The Academy of Country Music honored Vince Gill, Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson and a legion of other entertainers and behind-the-scenes figures Monday evening (Sept. 24) at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium.
Photo Credit: Frederick Breedon IV/Getty Images
Also singled out during the ACM Honors celebration were pioneering performers Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs and Dwight Yoakam, legendary producer Billy Sherrill and songwriters Bobby Braddock, Dallas Davidson and the late and endlessly quotable Roger Miller.
The ceremony was designed to allow the ACM to pay respects to important people within the country music business whose contributions can't be acknowledged suitably during its annual network-televised awards show.
Television trucks and limousines clogged the streets in front of and behind the Ryman as stars arrived to walk the red carpet, and long lines of ticket-holders snaked down the sidewalks and through the auditorium's parking area.
Inside, early arrivers watched as musicians set up on the stage and stagehands ran back and forth making microphone adjustments.
Host Dierks Bentley emerged to greet the near-capacity crowd a few minutes past the official 7 p.m. start time.
"Just like Minnie Pearl," he said, "I'm just so proud to be here."
Pointing out that the event wasn't being broadcast or taped, Bentley promised an evening of informal good times, a condition already suggested by the drink he held in his hand.
Bentley introduced singer Jana Kramer, who, in turn, announced the industry award winners: Jimmy Jay of Jayson Promotions (talent buyer of the year), Billy Bob's Texas in Fort Worth (nightclub), Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas (casino), Brian O'Connell of Live Nation (promoter) and Bridgestone Arena in Nashville (venue).
The duo Love and Theft presided over the musician of the year awards, which went to Michael Rhodes (bass), Kenny Greenberg (guitar), John Hobbs (piano, keyboards), Aubrey Haynie (specialty instruments) and an absentee Shannon Forrest (percussion, drums).
Justin Niebank was cited as the year's top engineer.
Kellie Pickler, her head still shaven in solidarity with a friend who's undergoing cancer treatment, emerged from the wings to declare Frank Liddell ACM's producer of the year.
Luke Bryan then walked onstage to uproarious applause to demonstrate why Dallas Davidson had been named ACM's songwriter of the year.
Backed by the band, he belted out abbreviated versions of his own Davidson-penned hits, "Country Girl (Shake It for Me)" and "I Don't Want This Night to End," after which he and Bentley discussed the relative tightness of their pants.
Singer Randy Houser then came forward to present Davidson his award.
Davidson said he was pleased to be mentioned in the same breath with Roger Miller, who would be honored for his gifts of language later that evening.
Indeed, Davidson continued, his favorite lyrics were from Miller's "Dang Me," which go, "Roses are red and violets are purple/Sugar is sweet and so is maple syrple/I'm the seventh out of seven sons/My pappy was a pistol/I'm a son of a gun."
A brief video was shown as background before Vince Gill was brought to the stage to accept the career achievement award. In the video, his wife, the singer Amy Grant, said, "He enjoys people who enjoy music."
Bentley recalled that before he had a record or publishing deal and was still playing in tiny Nashville dives, Gill, who didn't even know him, stopped by one of his gigs and sat in and played mandolin for "an hour and 22 minutes. I timed it."
Gill came to the stage to a prolonged standing ovation. He noted that after he had played that night with Bentley, he told Grant he saw something special in the young performer.
"He's going somewhere," Gill said he predicted.
Gill said he had been a slow starter after he got his own deal in Nashville with RCA Records.
"I made records for the next seven years," he said, "but I couldn't prove it because nobody had them."
He said he was struggling financially when Mark Knopfler called and asked him to join his band, Dire Straits, for an international tour that would have "solved most of my problems."
After thinking it over and being very tempted, he said, he called Knopfler back and turned him down, explaining he believed he had a future in country music and would never forgive himself if he didn't try to fulfill it.
Soon after that -- when he moved to MCA Records -- he scored his breakthrough hit, "When I Call Your Name."
"From day one, when I started playing," Gill summarized, "all I wanted to do was get better." He said he joined the country-swing band the Time Jumpers, in which he still plays, because he thought it would make him a better guitar player.
Alan Jackson next took the stage to accept the Academy's Jim Reeves International Award, a prize given to artists who've made a significant impact in other countries with their music.
