If Mac Davis found it “hard to be humble” in 1980 when he scored a hit by that title, he must have been conflicted as hell Tuesday night (Nov. 3) when BMI deluged him with praise in the run up to presenting him its head-turning Icon Award.
The occasion for Davis’s spotlighting was BMI’s annual country music awards celebration held in the gaily festooned and brightly lighted sixth-floor parking garage of its Nashville headquarters.
Apart from honoring Davis, the performance rights society also recognized Rodney Clawson as its songwriter of the year, “Beat of the Music” as song of the year and Sony ATV Music as top publisher. In addition, plaques were given out to the writers and publishers of the 50 most-performed songs of the past year.
That it was going to be Mac Davis’s night became apparent to guests as soon as they entered the cavernous reception hall for the pre-show cocktail party. Two giant black and white photos of Davis as a young man hung above the room-length bar, behind which 20 black-uniformed bartenders labored busily to slake the communal thirst.
To those who appreciate a well-assembled and smartly delivered drink, the sudden sight of 20 bartenders working shoulder to shoulder is emotionally akin to glimpsing the Grand Canyon for the first time.
Even among the early arrivals, every face told a country music story.
There was Marty Brown, briefly the torch-bearer for traditional country music during the Garth-centric early ‘90s … Thom Schuyler, composer of the anthemic “Sixteenth Avenue” … legendary disc jockey and songwriter Gerry House … entertainment lawyer David Crow who has long doubled as a fiddler in Bobby Osborne’s band … and bardic Whitey Shafer, who stood modestly at the side of the room and viewed the world he had enriched with such poems as “That’s the Way Love Goes,” “I Never Go Around Mirrors” and “All My Ex’s Live in Texas.”
When Blake Shelton came in, dozens in the crowd began drifting over in his direction, angling for a handshake or a picture. Grand Ole Opry manager Pete Fisher stopped by to chat with the genial star, as did singer-songwriter Eric Paslay.
Pretty soon the room was full, and the bartenders were pushing themselves to the limit.
Outside, TV crews snapped up celebrities as soon as they arrived and de-limousined. Regular guests stood in line to don armbands that would admit them to the festivities and tell them which tables they’d been assigned.
Across the street from the entrance, a throng of sharp-eyed fans stood oohing and aahing, safely corralled behind ropes.
About an hour into the cocktail party, the lights flickered and the party-goers lined up for the elevators. When they alighted from the elevators, they saw a wall that had been turned into a giant checkerboard of Mac Davis head shots.
A guide armed with a seating chart pointed guests in the general direction of their tables, but what with all the hugging and gossiping along the way, it took the better part of an hour for everyone to be seated and ready for dinner.
Mike O’Neill, BMI’s president and CEO, greeted the celebrants. He lauded Nashville for being “home to an electric and evolving music scene that has country music at its heart.”
He said BMI was coming off the best year in its 75-year history, during which it collected more than a billion dollars for its members.
BMI also took the Pandora music service to court and won, O’Neill reported. “We secured higher [royalty] rates from Pandora,” he said, “but not high enough.”
O’Neill announced that BMI was giving the first of its newly inaugurated Champion Award to Lee Thomas Miller for being “a tireless advocate for songwriters.”
Miller has become something of a regular in the halls of Congress, testifying eloquently on behalf of policies that would give composers a bigger slice of the profits their music helps generate.
“We got a bad deal in 1909,” Miller said, referring to the 1909 Copyright Act whose provisions failed to anticipate how big an industry music would soon become.
“They told me there’s nothing that can be done with it,” he continued. “I don’t believe that.”
O’Neill then relinquished the stage to Jody Williams, BMI’s main man in Nashville. “It sort of feels like coming home,” Williams told the crowd. “This is like the beginning of the holiday season for our music community.”
Over the next two hours, Williams and his assistants announced one by one the names of the winning songs and called their writers and publishers to the stage to receive their awards.
At intervals, the presentations would stop and the focus would return to praising Davis, who sat at a table near the edge of the stage with his wife Lise and oldest son Scotty.
Parton said that after she left her mentor, Porter Wagoner, to seek a wider world, Davis hooked her up with Sandy Gallin, who became her treasured and long-time manager.
She recalled dropping in at Davis’s house in Las Vegas while he was relaxing between shows and discovering to her embarrassment that he relaxed by swimming nude.
Steele told of being brought in as a bass player for Davis’s band and making a mistake during a song that was so egregious Davis stopped the show to tell the audience he had a new bass player.
Many years later, by which time Steele had become an award-winning songwriter, Davis called him to ask if he’d like to co-write.
Steele said he wished his dad – who loved to sing “It’s Hard to Be Humble” – had been alive to see his son and the much-admired Davis working together.
Chesney sounded just as awestruck in his video message to Davis. “I hope someday I can write a song that touches the world like your songs have.”
Songs cited during the ceremony from Davis’s catalog of hits included “Something’s Burning,” “Texas in My Rear View Mirror,” “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me,” “Watching Scotty Grow,” “In the Ghetto,” “A Little Less Conversation,” “Memories,” “Stop and Smell the Roses” and “I Believe in Music.”
Davis was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2000.
O’Neill returned to the stage after most of the individual songwriting awards had been handed out to set up Davis’ honor.
“After five decades, he’s still going strong,” O’Neill said. “With Mac, there’s always a story with the song and a story behind the song.”
He pointed out that besides writing hits for himself and other entertainers, including Elvis Presley and Kenny Rogers, Davis also had his own successful TV series, acted in such high-profile movies as North Dallas Forty and starred on Broadway in The Will Rogers Follies.
A popular feature in his TV show, many of his admirers recalled, was making up songs on the spot from subjects and phrases the live audience called out to him.
