The Academy of Country Music honored outstanding performers, musicians, songwriters and music industry figures and venues Wednesday night (Aug. 23) in ceremonies held at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.
Among the honorees was the CMT dramatic series, Nashville, which won the Tex Ritter Film Award for its behind-the-scenes portrayal of the behind-the-scenes side of country music.
Taped before a live audience for broadcast Sept. 15 on CBS-TV, the honorees and winners had already been announced for the event that featured performances by George Strait, Alan Jackson, Chris Stapleton, Toby Keith, Little Big Town, Kelsea Ballerini, Brad Paisley, Maren Morris, Thomas Rhett, Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott, Chris Janson and Nashville cast members Clare Bowen and Charles Esten.
Each performance was designed to celebrate the career and impact of the person being honored.
The honors program, now in its 11th year, is a spinoff of the much more glittery and publicized Academy of Country music awards show, which is televised live each spring and focuses on musical achievements of the past year.
The Academy of Country Music is based in Los Angeles and is the West Coast equivalent of the Country Music Association in Nashville.
The evening’s first honor — the Mae Boren Axton Award — went to Reba McEntire.
Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott, who’s also the daughter of McEntire’s former singing partner, Linda Davis, opened the segment with a spirited rendition of “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” McEntire’s 1992 hit.
Then Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild joined Scott to belt out “Does He Love You,” with Scott singing the “other woman” part her mother immortalized in the 1993 original. The crowd rewarded the pair with waves of applause.
To round out the tribute, LBT’s Kimberly Schlapman came out to assist Scott and Fairchild in a romp through “Little Rock” (1986). The crowd stood as McEntire, who’s hosted the ACM Awards 14 times, stepped up to accept her trophy.
Fabled songwriter and fellow Oklahoman Jimmy Webb introduced Toby Keith and explained why he was receiving the Academy’s Poet’s Award.
“He’s written or co-written about everything he’s recorded,” Webb asserted. “He’s a master songwriter.
Keith got a standing ovation when he emerged from the wings and strapped on his guitar. Backed by the house band and a brass trio, Keith kicked off with his first hit single, “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” (1993) and rolled on through the raucous “Who’s Your Daddy” (2002). The audience roared its approval.
The three members of Lady Antebellum introduced Kelsea Ballerini, who was tapped for the Gene Weed Milestone Award, with a round of praise for her successes both as a recording artist and songwriter for co-writing three consecutive No. 1 singles.
Seated at a microphone and flanked by a guitarist and a backup singer, Ballerini opened with her current single, “Legends,” and then sang snippets of “Love Me Like You Mean It” (2014), “Dibs” (2015) and “Peter Pan” (2016).
She broke down crying, holding her hands to her face and walking away from the microphone upon being presented her award. Finally gaining composure, she said, “The greatest gift that we had,” she said, alluding to her support team after she came to Nashville, “was the fact that we were really naïve. You don’t know the odds. You think you can do anything.”
Janson, a last-minute addition to the show, was picked to honor the late songwriter Shel Silverstein with the second Poet’s Award of the evening.
And an inspired pick it was. Judging from the crowd’s euphoric, clap-along, sing-along reaction as he blazed through “A Boy Named Sue” and “The Cover of the Rolling Stone,” Janson is shaping up to be one of country music’s hardest acts to follow.
He was pure energy, prancing and strutting the stage as if he were treading live coals. His cover of “A Boy Named Sue” was faster and more feverish than Johnny Cash’s 1969 original, but just as sparkling with wry humor.
Janson dropped his guitar and took to the harmonica for “The Cover of the Rolling Stone,” the 1972 Dr. Hook classic. Janson said he was a longtime fan of Silverstein, who had once read to his second-grade class in his native Missouri.
Janson presented the Poet’s Award to Silverstein’s friend, record executive Susan Nadler, who said she first met him at her popcorn stand in Key West, Florida.
“His presence is so strong,” she said, “I still dream of him at least once a month.”
When Dolly Parton came in to receive the Gary Haber Lifting Lives Award, the crowd erupted, both in noise and action, standing up, cheering and craning to get a better look. Once they quieted down, Brad Paisley walked center stage to honor her by singing “My Tennessee Mountain Home” (1973).
Vince Gill was scheduled to perform with Paisley but had to drop out earlier in the day with voice problems.
