BMI celebrated the still-blossoming career of Kenny Chesney Tuesday night (Nov. 1) during the performance rights organization’s annual country awards celebration at its Nashville headquarters.
Ross Copperman took the laurel as BMI’s country songwriter of the year, while “Die a Happy Man” and Sony/ATV Music Publishing were crowned BMI’s top song and publisher.
Copperman’s credits for the past year include “Confession,” “Don’t It,” “Drunk on Your Love,” “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16,” “Lose My Mind,” “Smoke” and “Strip It Down.”
Thomas Rhett co-wrote his No. 1 hit “Die a Happy Man” with Sean Douglas and Joe London.
The weather was unseasonably warm — in the low 70s — as a crowd gathered across the street from the party venue, hoping to see some stars alighting from the steady stream of vehicles that inched past.
Indeed, there were stars aplenty, among them Bill Anderson, Randy Travis, Keith Urban, Florida Georgia Line, Eric Church, Cole Swindell, Luke Bryan, Cam, Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and Alabama’s Randy Owen.
After shuffling through security to get their ID bracelets, guests trooped into a cocktail party that ran for more than an hour before they were summoned upstairs for dinner and awards in the lavishly decorated parking garage that opened onto a sweeping view of downtown Nashville.
“This is a party — and we’re going to celebrate,” BMI’s Jody Williams told the crowd, which was already in a festive mood.
Williams said 16 of the songwriters who’d be receiving awards later in the evening were first-time recipients.
Instead of celebrating Chesney in a separate segment, video testimonials were played intermittently throughout the first half of the proceedings.
The videos featured remarks from people who had been major players in Chesney’s career, including Clay Bradley, his first champion at BMI; his managers Dale Morris and Clint Higham; Joe Galante, who signed him to his first major record deal; his producer, Buddy Cannon; and Troy Tomlinson, his longtime publisher.
Grace Potter, who recorded and toured with Chesney, also sent video compliments.
BMI president and CEO Mike O’Neill shared hosting duties with Williams, Bradley Collins and Leslie Roberts.
In his opening remarks, O’Neill spoke of the struggles to get decent pay for songwriters and publishers in this power-shifting digital area.
He told the songwriters that the U.S. Department of Justice “wanted you to bring lawyers into your writing sessions” when it came to the matter of licensing songs.
“They came out with the ruling,” he said, “and 20 minutes later we sued them — and we won.”
O’Neill then brought Georgia Congressman Doug Collins to the stage to present him the BMI Champion award for his steadfast defense of songwriter rights.
“I’m going to stand with those [whose music] has impacted my life,” Collins promised.
O’Neill announced that documentary maker Ken Burns was in the audience.
“He actually came from an interview with Dolly Parton,” O’Neill explained. He said it was Burns’ 97th interview for his upcoming documentary on country music.
In the succession of video clips, Chesney was depicted as an affable, hard-working, self-sacrificing dreamer from East Tennessee who was just as interested in being a songwriter as a performer.
Williams whimsically summarized Chesney’s virtues by calling him “tenacious, hungry, driven and adorable.”
Said O’Neill, “Kenny delivers the songs that make us want to live our lives to the fullest.”
Following a final round of videos showing Chesney performing at sold out stadiums, Keith Urban, who once opened shows for Chesney, mounted the stage to pay this respects.
“It’s intimidating to play your songs in front of you,” he said. “I learned a lot from you about what it takes to put on a show.”
Before playing Chesney’s self-penned 2004 hit, “I Go Back,” Urban told about his first tour with the star. Urban acknowledged that he’d just gotten out of his “second rehab” and had been told by his counselors he should have his own bus rather than ride with his band.
Taking them at their word, he said he would do his opening show and then retreat to his bus, safe from temptations, “like a little hermit.” He soon learned that his actions annoyed Chesney, who thought he was being aloof.
That prompted him to go to Chesney, he said, and explain his reclusiveness, a gesture that instantly turned the star into a supporter and friend.
Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, he sang “I Go Back.” Then he beckoned three other musicians to the stage and switched to an electric guitar to end the song with an extended instrumental jam.
