If you heard America singing Sunday night (Oct. 5), chances are the most familiar melodies were wafting from the Music City Center in Nashville as John Anderson, Paul Craft , Gretchen Peters and Tom Douglas were being inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (NSHF).
Hundreds of the honorees’ family members, friends and music industry associates — and a fair number of politicians — packed the venue’s grand ballroom for a ceremony that ran nearly four and a-half hours.
The award presentations and acceptance speeches were interspersed with tribute performances of the winners’ compositions by Tim McGraw, Thomas Rhett , Josh Turner, Bobby Bare, Rodney Crowell, Trisha Yearwood, Brandy Clark, John Rich, Britt Ronstadt, Collin Raye, Allen Shamblin and Bobby Braddock.
Layng Martine Jr., a Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member himself, inducted his friend of 39 years, Craft, into the songwriters’ pantheon.
He noted Craft was not only a member of Mensa, the “genius” circle, but also a jokester who had composed single-handedly such weird hits as the outrageously metaphoric “Drop Kick Me, Jesus” and “It’s Me Again, Margaret,” the tale of an unrepentant obscene phone caller.
But Craft’s canon, Martine continued, also includes more than 200 bluegrass cuts (Craft once played banjo in Jimmy Martin’s band), as well as the ethereal “Keep Me From Blowing Away” and the honky-tonk classics “Brother Jukebox” and “Hank Williams You Wrote My Life.”
In tribute to Craft, Rhett performed a medley that included “Hank Williams You Wrote My Life” and “Brother Jukebox.” Ronstadt gave a stellar rendition of “Keep Me From Blowing Away,” a song her aunt, Linda Ronstadt, recorded on her Grammy-winning 1974 album, Heart Like a Wheel.
Bare drawled “Drop Kick Me, Jesus,” a Top 20 hit for him in 1976. He noted that former President Bill Clinton had cited the composition as his favorite song.
Crowell spoke on behalf of Peters, calling her “both a songwriter and a poet (who) sings as beautifully as she writes.”
Crowell, who has recorded and performed with Peters, said “Matador,” one of her songs, “moved me so greatly, I cried from the soles of my feet.”
Clark then took the stage. Singing solo and accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, she delivered heart-wrenching samples of three of Peters’ introspective hits — “Let That Pony Run,” “Independence Day” and “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am.”
Singer Bryan Adams, who co-writes with Peters, congratulated her via a raucous video greeting. Then Yearwood capped the tribute with an inconsolably lonely rendition of “On a Bus to St. Cloud,” a minor hit for her in 1995.
Peters told the crowd her songwriting roots were anchored on a move she and her newly-divorced mother made from New York to Boulder, Colorado, when Peters was in the eighth grade.
“Those couple of years of upheaval made me a writer,” she declared. “Music never once let me down.”
She said she moved to Nashville in 1987, attracted by the talents of such emerging artists as Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith and Crowell and not even knowing that songwriters wrote songs for other people to sing.
Although Peters’ lavish talents as a performer and recording artist have yet to be widely recognized in the U.S., she regularly performs abroad. She thanked the people of Great Britain for giving her a career as a touring artist.
Publisher Troy Tomlinson told the story of Douglas’ long and uphill climb to be a songwriter.
“All Tom ever wanted to do was put words on paper,” he said.
Douglas was 27 years old and the head of a family when he first moved to Nashville to write songs, Tomlinson explained. After four years of failure, he retreated to Texas and sold real estate for the next nine years.
Finally, Douglas summoned up the courage to give a cassette tape of a song he’d written to producer Paul Worley. That song was “Little Rock,” which Raye recorded and took to No. 2 in 1994.
Tomlinson praised Douglas’ “smart, redemptive lyrics and strong melodies.”
Raye brought down the house — and earned a standing ovation — with his performance of “Little Rock,” the story of a recovering alcoholic who is still incomplete without the woman he loves.
Lady Antebellum sent video congratulations, thanking Douglas particularly for penning their 2010 hit, “I Run to You.”
Hall of Fame member Shamblin gave an affecting performance of “The House That Built Me,” the song Lambert took to the top of the charts. McGraw squeezed tear ducts with “My Little Girl,” his 2006 hit he co-wrote with Douglas.
Douglas gave the best acceptance speech of the evening in which he deftly likened the process of songwriting to the creation story in Genesis and in which he gracefully traced the progress of songwriting from the songs of King David to “Teardrops on My Guitar,” touching all the lyrical and melodic landmarks in between. It was as well-crafted and impactful as his best songs.
“Let’s talk about John Anderson,” singer-songwriter-producer Rich proposed to the crowd as he prepared to induct the final honoree of the evening.
He began by reciting Anderson’s chart triumphs, which stretch back to 1977 and include 19 Top 10s and five No. 1 singles, six of which were Anderson’s own compositions.
Among the best-known of these, Rich pointed out, were “Swingin’,” the 1983 crossover hit Anderson co-wrote with Lionel Delmore, and the majestic “Seminole Wind” from 1992 that Anderson wrote on his own.
He moved to Nashville after finishing high school and worked a series of odd jobs that included helping install a roof on the then-new Grand Ole Opry House.
Anderson’s mantra, Rich continued, is, “You sing what you know, and you know what you sing.” He described Anderson as being like “the younger brother of the Outlaw movement” of the 1970s.
Unlike mere singers who try to trace the sinuous, sidewinder movements of the music business, Rich said, Anderson is the artist who cuts straight ahead, indifferent to trends and fashions.
“He is the George Jones of our generation,” Rich proclaimed.
Anderson’s fellow Floridian and Hall of Fame member Braddock sat at the piano and delivered a wistful version of “Seminole Wind.” Rich sang “I Wish I Could Have Been There” and the goofy “Chicken Truck.”
Turner, after detailing his long and close dealings with Anderson, both as a friend and admirer, sang “Swingin’.” He asked the crowd to “imagine the horns” that graced the original recording.
Anderson thanked Jamie, his wife of 32 years, and then went on to cite specific allies who have aided him in his long career. He gave special praise to the Nashville Songwriters Association for its steady and unrelenting efforts on behalf of songwriters.
Noting that he came to Nashville in 1972 when he was 17, he ruminated, “I was just a kid, and people didn’t take kids very seriously.”
His has been a case study in why they should.
Several other honors were announced before the four new NSHF members were inducted.
As customary, members of Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI), the hall of fame’s sister organization, recognized “The 10 Songs I Wish I’d Written.”
Also “Drink a Beer” (Jim Beavers, Chris Stapleton); “Drunk on a Plane” (Dierks Bentley, Josh Kear, Chris Tompkins); “Follow Your Arrow” (Kacey Musgraves, Clark, Shane McAnally); “Give Me Back My Hometown” (Eric Church, Luke Laird).
The same NSAI poll picked Jack White as songwriter/artist of the year and Ashley Gorley as songwriter of the year.
“Automatic,” recorded by Lambert and written by Lambert, Nicolle Galyon and Natalie Hemby, was named song of the year. After accepting the award, Galyon and Hemby performed the song to warm and sustained applause.
Veteran publisher Pat Higdon was presented the Frances Williams Preston Mentor Award for his work in developing and guiding the careers of generations of songwriters, including those of Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame members Matraca Berg and Don Schlitz, who presented him the prize.
Sony/ATV/Nashville chief Tomlinson received the Keystone Award for his fundraising efforts on behalf of the Hall of Fame.
Dr. Bo Thomas, retiring Hall of Fame Foundation board member, was honored for his distinguished service in that position.