The Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame welcomed veteran composers Bob Morrison, Aaron Barker, Beth Nielsen Chapman and the late Townes Van Zandt into its ranks Sunday night (Oct. 9) in ceremonies held at Nashville’s Music City Center.
Performing at the event were Olivia Newton-John, Mac Davis, Kim Carnes, Ricky Skaggs, Sharon White, Pam Tillis, Phil Vassar, Lori McKenna, Darrell Scott, Don Scott, Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls, Amy Sky, Ernest Chapman and country newcomers Mo Pitney and William Michael Morgan.
Prior to the presentation of the new inductees, the Nashville Songwriters Association International, which is allied with the Hall of Fame, cited 10 songs from the past year that its professional members had voted as “Songs I Wish I’d Written.”
They were Sam Hunt’s “Break Up in a Small Town” (written by Hunt, Zac Crowell, Shane McAnally), Cam’s “Burning House” (Cam, Tyler Johnson, Jeff Bhasker), Chris Janson’s “Buy Me a Boat” (Janson, Chris DuBois), Thomas Rhett’s “Die a Happy Man” (Rhett, Sean Douglas, Joe Spargur).
Also Jana Kramer’s “I Got the Boy” (Connie Harrington, Tim Nichols, Jamie Lynn Spears), Keith Urban’s “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” (McAnally, Ross Copperman, Josh Osborne), Eric Church’s “Like a Wrecking Ball” (Church, Casey Beathard), Maren Morris’ “My Church” (Morris, busbee), Eric Church’s “Record Year” (Church, Jeff Hyde) and Blake Shelton’s “Sangria” (Osborne, J.T. Harding, Trevor Rosen).
Cole Swindell was honored as songwriter-artist of the year and accepted his award via video. Ashley Gorley took the songwriter of the year trophy for his multiple 2016 cuts. And “Humble and Kind,” recorded by Tim McGraw and written by Lori McKenna, was crowned song of the year.
McKenna, who also co-wrote “Girl Crush,” gave an earnestly moving performance of her winning song, accompanying herself on guitar.
Five Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame members who died last year — Guy Clark, Merle Haggard, Ted Harris, John D. Loudermilk and Kim William — were memorialized with a moment of silence.
Each new inductee was introduced with live performances of two of his or her songs. For Morrison, William Michael Morgan sang “Lookin’ for Love,” and Vassar did “You Decorated My Life.”
“You have to be a whole lot lucky and a little bit good,” Morrison said of the songwriting craft when he came to the stage.
Once an aspiring artist, the Mississippi native told of being signed to Columbia Records in New York by the legendary producer John Hammond. Soon after, he recorded “The Shadow of Your Smile,” only to have his version eclipsed by Tony Bennett’s. The song, which was the theme for the movie The Sandpiper ultimately won an Academy Award.
Morrison said he then went to Los Angeles to work with producer Bill Justis. Justis, in turn, took him to Nashville and to a long songwriting career at Combine Music under the mentorship of Bob Beckham and Johnny MacCrae.
“I laughed more at Combine Music in five years,” he said, “than I had in the first 31 years of my life.”
He said MacCrae was such a demanding song appraiser that he turned down the first 100 that Morrison submitted.
Morrison’s big break came when his “Lookin’ for Love” was chosen from a basket of demo tapes to be the musical centerpiece of the 1980 movie Urban Cowboy. It was a three-week No. 1 single for Johnny Lee and even rose to No. 5 on the pop charts.
Twenty-one artists turned down the song, Morrison said, before it was chosen for the movie.
Heralding the induction of Barker were Mo Pitney, who sang a killer version of “Baby Blue,” and Mac Davis, who turned in a warm rendition of “Love Without End, Amen.”
Barker said “Baby Blue” was the first of his songs to be recorded. It was a No. 1 for George Strait in 1988. Even bigger was his “Love Without End,” which kept Strait at the top of the charts for five consecutive weeks in 1990.
These early songwriting successes, Barker said, were lucky ones. “I didn’t like feeling lucky,” he recalled. So he became an “apprentice” to the craft to songwriting so that luck wouldn’t be such a crucial factor.
“I’ll always be an apprentice,” he declared. He urged young songwriters never to be intimidated by the opportunity of writing with big-name composers.
“You have the words and rhythms of today,” he said, which are just as important as the experience older songwriters contribute to a collaboration.
Van Zandt’s segment began with a video of him singing his biggest hit, “Pancho and Lefty.” He wryly explained, “I wrote this song about two Mexican bandits I saw on TV two weeks after I wrote the song.”
Producer and singer Jim Rooney said he first met Van Zandt in New York in 1973 after the release of the album The Late, Great Townes Van Zandt.
Rooney said he saw in that title the singer’s strong identification with Hank Williams. “Townes wanted to be as sad as Hank,” Rooney observed, “and he never got over it.” In 1987, Rooney and Jack Clement co-produced Van Zandt’s album, At My Window.
Darrell Scott, accompanied by Don Scott, sang Van Zandt’s “White Freight Liner Blues.” Then came Skaggs and White with “If I Needed You.” Skaggs told the crowd that he and White had performed this Van Zandt classic — a Top 5 for Don Williams — at their wedding 35 years ago.
Accepting for her father, who died in 1997, Katie Van Zandt said she was too young when he died to have any personal stories to tell about him — but that she has his songs.
“His music has a way of letting you know how you feel before you know that you feel that way,” she said. “I cherish each song as a conversation we could have had or a lesson I could have been taught.”
Annie Roboff, who co-wrote the Faith Hill hit “This Kiss” with Chapman and Robin Lerner, presented Chapman for induction.
She said Chapman’s friends discover that “one of the most important things to her is absolute, brutal honesty,” especially when it comes to her own songs. “Beth never stops writing a song until every word and every line rings with truth,” Roboff added.
Roboff noted that Elton John asked Chapman for permission to sing her majestic “Sand and Water” as a valedictory to his friends Gianni Versace and Princess Diana, both of whom had died violent deaths, during his 1997 tour.
Following this introduction, Kim Carnes, Pam Tillis, Emily Saliers and Bill Lloyd sang “This Kiss,” after which Newton-John, Amy Sky and Ernest Chapman (Beth’s son) delivered a heart-rending “Sand and Water” which won a standing ovation.
“Songs have always found me,” Chapman said. “It seems like my songs have known more about what’s going on inside me than I do.”
She said she really started being a songwriter after she quit being intimidated by “the I-don’t-know” factor and embraced a more energizing “I don’t know yet.”
After her first album flopped, she said she momentarily gave up on the idea of being a recording artist. But then, when she was performing at a hotel in Alabama, Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys heard her and kept encouraging her to “play another one of your songs.” That boost reset her career compass, she said.
Earlier in the evening, the Hall of Fame Foundation presented its Keystone Award to music critic Robert K. Oermann, who serves as the organization’s historian.
The Frances Williams Preston Mentor Award was conferred posthumously to the Atlanta-based music publisher Bill Lowery.