Paisley praised Parton’s charitable impulses. “If you’re ever in need,” he said, “there’s nobody better than Dolly Parton.
Parton lived up to his assessment, devoting most of her acceptance remarks to charitable projects she’s backing. Among these is a rebuilding of the fire-ravaged resort town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for which she raised more than $10 million, and her new children’s album, I Believe in You, all proceeds from which will go to her Imagination Library that supplies free books to children all over the world.
“Come back to the Smokies!” she implored the crowd.
Singer Cassadee Pope, who’s appeared in the CMT series, presented the Tex Ritter Film Award for Nashville. The award recognizes an outstanding television movie, series or feature film released during the preceding calendar year which prominently features country music.
Pope introduced Clare Bowen and Charles Esten, who play the characters Scarlett O’Connor and Deacon Claybourne in the series. They harmonized on “Sanctuary,” a song featured in Season 5.
Throughout the song, the crowd interrupted with applause. Bowen and Esten are both accomplished musicians who tour regularly and perform in concerts with other cast members.
During a brief break in the awards presentations, Maren Morris paid tribute to the late Glen Campbell by singing “Galveston,” his Jimmy Webb-composed hit from 1969.
Syndicated radio personality Bobby Bones then came to the stage to praise fellow DJ and countdown king, Bob Kingsley, who was then presented the second Mae Boren Axton Award for his many contributions to country music.
Thomas Rhett tipped his hat to Kingsley, one of his early radio supporters, by singing his 2015 hit, “Die a Happy Man.”
The penultimate prize of the evening — the Songwriter of the Year Award — was presented to Lori McKenna, who wrote Tim McGraw’s 2016 chart-topper, “Humble and Kind,” as well as co-writing Little Big Town’s long-running hit, “Girl Crush.”
Little Big Town serenaded her with its current single, “When Someone Stops Loving You,” which she also co-wrote.
Alluding to the universality of songs, the Boston-based mother of five said, “We don’t define ourselves by gender or race, we’re just songwriters.”
As the show approached the end of its fourth hour, Jason Aldean walked on to present George Strait the Cliffie Stone Icon Award. He recalled seeing Strait in concert 20 years ago and noted how much that event had inspired him to pursue his own musical career.
Chris Stapleton took center stage to sing an impassioned, almost wailing version of Strait’s 1993 classic, “When Did You Stop Loving Me,” from his Pure Country movie soundtrack.
Stapleton then exited, and Alan Jackson came on, backed by a fiddler, to do “Marina del Rey” (1982), “The Fireman” (1985) and concluding with a single line from his 2000 duet with Strait, “Murder on Music Row.”
By this time, many in the audience were leaving. But Jackson’s segment made a great number of them return to their seats.
When Strait came to the stage, he told the crowd, “When I set out on the [musical] road, I figured I had five good years. Now it’s over 30.”
“My feet don’t feel like they’re touching the ground right now,” he continued, voicing his abiding love for performing, “and I feel that every time I come out on stage.”
To demonstrate that impulse, he donned a guitar and sang, “Here for a Good Time.” As he did so, the crowd streamed out of the Ryman, having experienced just that very sensation.
Here is the complete list of winners:
Reba McEntire: Mae Boren Axton Award
Toby Keith: Poet’s Award
Shel Silverstein: Poet’s Award
Kelsea Ballerini: Gene Weed Milestone Award
Nashville: Tex Ritter Film Award
Dolly Parton: Gary Haber Lifting Lives Award
Bob Kingsley: Mae Boren Axton Award
Lori McKenna: Songwriter of the Year
George Strait: Cliffie Stone Icon Award
Foxwoods Resort and Casino: Casino, Small Capacity
The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino: Casino, Medium Capacity
Tortuga Music Festival: Festival of the Year
Joe’s Live: Nightclub
Ryman Auditorium: Venue, Small Capacity
Red Rocks Amphitheatre: Venue, Medium Capacity
Bridgestone Arena: Venue, Large Capacity
Lenore Kinder: Don Romeo Talent Buyer
Ed Warm: Promoter
Studio Recording Awards
Glenn Worf: Bass
Miles McPherson: Drummer
Tom Bukovac and Danny Rader (tie): Guitar
Dave Cohen: Specialty Instruments
Dan Dugmore: Steel Guitar
Chuck Ainlay: Audio Engineer
Jay Joyce: Producer