Jackson's introductory video showed him playing to a crowd in Norway shortly after the 2011 massacre in which 77 people were killed. Just as he did after the 2001 terrorist attacks in this country, he sang his soothing "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)."
The lanky singer recalled that not long after he had his country music breakthrough, he was in the Bahamas and saw a man in dreadlocks holding a copy of his album. He said that's when he first realized his music had crossed geographical boundaries.
Years later, he said, a friend who did missionary in China told him there were churches there that sang music they learned from listening to his gospel album.
"I didn't leave the state of Georgia until I was 25," he said in a tone of amazement.
Bentley returned to the stage to begin the Roger Miller segment, in which the late singer-songwriter was cited with the Poet's Award.
He reminded the audience that the lyrically-adventurous Miller was fond of saying he was "20 minutes ahead of his time."
In the video that preceded the award, Miller's fellow Oklahoman, Toby Keith, mused, "It's like he had a word wrench. He could twist a word and fit it into any hole."
Clint Black demonstrated Miller's genius and emotional range by performing a medley of "King of the Road," "Dang Me" and "Husbands and Wives."
As Black took his leave to loud applause, Bentley remarked, "I drank a thousand underage beers to [Black's] music."
Miller's longtime friend, Stan Moress, accepted for him and offered a few of his more memorable quotes, including "I was so poor, I was made in Japan" and "If I had my life to live over, I wouldn't have time."
Moress presented the award to Miller's widow, Mary, and his son, Dean, who remembered one more classic witicism from the master wordsmith: "I'd give my right arm to be ambidextrous."
Kenny Chesney earned the ACM's Crystal Milestone Award for, among other achievements, having sold 10 million concert tickets during his career as a headliner. This accomplishment puts him in the same league as the Rolling Stones and U2.
"Luckily, I had a team behind me that helped me catch lightning in a bottle," Chesney told the crowd.
Gayle Holcomb, a veteran ACM executive and board member, took home the Mae Boren Axton Award for her many contributions to the country music industry, one of which was helping found the ACM's Lifting Lives charity, which has given out more than $4 million to people in need.
Before bringing songwriter Bobby Braddock to the stage to receive the second Poet's Award of the evening, Bentley introduced Will Hoge, who sang "Time Marches On," the hit Braddock wrote for Tracy Lawrence.
Then Randy Houser dazzled the crowd with "He Stopped Loving Her Today," perhaps Braddock's most famous composition and the one that supercharged George Jones' dimming career.
Braddock spoke briefly of his friendship with Roger Miller and his appreciation of his wordplay. He noted that Miller had written the cleverly titled "The Last Word in Lonesome Is Me."
One rainy evening while shopping for groceries at a Kroger store, Braddock said, it suddenly occurred to him that "the last word in Kroger is Roger." He said he wished he could have called Miller and told him of this epiphany, but it came to him too late.
"God bless country music fans! Long live country music!" Braddock exclaimed as he left the stage.
The final hour of the show was reserved for conferring pioneer awards on producer Billy Sherrill and performers and recording artists Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs and Dwight Yoakam.
As his video illustrated, Sherrill produced and in some cases wrote songs for artists he helped make superstars, including Charlie Rich, Tammy Wynette and George Jones. Jones and Taylor Swift both congratulated Sherrill in the video.
Pickler returned to the stage to sing a knockout version of "Stand by Your Man," the song Sherrill wrote with and for Wynette.
Sherrill's friend, the producer and songwriter Norro Wilson, walked out into the audience to present the award to the ailing Sherrill. As usual, the notoriously tight-lipped visionary had nothing to say.
Dolly Parton and Elvis Costello were among the many who sent their thumbs-up to Harris via video.
Costello said that no matter how rough his voice was when it left his mouth, it sounded good when Harris sang with him.
Rodney Crowell, whom Harris mentored as an early member of her band, sang "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight," accompanied by fiddler Carmella Ramsey.
Next came Buddy Miller, T Bone Burnett and the Secret Sisters to sing "Boulder to Birmingham," which Harris co-wrote in tribute to her own mentor, Gram Parsons.