Songwriter Dean Dillon came up next to sing the song he said had induced him to write with Chesney when he was still an upstart. It was “The Tin Man,” which Chesney wrote and released in 1994 at the dawn of his career.
Seated and crouched over his guitar, the grizzled Dillon tapped into all the song’s wistful emotions and earned a standing ovation from the crowd.
Eric Church concluded the musical tribute.
“I had all these things I wanted to say to you,” he told Chesney. “Then I heard that word ‘adorable,’ and all the words went away. … I love your adorable ass.”
With that he sang a very differently paced version of Chesney’s 2005 hit, “Anything but Mine.” It, too, brought the audience to its feet.
“There are so many people who are a part of my journey,” Chesney said when he came forward to accept his award.
“When I think about the journey, I do think about Dean Dillon,” he continued. He recalled their first writing session together. He said he’d driven in from his “small apartment in Mt. Juliet” with great anticipation about collaborating with “the Dean Dillon,” then one of Nashville’s most recorded and sought-after writers.
After entering the writing room where Dillon awaited him, he said, “I pulled my guitar out of the case and started playing some chords. And he held up his hand and said, ‘Chesney, you’re going to have to wait until I get my mind down to your level.’”
Apparently he succeeded in making that transition.
Chesney went on to praise Clay Bradley for setting a chain of events in motion that ultimately led to his career-boosting recording and publishing deals.
Despite Williams’ obvious annoyance and his stern calls for the crowd to quiet down, the evening’s final awards — for songwriter, song and publisher of the year — seemed anticlimactic, never quite getting the attention expected or deserved.
By the time they were handed out, many of the guests had already gone downstairs to listen to the dance band and nosh on desserts.
Outside, fans still jostled each other and waited for glimpses of stars.
Here is the complete list of the evening’s song winners, with only BMI-affiliated songwriters and publishers cited:
“A Guy Walks Into a Bar”
“Ain’t Worth the Whiskey”
“Already Calling You Mine”
Wade Kirby, Barry Knox, Phil O’Donnell, Matt Thomas
“Baby Be My Love Song”
“Buy Me a Boat”
“Crash and Burn”
Sam Cooke, Jesse Frasure
Lee Thomas Miller
“Diamond Rings and Old Barstools”
Barry Dean, Luke Laird
“Die a Happy Man”
Sean Douglas, Joe London, Thomas Rhett
“Drunk on Your Love”
Ross Copperman, Brett Eldredge
Lori McKenna, Liz Rose
“Gonna Know We Were Here”
“Home Alone Tonight”
Tommy Cecil, Jaida Dreyer, Jody Stevens
“I Got the Boy”
Connie Harrington, Tim Nichols, Jamie Lynn Spears
“I Like the Sound of That”
Jesse Frasure, Shay Mooney
“I Love This Life”
Preston Brust, Chris Janson, Chris Lucas, Danny Myrick
“I’m Comin’ Over”
“I’m to Blame”
“John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16”
“Kick the Dust Up”
“Kiss You in the Morning”
“Kiss You Tonight”
Jay Knowles, Trenton Summar
“Let Me See Ya Girl”
Jody Stevens, Cole Swindell
“Like a Wrecking Ball”
Casey Beathard, Eric Church
“Little Bit of You”
“Little Toy Guns”
“Lose My Mind”
Ross Copperman, Brett Eldredge, CeeLo Green, Heather Morgan
“Love You Like That”
Brett Beavers, Jim Beavers
“Loving You Easy”
“Nothin’ Like You”
“One Hell of an Amen”
Brian Davis, Brantley Gilbert
“Raise ‘Em Up”
Tom Douglas, Jeffrey Steele
“Run Away With You”
“Save It for a Rainy Day”
“She Don’t Love You”
“Sippin’ on Fire”
Ross Copperman, Michael Hobby
“Strip It Down”
Luke Bryan, Ross Copperman
“That Don’t Sound Like You”
Rhett Akins, Lee Brice
“Tonight Looks Good on You”
Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson
“What We Ain’t Got”
Travis Goff, Travis Meadows
“Young & Crazy”