Carrie Underwood shed a few tears Tuesday night (Sept. 9) at the ACM Honors ceremony in Nashville during an evening that also included acceptance speeches from Ronnie Milsap, Rascal Flatts and Kris Kristofferson.
Hunter Hayes, Dierks Bentley, Kelly Clarkson, Kacey Musgraves, Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott, the Oak Ridge Boys, Lee Ann Womack and Dwight Yoakam were among a parade of stars that performed to a near-capacity audience at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium for the eighth annual event.
Staged by the Academy of Country Music but separate from its nationally televised awards show in the spring, the event is designed to honor the genre’s pioneers, current torchbearers and influential behind-the-scenes figures.
Jake Owen served as the show’s host and opened the proceedings with a crowd-pleasing cover of Ronnie Milsap’s 1978 hit, “Back on My Mind Again.”
Dressed in a dark, stylishly cut suit and looking completely at ease, Owen was a charming and urbane counterpoint to the general folksiness that pervaded the stage. He has a bright future in hosting major televised awards shows if he’s ever offered that opportunity.
Like most award shows, this one ran a bit too long, extending from 7 to 10:20 p.m., by which time much of the crowd had left. But in compensation for the show’s length, there were 15 musical performances, some particularly memorable.
The Oak Ridge Boys brought down the house with a romp through their classic, “Elvira,” which they belted out to honor their former booking agent, Paul Moore.
Moore won the Mae Boren Axton Award in recognition of his years of service both to clients and the music industry at large.
The Oaks’ tenor, Joe Bonsall, spotted a familiar face in the front row and exclaimed, “How cool to see Carrie Underwood singing, ’Oom papa mau mau!”
To honor Shane McAnally, winner of the songwriter of the year prize, a vocal trio made up of Clarkson, Musgraves and Scott sang a medley of McAnally’s hits — “Downtown,” “Tie It Up” and “Merry Go ’Round.”
Kenny Chesney presented McAnally his award and told the story of how the still unsuccessful songwriter sat in a Los Angeles traffic jam, listening to the radio and saying to himself, “If I could just get a song to Kenny Chesney.”
Two years later, he did, and Chesney took the song, “Somewhere With You,” to the top of the country chart.
“Kenny Chesney changed it all for me,” McAnally said when he accepted his award.
Hayes sang “I Wouldn’t Have Missed It for the World” as a tribute to Milsap, who copped one of the evening’s two career achievement awards.
In introducing Hayes, Owen noted that it was his 23rd birthday. He later led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to the rising star.
A clearly elated Milsap declared that he liked what Owen and Hayes did with his songs.
“You sounded so good,” he declared.
Toby Keith wasn’t in the house to take home his career achievement trophy, but he did thank the Academy for it via video.
He was cited for the Twister Relief benefit concert he organized last year after tornadoes devastated sections of Oklahoma and for his 11 USO tours in support of American troops fighting abroad.
Underwood was soon in tears as she held her Gene Weed Special Achievement trophy and thanked many of the people who made the award possible.
“Country music has been so good to me,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion.
Owen lightened the mood by suggesting her tears were probably stemming as much from her recently announced pregnancy as anything else.
There were also two winners of the Jim Reeves International Award, which is given to those who’ve been instrumental in popularizing country music in other countries.
Rascal Flatts were honored for a series of successful concerts in Europe, while Steve Buchanan, president of the Opry Entertainment Group, was cited for his role as executive producer of the TV series Nashville. That show is now seen in nearly 100 different countries, Buchanan said.
Football idol Tim Tebow, a longtime friend of Rascal Flatts, presented the trio its award.
Lead singer Gary Levox pretended to break up like Underwood as he held the award. Always the wise-cracker, bass player Jay DeMarcus confided to the crowd that “Those gigs over there (in Europe) don’t pay very well, but we were still glad to be there.”
Before leaving the stage, Tebow and the Flatts guys knelt in apparent prayer at the edge of the stage, partly in jest and partly in deference to Tebow’s on-the-field trademark.
“Congratulations to One Direction,” Owen cracked as Flatts left the stage, a reference to the popular British boy band.