O’Neill noted that although some citizens of Lubbock, Texas – Davis’s hometown – initially took umbrage to his “Texas in My Rearview Mirror,” with its refrain of “I thought happiness was Lubbock, Texas, in my rearview mirror,” they eventually recognized the song as a tribute and named a street after him.
To date, O’Neill said, Davis has won 27 BMI awards.
Then came the musical tributes, which Mac McAnally kicked off with an affectionate and superbly picked cover of “Texas in My Rearview Mirror.”
With Davis being among the first to rise, McAnally reaped a standing ovation.
Backed by a full band with horns, Rascal Flatts filled the room with “Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me.”
Luke Bryan next came to the mic. “I catch a lot of flak for my tight jeans,” he said to Davis. “But the ladies at my table tell me your jeans were a lot more tight than mine.”
This was a reference to a verse in “It’s Hard to Be Humble” that goes, “Some folks say that I’m egotistical/Hell I don’t even know what that means/I guess it has something to do with/The way that I fill out my skin-tight blue jeans.”
Standing and swaying at the mic like Elvis—who scored the original hit on the song – Bryan steamed through “A Little Less Conversation.”
Little Big Town wrapped up the live tribute with an ethereal rendering of “In the Ghetto.” Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet sang the hard-bitten descriptive lyrics, while Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman chimed in with doleful, angelic echoes.
O’Neill called Davis to the stage to accept the large Icon chalice, which he referred to as a “bucket.”
Taking the cue, Davis said, “That’s definitely a part of my bucket list right there. This is absolutely, humongously awesome.”
He reminded his fellow songwriters that even if their royalties come in pennies, “We’re making money for what we love to do and have to do.”
Davis took out his phone to read the list of people he needed to thank. “Everybody quit texting me!,” he scolded as he searched for the right screen.
Among those he thanked were producers Billy Strange and Rick Hall, Nancy Sinatra, Elvis, Johnny Carson (who came to rely on him as a regular and popular guest on the Tonight show), his wife, his younger sons Cody and Noah and Bart Herbison, executive director of Nashville Songwriters Association International, who persuaded him to move to Nashville and get back into songwriting.
“They talked me into singing a song,” Davis said, as he eased onto a stool with his guitar.
With a somewhat weathered voice, he sang “Where Do Songs Come From,” a tune he had recently co-written with his new neighbor and fellow Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer, Allen Shamblin.
It was just as O’Neill had said – a story song with a story behind the song.
Throughout the evening, the audience saw video clips of Davis explaining how his songs came about. “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me,” he said, was inspired by Rick Hall, who complained that Davis was bringing him “syrupy” love songs to record instead of songs with real solid hooks in them.
He said he went upstairs at the studio during a break and wrote the song as a joke. But it was no laughing matter to Hall who pronounced it a “smash” the moment he heard it.
Davis said he wrote the first lines of “I Believe in Music” at a party in England in 1970 where he met – but at first failed to recognize – Ringo Starr, who was introduced to him by his real name, Richard Starkey.
When some guests at the party suggested doing a séance, Davis said he wasn’t into that particular belief system. Instead, he sat down and began singing, “I Believe in Music.”
Williams gave out the final round of awards – as well as the major ones – after Davis left the stage.
Here’s a complete list of the winning songs and songwriters at the 2015 BMI Country Awards:
Rodney Clawson, Luke Laird
Nicolle Galyon, Natalie Hemby, Miranda Lambert
“Beat of the Music”
Ross Copperman, Brett Eldredge, Heather Morgan
“Burnin’ It Down”
Rodney Clawson, Tyler Hubbard, Brian Kelley
“Close Your Eyes”
Adam Craig, Shane Minor, Trent Tomlinson
Barry Dean, Karen Fairchild, Phillip Sweet, Troy Verges, Jimi Westbrook
“Doin’ What She Likes”
Wade Kirby, Phil O’Donnell
“Drink to That All Night”
Brad Warren, Brett Warren
David Frasier, Ed Hill
“Get Me Some of That”
Rhett Akins, Cole Swindell
“Girl in a Country Song”
“Give Me Back My Hometown”
Eric Church, Luke Laird
“Hope You Get Lonely Tonight”
Tyler Hubbard, Brian Kelley, Cole Swindell
“I Don’t Dance”
Lee Brice, Dallas Davidson
“I See You”
Luke Bryan, Luke Laird
“Just Gettin’ Started”
“Keep Them Kisses Comin'”
Joey Hyde, Justin Wilson
“Lettin’ the Night Roll”
Rodney Clawson, Justin Moore
“Like a Cowboy”
Johnny Bulford, Jason Matthews, Laura Veltz
“Make Me Wanna”
Bart Butler, Thomas Rhett
“Mean to Me”
“Meanwhile Back at Mama’s”
Tom Douglas, Jeffrey Steele
Andrew Dorff, Tommy Lee James
Lee Thomas Miller
“Play It Again”
“Ready Set Roll”
“See You Tonight”
Marv Green, Troy Verges
“Small Town Throwdown”
Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson, Brantley Gilbert
“Something in the Water”
“Somewhere in My Car”
Sarah Buxton, Jesse Frasure, Tyler Hubbard, Brian Kelley
“Sunshine & Whiskey”
“Take It on Back”
Dylan Altman, Chase Bryant, Tommy Lee James
Eric Church, Luke Laird
“This Is How We Roll”
Luke Bryan, Tyler Hubbard, Brian Kelley, Cole Swindell
“Til It’s Gone”
Rodney Clawson, Jimmy Yeary
“Whiskey in My Water”
Tyler Farr, Phillip Larue, John Ozier
“Who I Am With You”
Marv Green, Paul Jenkins