Some of country music’s most beloved stars converged Sunday evening (Oct. 11) at Nashville’s Music City Center to sing Rosanne Cash, Even Stevens, Mark James and Craig Wiseman into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Among those paying musical tribute to the new inductees were Tim McGraw, Ronnie Dunn, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, Hunter Hayes, B.J. Thomas, Jeffrey Steele, the band Loving Mary and American Idol alumnus Paul McDonald.
The NSAI also honored the writers of “The 10 Songs I Wish I’d Written,” an annual poll of its professional members. This year there was an 11th song, owing to a tie vote.
As is the wont of such omnibus undertakings, this event ran excruciatingly long, beginning with cocktails at 5 p.m. and wrapping up with Wiseman’s fulsome acceptance speech that ended at nearly 11.
Apart from this one blemish, the evening sparkled with great music and stories.
One of the sweetest moments came when the writers of “Girl Crush” — Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose — followed the acceptance of their award by singing the song, accompanied only by McKenna’s wistful guitar.
Artistically, it equaled Little Big Town’s more polished version of the song.
In presenting Stevens for induction, Hugh Prestwood, himself a Hall of Fame member, told of the circuitous route that led the Ohio native to Nashville, including attendance at a barbers college and serving in the Coast Guard.
He said Stevens’ “primary residence” after moving to Nashville was his International Scout mail truck. In time, however, he would partner in building the fabled Emerald recording studio and founding the DebDave publishing company.
As a songwriter, Prestwood reported, Stevens has earned 53 BMI awards.
Before Stevens came to the stage, Loving Mary performed his Eddie Rabbitt hit, “Driving My Life Away,” while McDonald served up “When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman,” a chart scorer for Dr. Hook.
Looking dazzled by all the attention, Stevens joked that he thought he’d reached the pinnacle of fame when his naked body was chosen as a model for the much-maligned “Musica” statue that stands at the Music Row roundabout.
He spent most of his speech praising other people, particularly his long-time champion and mentor, recording engineer Jim Malloy.
He said he first became aware of the existence of songwriters while browsing through his dad’s 78 rpm recordings and noticing the names within parentheses that followed the song titles.
The first song he “fell in love with,” he recalled, was Stuart Hamblen’s “This Ole House.” He first encountered Eddie Rabbitt — the artist who would record so many of his songs — at a party, Stevens said. Seeing that he had a vehicle, Rabbitt asked him to help him move a cage in which he housed his pet monkey.
The joy of writing songs, particularly with other people, he said, is that “you walk in with nothing, and you come out with something.”
Jody Williams, BMI’s vice president of writer-publisher relations, introduced James and chronicled the high points of a career that began with his studying classical violin in his native Houston to providing a string of hits to Elvis Presley, including Presley’s last country No. 1 single before his death, “Moody Blues.”
Williams went on to recount James’ successes with such other songs as “Hooked on a Feeling,” “Suspicious Minds” and “Always On My Mind.”
“He’s experienced success over six decades,” Williams asserted. “Even Jay Z has recorded one of his songs.”
Following Williams’ preamble, Hunter Hayes, playing mandolin and backed by a three-piece band, blazed through “Suspicious Minds.”
Then B.J. Thomas, his voice still strong and agile, rendered a yearning interpretation of “Hooked on a Feeling,” the song that gave him a No. 5 pop hit in 1969. The crowd awarded him a standing ovation.
James mused about the format-crossing power of a great song. He remembered pushing buttons on the car radio in search of appealing songs as he traveled with his family from Houston to visit his grandmother in Longview, Texas.
“You didn’t put [music] into categories,” he stressed. “You said, ‘What a great song. What a great performance.’” It didn’t take him long, he said, to realize that his ambitions did not lie in the violin. He asked his parents to buy him a guitar, and they got him one for Christmas.
He said his parents kept urging him to aim for “a long and prosperous life,” not the momentary highs of pop music. But he said it occurred to him that you never know how long you will live, So why not live the life you want to?
“I love songs that are worth remembering,” he concluded.
Rodney Crowell, Cash’s former producer, husband and co-writer, summarized the life that had brought her to this moment of distinction.
He began by reciting a string of her self-penned hits, among them “Seven Year Ache,” “Blue Moon With Heartache,” “Hold On,” “Second to No One” and “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me.”
He remarked that, by her own account, she was a “taciturn” and “introspective” child. He said he first met her in 1976 at a party at Waylon Jennings’ house, where he spotted her sitting under a pool table.
In time, they would begin dating and marry, and he would become her producer.
He remembered accompanying her on a promotional tour in Germany just as she was launching her career as an artist. One stop on the tour was a “one ring circus — really just a tent” on the outskirts of Cologne.
He said that the tent would have seated 1,500 people but that only “about 80, including me” showed up. It was a bizarre situation, he said, in which she lip synched her songs for a radio show.
Even so, he said, when her performance was over, the people in the audience rushed the stage to meet her as though it had been a triumphant concert. He said that was when he realized her great appeal as a performer.
