Sometimes the most entertaining part of an awards show are the stories told leading up to presenting the trophies.
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Certainly that was the case at ASCAP's 50th anniversary country music awards banquet held Monday evening (Oct. 29) at Nashville's Opryland Hotel.
There the big winners were Ben Hayslip, who was named songwriter of the year, and Brad Paisley, designated songwriter-artist of the year.
Hayslip's "Honey Bee" and Eric Paslay and Terry Sawchuk's "Barefoot Blue Jean Night" shared song of the year honors, and Sony/ATV/EMI copped the publisher of the year prize.
But the real entertainment came late in the evening after nearly half the crowd had slipped away. That's when ASCAP presented Bob McDill its Golden Note Award "in recognition of his exceptional career" as a songwriter. During that career, McDill penned 31 No. 1 songs and a trove of Top 10s.
To describe McDill -- the man and the songwriter -- ASCAP tapped producer and songwriter Allen Reynolds and songwriter Don Schlitz to recall their associations with the honoree.
Reynolds related that he met McDill in Beaumont, Texas, in the early 1960s when McDill was a college student singing in a folk trio and Reynolds was helping run a local recording studio.
After hearing some of McDill's songwriting efforts, Reynolds agreed to produce a demo on him. Looking back on those early songs, Reynolds stressed, "Even his learning pieces were good."
Eventually, Reynolds succeeded in getting one of McDill's songs -- "The Happy Man" -- to pop crooner Perry Como, who cut it in 1967. That same year, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs had a minor hit with another McDill creation, "Black Sheep."
After college, McDill joined the Navy and was ultimately stationed in Memphis -- which also happened to be the place where Reynolds had moved after leaving Beaumont. This proximity brought the two friends together again musically, and when Reynolds decided to relocate to Nashville, he persuaded the reluctant McDill to come with him.
Together, they wrote the song that would become McDill's first country hit, "Catfish John." Johnny Russell took that song to No. 12 in 1973.
Through such songs as "Amanda," "Come Early Morning," "You Never Miss a Real Good Thing'" and "I'll Do It All Over Again," Reynolds said McDill was crucial in launching the careers of both Don Williams and Crystal Gayle.
A frequent co-writer with McDill in those early days, Reynolds said the two of them would relax when songwriting became too onerous by talking about the lore and music of the South.
Both he and McDill, he said, were avid readers, a point that became obvious later when McDill name-checked such Southern literary icons as Uncle Remus, Tennessee Williams and Thomas Wolfe in "Good Ole Boys Like Me," which became a No. 2 hit for Williams in 1980.
"Until a song is born, nothing happens," Reynolds concluded. "After it's born, all things are possible."
"I met my hero in April of 1973," Schlitz intoned when he took the microphone. "I didn't know he was my hero at the time. ... I thought I was his big break."
Then 20 years old and new to Nashville, Schlitz said he had made the rounds of music publishers and finally encountered McDill, who agreed to listen to his songs. Impressed by the first song he heard, Schlitz recalled, McDill kept asking to hear more until Schlitz had run 10 or so by him.
Finally, McDill asked Schlitz if he minded listening to one of his songs. Rather apologetically, as Schlitz remembered it, McDill confessed that the song he wanted to play was only a B-side of a 45 single from a small record label.
"By then, I knew I was his big break," Schlitz beamed.
However, the B-side McDill played him was Williams' recording of "Amanda," and the A-side was "Come Early Morning." The songs were on Jack Clement's adventurous and scrappy new JMI label.
After that, Schlitz said, he and his songwriting buddies spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how they could write like McDill. "We knew he wrote smart songs," Schlitz declared. "He taught me mostly by example."
A methodical writer who kept "banker's hours," McDill's goal was to turn out one good song a week. But he was aware there was always a pull in his music between art and commerce. He once acidly remarked to Schlitz, "We get 10 songs a year by inspiration. Our job [is] to write 40 more for radio."
"Most importantly," Schlitz said in his summation, "he taught me that you can't write country music looking down your nose at it. ... If you want to write a country song, listen to McDill first."
Reynolds and Schlitz were such engaging storytellers -- as the crowd's frequent bursts of applause and laughter testified -- they might consider taking their narrations on the road. They were substantially more literate, revealing and entertaining -- in a word, artistic -- than many of the newer songs that were honored.
To jog the audience's memory of just how good McDill's songs are, Chris and Morgane Stapleton sang "Amanda" (and were rewarded with a standing ovation). Josh Kelley did "Good Ole Boys Like Me." Jon Randall and Jessi Alexander harmonized on "Don't Close Your Eyes." And Ronnie Dunn soldiered through "Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)."
Admitting that he had tried several approaches to the 1986 Dan Seals hit without finding a satisfactory one, Dunn quipped to his backup musicians, "Hit her boys. I'll yell out to whatever key you hit."
