirming what he can do onstage.”
Then DiPiero turned to the great tragedy in Steele’s life, the loss of his 13-year-old son, Alex, in an ATV accident in 2007. That loss, DiPiero noted, ultimately led to the formation of the Alex LeVasseur Memorial Fund to aid underprivileged children.
Once the introduction was over, the spotlight shifted to Al Anderson, Craig Wiseman and the Steele-produced trio, the Shuggah Pies, who formed a line onstage to sing some of Steele’s biggest hits.
It was a long and vigorous sampling that included “My Wish,” “When the Lights Go Down,” “Unbelievable,” “The Cowboy in Me,” “Love Is a Beautiful Thing,” “International Harvester,” “Something to Be Proud Of” and “Brand New Girlfriend.”
Aaron Lewis completed the segment with a wistful rendition of “What Hurts the Most.”
Steele recalled when he first played the Bluebird Café in 1987, hoping to gain a foothold in Nashville, he lost his voice, tried to restore it by drinking pickle juice and wound up being sick at his stomach. He observed wryly that the appearance failed to get him a record deal.
He said his dad had been a steel worker — and that’s inspired his name.
“My [real] last name is LeVasseur,” he said, “which is French for ’Smith.'”
Steele reserved his highest praise for his wife, Stephanie.
“She’s the reason I’m standing here and why I’m still alive,” he said. “And she’s still the hottest chick in the room.”
Hall of Famer Waylon Holyfield presented Martine for induction. He recounted that Martine, his wife Linda and their two small children moved to Nashville in 1972.
The fledgling songwriter’s first hit came two years later when Billy “Crash” Craddock took his “Rub It In” to No. 1 on the country chart and No. 16 on the pop list.
“Rub It In” — changed to “Plug It In” — also spent several years as the theme for an air freshener commercial, Holyfield said.
Martine had the Elvis Presley single “Way Down” when Presley died in 1977. The song went on to top the country chart and reached No. 18 on the pop rankings.
Holyfield pointed out that Martine wrote a less-heralded song Jerry Lee Lewis recorded called “Don’t Boogie Woogie (When You Say Your Prayers Tonight).”
That song, Holyfield observed, represented the writer’s penchant for “twinkle-in-your-eye kind of lyrics.”
Richard Leigh, also a Hall of Fame member, came out to sing “The Greatest Man I Never Knew,” which he co-wrote with Martine.
It was easily the most moving performance of the evening. The crowd was reverently quiet as Leigh, accompanying himself on guitar, sang the story of a father who was too busy at the business of providing to say “I love you” to his child.
Reba McEntire sent her congratulations to Martine via video. In addition to having a No. 3 hit with “The Greatest Man I Never Knew” in 1992, she also noted that Martine had written the first song she ever charted, “I Don’t Want to Be a One Night Stand.” It peaked at No. 88 in 1976.
Ray Stevens, Martine’s first Music Row supporter, then came to the stage to sing “Way Down” and “Rub It In.”
He began his performance with a story. He said a couple was shopping at a mall when they heard the most glorious music they’d ever listened to. They traced the sounds to a pet shop and saw is was coming from a bird with beautiful plumage that sat proudly on its perch, enchanting every ear turned its way.
The couple asked the proprietor how much the bird cost, and he replied, “Fifteen hundred dollars, but you’ve got to take that other bird, too.” They looked down at the bottom of the cage and saw a pitiful creature lying on its side, with its feathers awry and gasping for breath. “Why do we have to take that bird?” the couple protested, revolted by the shabby specimen. “Because he writes the songs,” the proprietor said.
“I just want to say how honored I am to be among you wounded birds,” Stevens told the cheering crowd.
Martine thanked Stevens for giving him a hearing and then becoming his publisher. He said that 43 years ago he flew from Connecticut to Nashville to play his songs for Stevens, who had long been an inspiration to him. But he flew in on faith. He didn’t have an appointment.
Luckily, Stevens was in his office that day and agreed to listen to his songs. That launched his career.
Martine also credited most of his success to his wife.
“Linda made me feel like I was a valuable and good person when I didn’t think I was either,” he said.
Then he thanked the Hall of Fame electors “for allowing me to be in the coolest frigging clubhouse in the universe. Amen!”
Music publisher Lance Freed inducted Jennings, who was kept from traveling to the ceremony by doctor’s orders.
Although Jennings got his start as a songwriter in Nashville, Freed said, he had his biggest successes in pop music with such songs as “Up Where We Belong,” “Higher Love,” “Tears in Heaven” and “My Heart Will Go On.”
“He always believed that the best songs were the simple ones,” Freed said. “He’s more than a lyricist. He’s a Renaissance poet.”
Steve Winwood, with whom Jennings wrote “Higher Love,” sent video greetings.
With Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer Vince Gill accompanying her on electric guitar, Emmylou Harris sang “Tears in Heaven.”
In a short video clip, Jennings expressed his gratitude for the induction and his apologies for being unable to attend.
