With Marty Stuart's Sparkle & Twang exhibit serving as a backdrop Wednesday night (June 20) in Nashville, the Academy of Country Music presented awards honoring Dolly Parton, Don Williams, Waylon Jennings, Buck Owens, songwriter Harlan Howard and record promoter Jack Lameier. Stuart served as master of ceremonies for the presentation at the Tennessee State Museum.
Among the honorees, only Parton and Lameier attended. Jennings, Owens and Howard are deceased. The notoriously reclusive Williams was represented by his manager.
Performing for the small, invitation-only crowd were Stuart and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, Trisha Yearwood, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, Connie Smith, Ray Scott, Ty Herndon, Roger Cook and Ashley Monroe.
Porter Wagoner, Tracy Lawrence, Hal Ketchum, gospel diva Dottie Rambo, songwriter- producer Doug Johnson, songwriter Richard Leigh and CMA Hall of Fame member Jim Foglesong were among the guests. A cocktail party preceded the bestowing of honors.
When Stuart took the stage to start the presentations, he spotted Wagoner in the audience and yelled, "Hello, Porter Wagoner, Nashville's latest rock star!" He was alluding to the recent release of Wagoner's new album, Wagonmaster, which Stuart produced for a Los Angeles-based rock music label. Later on, Stuart pointed out that the album had put the revered Grand Ole Opry star back on the charts for the first time in 24 years.
Stuart and his band opened the show with an a cappella rendering of "Angels Rock Me to Sleep." The first trophy, the Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award, went to Howard, who composed such evergreens as "I Fall to Pieces," "Pick Me Up on Your Way Down" and "I've Got a Tiger by the Tail."
Alluding to Howard's great influence on other songwriters, Stuart said he had sent him $100 every January for 15 years "for everything I'd stolen and everything I was going to steal from him."
Ralph Murphy, Howard's longtime friend, enumerated the writer's quirks and virtues, noting that he "was a great talker and a better listener." Murphy explained that Howard, who had come from a severely disjointed family, told him that his favorite among the songs he had written was "No Charge." A 1974 hit for Melba Montgomery, "No Charge" focuses on the wise interplay between a loving but firm mother and a quick-learning son.
Murphy recounted that the first purchases Howard made with his song royalties were a Cadillac and a Martin guitar. "That's country," Murphy proclaimed.
Stuart brought Yearwood onstage to sing a tribute to Howard, who died in 2002. She told the audience that even after she signed to MCA Records, she initially had to support herself by singing demos -- and that the very last demo she did was for a Harlan Howard song. To honor him, she sang his wistful "He Called Me Baby," a minor hit for Patsy Cline in 1964, following her death. Howard's widow, Melanie, accepted his award.
The Jim Reeves International Award went to Owens, who died in his sleep in 2006 after eating his favorite meal and performing to adoring listeners at his opulent Crystal Palace in Bakersfield, Calif. Backed by the Fabulous Superlatives, Connie Smith then sang Howard's "The Key's in the Mailbox," and Stuart and the band followed with a rousing cover of Owens' beloved instrumental theme song, "Buckaroo." Family friend Jerry Hubbard accepted the award.
Jennings' widow, Jessi Colter, sent a letter extolling him. It said, in part, "He turned America's heart inside out. ... May we all live in such a way as to see him again." Following the reading, newcomer Ray Scott sang "Rainy Day Woman," a song Jennings wrote and had a hit with in 1974. Buddy Jennings accepted the Cliffie Stone prize for his father, who died in 2002.
Talent manager John Dorris presented Lameier the Mae Boren Axton Award, which is designated for those who have performed extraordinary services for the Academy of Country Music. Now retired, Lameier spent 40 years in record promotion for Sony/CBS Records. He was also the principal force in relocating the annual ACM awards show from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.
Looking not a day older or a pound heavier than when he had the hit in 1995, Ty Herndon honored Lameier by singing "What Mattered Most," one of the hundreds of hits Lameier helped promote. "I was so green," Herndon said of the song's out-of-the-box success, "that I didn't know that 137 adds [at radio] on the first day was good." Lameier shouted from the audience, "It still holds the record!"
Herndon's performance was one of the most compelling of the evening. Instead of roaming about the room and talking to each other, as they had been doing earlier, the guests and media people stopped in their tracks and listened to Herndon's yearning voice -- and they applauded him accordingly. Watching the performance proudly was Doug Johnson, who produced the original record.
In accepting his award, Lameier spoke on behalf of all record promoters, noting, "We might be dinosaurs now. Everything's on the Internet. But, by God, we had a good roll."
Stuart returned to the stage to honor Williams with his Pioneer Award "It's a crazy world out there," he said, "but every time I hear a Don Williams song, I feel all right again."
Dorris, who had once managed Williams, introduced Robert Pratt, who has served as the singer's manager since 1992. Pratt spoke of Williams' international popularity, especially in Europe, South Africa and Zimbabwe. "I believe Don carried country music across the world," he said.
After Pratt's comments, Stuart introduced singer-songwriter Roger Cook. Holding up the ukulele with which he accompanies himself, Cook joked, "Never wash a guitar." He then strummed the opening chords to "I Believe in You," his hit for Williams in 1980. Pratt, who had journeyed from his home in Britain for the occasion, accepted Williams' award.
Stuart next ushered Wagoner to the stage. Still shaky and recovering from a near fatal aneurysm a year ago, the 79-year-old star was nonetheless resplendent in his lilac-colored finery. His chore was to present his former protégée, Dolly Parton, with the final Pioneer Award of the night.
Wagoner recalled first meeting and interviewing Parton in 1967 when he was seeking a replacement for Norma Jean on his TV show. "She sang to me some of the songs she had written," he said, "and they were the best I ever heard." Parton was "nervous" at the interview, he continued, and "talked like a machine gun."
Ashley Monroe, a new artist on Columbia Records, tipped her hat to Parton with a cover of "But You Know I Love You," Parton's hit from 1981. "I also grew up in East Tennessee [as Parton did]," Monroe told the crowd, "and my Christmas gift every year was a season pass to Dollywood."
Rhonda Vincent and her band, the Rage, came next for a blistering bluegrass interpretation of Parton's 1973 hit, "Jolene." She had the crowd cheering at her first notes.
Then Wagoner returned to the stage to welcome Parton. Returning to their first encounter, he said, "She had more talent than anyone I'd met in my lifetime." In response to some leering wisecracks from Stuart, Wagoner grinned and said, "I didn't hire her because she had big boobs. Honest."
When Parton came out, dressed in a form-fitting black dress, the crowd gave her the evening's only standing ovation. She said she thought it was fitting that she was receiving a "pioneer" award. "I thought, 'How appropriate.' I remember when me and Porter came to Nashville in a covered wagon."
But Parton reassured everyone that she's not fading into history just yet. "I may be a pioneer," she said, "but I'm blazing new trails. So don't give up on me." Then she turned to Wagoner and said, "And, yes, you did hire me because I had big boobs."
Stuart reminded guests that his Sparkle & Twang exhibit at the Tennessee State Museum in downtown Nashville is open to the public at no charge. His collection of priceless country music memorabilia includes dozens of stage costumes, historic musical instruments, original song manuscripts and both formal and intimate show business photos.