Miller presented the pioneer trophy to Harris, who responded, "This is heavy. Can I set it down?" Having gotten that bit of business out of the way, she then withdrew a list from her dress, observing, "A pioneer should always have pockets."
She said she started out in music as "a Joan Baez wannabe" until she was forced to take notice of country music because her brother's enthusiasm for it. But it was only after she met Parsons, she continued, that she became "an obnoxious convert to country music."
Looking back over her career, she thanked numerous people -- many present, some dead -- who'd given her the essential encouragement to continue.
Among these were her former husband and one-time producer Brian Ahern, former manager Eddie Tickner, talent scout and manager Mary Martin, a parade of former band members and finally her mother, who was in the audience, and her late father, who, she said, took her in unconditionally after her first marriage broke up and left her with a child to raise.
Although receiving a pioneer award may sound like a valedictory, Harris assured the audience as she prepared to leave the stage, "I'm not done yet."
Skaggs' video traced his musical ascent from his appearance of the Flatt & Scruggs TV show when he was 7 through his superstar years on Epic Records in the 1980s, when he virtually created the New Traditionalists movement that would later embrace Dwight Yoakam and Randy Travis.
"I'd say he saved country music," said his former label chief, Rick Blackburn, in the video clip.
Describing the artistic freedom Skaggs enjoys now that he has his own record company, his wife, Sharon White, remarked (also on video), "He doesn't answer to anybody but the Lord -- and sometimes me."
To remind the crowd of a few of Skaggs' musical triumphs, the duo Dailey & Vincent sang "Highway 40 Blues," "I Wouldn't Change You if I Could" and "Honey (Open That Door)," with Ramsey, Andy Leftwich and Deanie Richardson on fiddles.
Bentley rounded out the Skaggs sampler with "I Don't Care."
Skaggs began his acceptance remarks by thanking Ahern for teaching him the rudiments of recording during the time that Skaggs was playing in Harris' band and sometimes staying at their home.
He said he was flying home from a gig with Harris when he was "bumped up to first class" and found himself sitting beside a guy who introduced himself as Jim Mazza, who was then an executive for EMI, the company that owned Capitol Records.
Subsequently, Skaggs said, Mazza introduced him to Lynn Shults, who then headed Capitol's Nashville division. Shults was so impressed by Skaggs music that the offered to sign him, but he was countermanded by his boss in Los Angeles.
Thwarted but not defeated, Shults then recommended Skaggs to Rick Blackburn, the chief at Columbia-Epic in Nashville. Not only did Blackburn sign Skaggs, he agreed to let him produce his own records, a privilege he had extended before only to Larry Gatlin.
Skaggs went on to have 11 No. 1 singles on Epic as well as win the CMA male vocalist and entertainer of the year awards.
The final pioneer award went to Yoakam. His video illustrated his pairing with his idol, Buck Owens, and included complimentary comments from his fellow movie actors Billy Bob Thornton and Vince Vaughn.
Ashley Monroe of the Pistol Annies set the stage for Yoakam's coronation by singing his "A Thousand Miles From Nowhere." Hunter Hayes followed, accompanying himself on electric guitar, on a truly scorching cover of "Fast as You."
"Hunter, you might want to cut that," Yoakam said as stepped to the microphone. "That's just the publisher in me," he added.
Yoakam said he was drawn to the West Coast rather than Nashville to pursue his music largely because of his admiration for what Harris was then doing.
"You were the beacon," he asserted.
Yoakam recounted being born in eastern Kentucky, near U.S. 23, the fabled "Hillbilly Highway," that proved to be the way out for such other Kentucky natives as Skaggs, the Judds and Billy Ray Cyrus.
Like many other "hillbillies" who moved to where they could find work, his family, he said, moved on to Columbus, Ohio, before he took the big step and headed west.
But he acknowledged his road to stardom has been considerably smoother than the dirt roads so many of his admired predecessors had traveled.
He credited Skaggs specifically for opening the door through which he and other traditional-oriented artists had entered.
"I'm holding this [trophy] in large measure," he said, "because of the people who believed in me before I had any hits."
As the crowd stood and applauded, Yoakam might have asked himself the question Roger Miller is reputed to have uttered as his fame blossomed: "Is it hot in here -- or is it just me?"
View photos from the ACM Honors ceremony.