"Well, I'm overwhelmed," McDill said when he accepted his award. "I've got tears in my eyes." He recited a long list of obscure and famous friends who had believed in him enough to help him along the way, from loaning him money for groceries to making life-changing contacts.
Then he commented briefly on the value of songs. "We don't know if any of our songs will outlive us," he observed. "But don't take what we do lightly."
Producer Tony Brown was also a charming narrator as he related how he met and became a champion of Lyle Lovett, the evening's recipient of ASCAP's Creative Voice Award.
Brown said he was just beginning to establish himself as a producer under Jimmy Bowen, then head of MCA Records' Nashville division, when songwriter Guy Clark gave him a cassette tape of Lovett's songs. This was in the mid-1980s.
Bowled over by the wit and tone of the songs, Brown said he tried to interest artists in cutting them but found no takers. So he went to Bowen and suggested he produce Lovett as an artist simply by remixing the songs on the cassette. They became Lovett's first album.
Brown noted he was also producing folk singer Nanci Griffith for MCA at the time. When he went to see Griffith perform at a TV taping, he noticed a tall, thin fellow with "high hair" singing harmony.
Seeing Lovett in person, Brown admitted, magnified the young artist's "cool" factor. Brown would end up producing three albums for Lovett and come to regard him as one of the most significant artists he's ever worked with.
Clark then came out to sing one of Lovett's lesser-known gems, "The Waltzing Fool."
Clark had no more than finished the first line in what promised to be a tender interpretation when a loudmouth in the back of the hall shouted, "Yeah, baby!"
Without missing a beat, Clark raised his head and zinged, "I've always said if I could just reach one person ... ." After the laughter died down, there were no more interruptions.
Lovett's longtime friend, Robert Earl Keen, came on next and described his first meeting with Lovett when the two were students at Texas A&M. He said he was playing on his front porch when this stranger rode up on this "cool bike" ["cool" seems to be the operative descriptor when it comes to Lovett] and told him he liked his music.
Keen said he was instantly impressed by Lovett's look and good manners, which somehow struck him as incongruous considering the scene.
"It was like Kelsey Grammer walked into Hee Haw," Keen observed.
With that, Keen sang "The Front Porch Song."
Sam Bush and Jon Randall wrapped up the musical tribute with the delightfully surrealistic "If I Had a Boat."
Bush said he was touring with New Grass Revival when he first came to know Lovett. Later, he played in Lovett's band. "He's a wonderful bandleader and guitar player," he noted.
Wearing a tux and looking not a day older or a pound heavier than he did when he made his musical breakthrough, Lovett told the crowd, "It's overwhelming when your friends come together and do something nice for you. ... I am deeply moved by this honor."
Following tradition, ASCAP had the writers of its top five songs of the year sing them onstage.
Jason Sellers, Andy Gibson and Paul Jenkins did "Don't You Wanna Stay," the song Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson took to No. 1.
Hayslip, backed by fellow Peach Pickers Rhett Akins and Dallas Davidson, sang "I Don't Want This Night to End," a hit for Luke Bryan.
Dave Barnes and Ed Cash reprised their Blake Shelton chart-topper, "God Gave Me You."
Backed by the Vanderbilt University drum line, Paslay and Sawchuk rocked out with "Barefoot Blue Jean Night," the Jake Owen summer fantasy.
Finally, Hayslip and Akins returned to the stage to sing "Honey Bee," another Shelton rhapsody.
ASCAP presented its Partners in Music Award to Sirius XM Satellite Radio for its massive broadcasting of country music new and old.
View photos from the event.
Here are ASCAP's award-winning country songs for 2012.
"A Little Bit Stronger"
"Am I the Only One"
"Bait a Hook"
"Barefoot Blue Jean Night"
Eric Paslay, Terry Sawchuk
Brad Paisley, Chris DuBois, Kelley Lovelace
"Country Must Be Country Wide"
"Don't You Wanna Stay"
Andy Gibson, Paul Jenkins, Jason Sellers
"God Gave Me You"
"Heart Like Mine"
"Here for a Good Time"
Dierks Bentley, Dan Wilson
"I Don't Want This Night to End"
"I Got Nothin'"
Darius Rucker, Clay Mills
"I Got You"
Jason Sellers, Keifer Thompson
"I Won't Let Go"
Jason Sellers, Steve Robson
"I Wouldn't Be a Man"
Mike Reid, Rory Bourke
"I'm Gonna Love You Through It"
"If Heaven Wasn't So Far Away"
"Let It Rain"
David Nail, Jonathan Singleton
"Live a Little (Love a Lot)"
David Lee Murphy
"Long Hot Summer"
"Love Don't Run"
Ben Glover, Joe Leathers, Rachel Thibodeau
"Love's Gonna Make It Alright"
Brad Paisley, Chris DuBois, Dave Turnbull
Brad Paisley, Chris DuBois, Kelley Lovelace
"Tattoos on This Town"
"This Ole Boy"
"You and Tequila"
"You Gonna Fly"
Jaren Johnston, Chris Lucas