Music journalist and country music historian Robert K. Oermann spoke in honor of Owen. He told the crowd that in spite of having written a sheaf of songs that would later become classics — including “Tennessee River,” “Feels So Right” and “My Home’s in Alabama” — Owen was still roundly rejected by Music Row publishers during the 1970s, just before Alabama exploded onto the music scene.
He pointed out that the only one who believed in Owen as a songwriter was the late Maggie Cavender, a founder of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Raising his eyes to the heavens, the reliably dramatic Oermann shouted, “Hey, Maggie, check it out.”
After Alabama performed at the New Faces Show in 1980, Oermann continued, the band got offers from three major record labels.
Oermann stressed that Owen’s songs never involved drinking, smoking or cheating and that he never disrespected women in them.
“In Randy’s songs,” he said, “love is something that lasts.”
Oermann then called Owen’s wife, Kelly, to the stage. She said she met Owen when she was 15 and Alabama was singing at the Bowery nightclub in Myrtle Beach, S.C. She confessed she was instantly attracted to both him and his music.
“His voice was so seductive,” she said.
However, she continued, her father was in the military at that time and moved the family around a lot. So she didn’t know if she would ever see Owen again. At 17, she married him.
“I never really thought about the songwriter part,” she said, “because I was in love with the guy who sang the songs.”
But she became intimately aware of what it meant to be a songwriter’s wife, she explained, after the young couple began to raise a family. She said she would go to bed exhausted from her motherly duties and he would awaken her to jot down lyrics he’d just thought of.
She remembered him coming home from a gig Alabama had at the Red Roof Inn in Bowling Green, Ky., and her husband telling her the story that became “Lady Down on Love.”
“I want to say I am so glad I was patient through all the lean years,” she said. Her husband’s creative efforts had not only brought joy to thousands of people, she observed with a sly grin, but had also given her the wherewithal to shop at Saks and Macy’s.
After 38 years together, she said to her husband, “You still turn me on. …You are my never-ending song of life.”
Kree Harrison sang “Feels So Right.” Jamey Johnson followed with “My Home’s in Alabama.” Before starting, he told the crowd, “I tried to learn this song when I was 12 years old. I’m 38 now, and I still don’t know it all.”
Connie Smith did the final musical honors, singing an emotionally rich version of “Lady Down on Love.”
“When I first started writing songs, people kind of poked fun at me,” Owen told the crowd. “I kept writing because I had to. … I didn’t write songs for money, and I still don’t. … I can’t just write. It has to be personal for me. It has to touch my heart.”
But money helped in those early days, he admitted. He said Frances Preston from BMI, the performance rights organization, called him after Alabama had scored some early hits and asked if he needed “some money” from the royalties his songs were earning.
As he recalled it, she said, “I think I could advance you quite a bit of money,” and she asked him what he would do with it. He told her he had always wanted to have enough to build his family a house, and she said the advance should be sufficient for “a really nice home.”
Later, he said, he decided he wanted to install a pool at their house so he could “swim without being afraid of snakes.”
He said he once answered the phone at his home and was greeted by a deep voice. It was Conway Twitty calling to see if he could record “Lady Down on Love.” Owen told him that the song had already been selected as Alabama’s next single.
“That’s what I was afraid of,” Twitty told him.
As a consequence, Owen sighed, he never got a Conway Twitty cut. But he noted that few other artists had recorded his songs.
Among the other inductees, who were all widely recorded, he said, “I count myself the lowliest of you.”
Owen concluded by saying, “This, without a doubt, is the highest honor and award I’ve received in my life.”
The 10 songs awarded earlier in the evening had been the top vote-getters among 175 nominees.
Those winners were: “Better Dig Two” (written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Trevor Rosen); “Cruise” (Tyler Hubbard, Brian Kelley, Joey Moi, Chase Rice, Jesse Rice); “Hard to Love” (Ben Glover, Billy Montana, John Ozier); “Highway Don’t Care” (Mark Irwin, Josh Kear, Brad Warren, Brett Warren); “I Drive Your Truck” (Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Jimmy Yeary).
Also, “Like Jesus Does” (Casey Beathard, Monty Criswell); “Mama’s Broken Heart” (Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves); “Merry Go ’Round” (Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves, Josh Osborne); “Pontoon” (Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird) and “Wagon Wheel” (Bob Dylan, Ketch Secor).
In response to “I Drive Your Truck” winning the song of the year award, a tearful Harrington said, “People, our songs are important. Things that happen in our lives are important.” She dedicated the award to Jared Monti, the soldier whose death inspired the song, and to his father, Paul.
“For me, songwriting is the most exhilarating part of this [process],” Swift said. “I thank you for honoring the favorite part of my job.”
Kurland came up with the best line of the evening. She thanked Democratic U.S. Rep Jim Cooper and Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn for attending the ceremony.
Then she added, “When dinner is over, please go back to Washington and open the government.”