“Producing records for Rosanne was really a collaborative effort,” he said. “We were just two kids with a really expensive paint box.”
He noted that by the time she signed to Columbia’s country division in Nashville, this once-reclusive upstart had “purple, spiky hair and was incredibly fashionable.” At this point, Crowell surrendered the stage to Emmylou Harris, who, accompanied on piano by Cash’s husband, John Leventhal, sang the ineffably poignant “I Was Watching You” from Cash’s Black Cadillac album.
Vince Gill came next. He began by thanking Cash for hiring him in her band 34 years earlier.
Then he sang “Seven Year Ache,” Cash’s first No. 1 from 1981.
“I have so much history in this room,” Cash said when she took the spotlight. “I have so many circles that have come full here.”
She said she just realized while waiting to go on that she and her father, Johnny Cash, are the only father and daughter in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. (The elder Cash was inducted in 1977).
When she was just aspiring to be a songwriter, she said, she got an appointment to play her songs for a prominent Nashville publisher. She speculated that she was given this opportunity only because she was Johnny Cash’s daughter.
The publisher was less than impressed. He said she didn’t write or sing all that well but that she still managed to sound “commercial.” That was not the endorsement she was looking for.
“For 42 years,” she said, “I’ve been working to prove that publisher down on Music Row wrong.”
She credited Crowell with giving her the confidence she needed to press on. “He told me I was good before I was,” she said.
She pointed out that she had won Grammys via co-writing with both her husbands. With “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me,” a co-write with Crowell, she earned a Grammy in 1985 for best country vocal performance by a female. Then, in 2014, she copped the best American roots song Grammy for “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” which she composed with Leventhal.
From the outset, she continued, she regarded songwriting as “the most honorable profession in the world.” It’s an opinion she still holds, she said.
“This is the award I’ve always wanted,” she beamed, brandishing her newly acquired Hall of Fame trophy.
Hall of Fame member Bob DiPiero, clearly in the highest of spirits, traced Wiseman’s trajectory from a hard-working wannabe to his present status to “an eight-figure [publishing] mogul” who “burns hundred dollar bills in the backyard that are too wrinkled to deal with.” In a more serious biographical vein, he noted that Wiseman’s scored his first cut with Roy Orbison and had his first No. 1 — “If The Good Die Young” — in 1994 with Tracy Lawrence.
“Craig Wiseman is a nice bunch of guys,” DiPiero said, pointing to the various roles he has played in the music business.
He observed that Wiseman writes both serious songs that are “game changers” and “radio candy,” whose chief virtue is catchiness.
To demonstrate that range, Jeffrey Steele, a frequent co-writer with Wiseman, whirled through a manic medley of Wiseman’s hits, including “The Cowboy In Me,” “She’s Got It All,” “Hell Yeah,” “Love Is a Beautiful Thing,” “Young,” “Voices,” “Where the Green Grass Grows,” “It’s Summertime” and “The Good Stuff.”
Before launching into his appreciation for induction, Wiseman summoned his wife to the stage, where, without prelude or explanation, she recited “The Lord’s Prayer.” Wiseman expressed particular gratefulness for Dunn, McGraw and his “Hit Men” buddies, DiPiero and Steele. He was also lavish in praise of his mother, who, by his estimate, is always a bit too enthusiastic for the room when it comes to parties honoring her son.
Like DiPiero, Wiseman revisited the arc of his achievements, from being a $13,000-a-year staff writer for Almo Irving to encouraging and backing such new talents as Florida Georgia Line.
“I try to write with kids,” he said. “I do it because I appreciate the guys who did it for me. … I want to be there when the angels fly low.”
Looking out over the several hundred who remained, even as the evening slogged to an end, Wiseman said, “If you’ve ever written a song with me, would you please do me the honor of standing up?”
NSAI’s 11 winning songs for 2015 and their writers are “A Guy Walks Into a Bar” (Jonathan Singleton, Melissa Peirce, Brad Tursi), “All About That Bass” (Meghan Trainor, Kevin Kadish), “American Kids” (Rodney Clawson, Luke Laird, Shane McAnally), “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools” (Jonathan Singleton, Luke Laird, Barry Dean), “Dirt” (Rodney Clawson, Chris Tompkins).
Also, “Girl in a Country Song” (Maddie Marlow, Taylor Dye, Aaron Scherz), “I Don’t Dance” (Lee Brice, Rob Hatch, Dallas Davidson), “Neon Light” (Andrew Dorff, Mark Irwin, Josh Kear), “Raise ‘Em Up” (Tom Douglas, Jaren Johnson, Jeffrey Steele), “She Don’t Love You” (Eric Paslay, Jennifer Wayne) and “Shake It Off” (Max Martin, Shellback, Taylor Swift).
Pat Alger, chairman of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame board of directors, recited to the crowd the names of Hall of Fame members who had died in the previous year, a list that included Wayne Carson, Paul Craft, Wayne Kemp, Larry Henley, Red Lane, Don Robertson and Billy Sherrill.