The international presentations concluded with Nashville actors Clare Bowen and Sam Palladio (“Scarlett” and “Gunnar” on the show) singing “If I Didn’t Know Better.”
Bowen is from Australia, Palladio from England.
Tony Joe White sang his 1969 pop hit, “Polk Salad Annie,” to honor his former music publisher, the late Bob Beckham. Beckham, who began his music career as a singer, won the ACM’s Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award.
“I’ve learned never to underestimate the value of an opening act,” singer Brenda Lee said, “whether it was the Beatles, who opened for me in England, or a tall, handsome young man named Bob Beckham.”
She went on to explain that Beckham had been crucial in providing her two of her early country hits.
First he pitched her the song “Nobody Wins,” which had been written by one of his company’s promising young songwriters, Kris Kristofferson. Then Beckham filled in for her regular producer, Owen Bradley, to produce another winning tune, “Big Four Poster Bed.”
Lee presented Beckham’s award to his widow and daughters.
The Academy conferred four poet’s awards, honors dedicated to especially lyrical songwriters. This year’s winners were the late Cowboy Jack Clement and Buck Owens, as well as to the still-composing Dean Dillon and Kristofferson.
In commemorating Clement, his close friends Shawn Camp and Billy Burnette, sang two of the master’s best known songs, both made hits by Johnny Cash. Camp did “Guess Things Happen That Way” and Burnette sang “Ballad of a Teenage Queen.”
Clement’s daughter, Alison, accepted on his behalf by reciting a poem in which she branded her father “a jack of all trades, a master of puns.”
Bentley and Yoakam tipped their musical hats to Owens, the former with “Love’s Gonna Live Here,” the latter with a medley of Owensiana that included “My Heart Skips a Beat,” “Cryin’ Time,” “Together Again” and “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail.”
Dillon, who has had more than 50 of his songs recorded by George Strait, was musically toasted by fellow songwriter, Rodney Clawson, who sang “The Chair,” and Lee Ann Womack, who moaned the dirge-like “An Empty Glass.”
“When they told me I was getting this, the first thing that came to mind was Hank Cochran,” Dillon said in accepting the award. “He taught me everything I know or will know.”
Dillon concluded his remarks by summarizing his blessings: “I thank my mom for having me, God for saving me and country music for loving me.”
In a video shown to highlight Kristofferson’s storied career, one of those congratulating him for his current honor was Barbra Streisand, who co-starred with him in the 1976 film, A Star Is Born.
Streisand praised Kristofferson for creating in his songs “indelible images in the mind’s eye that will last forever.”
Kristofferson then walked in from the wings. Alluding to his reverence for the Ryman stage and all the musical magic it had witnessed, he said, “I feel like I’m in church, and I can’t thank you enough.”
Here is a complete list of ACM Honors winners:
Nightclub: Billy Bob’s Texas (Fort Worth)
Venue (Small Capacity): Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater (Austin)
Venue (Medium Capacity): Grand Ole Opry House (Nashville)
Venue (Large Capacity) Bridgestone Arena (Nashville)
Talent Buyer: Nicole More (Neste Event Marketing)
Casino (Small Capacity): Mohegan Sun Wolf Den (Uncasville, Connecticut)
Casino (Medium Capacity): Mohegan Sun Wolf Arena (Uncasville, Connecticut)
Promoter: Brian O’Connell (Live Nation)
Studio Recording Awards
Bassist: Michael Rhodes
Guitarist: Rob McNelley
Pianist/Keyboardist: Charlie Judge
Steel Guitarist: Paul Franklin
Specialty Instruments Player: Bryan Sutton
Drummer: Shannon Forrest
Audio Engineer: Justin Niebank
Producer: Dann Huff
Career Achievement: Ronnie Milsap, Toby Keith
Mae Boren Axton Award: Paul Moore
Songwriter: Shane McAnally
Gene Weed Special Achievement Award: Carrie Underwood
Jim Reeves International Award: Rascal Flatts, Steve Buchanan
Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award: Bob Beckham
Poet’s Award: Cowboy Jack Clement, Buck Owens, Dean Dillon, Kris Kristofferson