As day shaded into night Tuesday (Nov. 5), limousines bearing the first of more than 1,200 guests began arriving at the brightly festooned entrance at the Nashville headquarters of BMI, the mammoth performance rights organization.
Photo Credit: Rick Diamond/Getty Images
Across the street and behind a rope barrier, dozens of fans stood on tiptoe, craning their necks to glimpse celebrities of various wattage streaming in to witness BMI's 61st annual country music awards presentations.
The evening's big winner was veteran songwriter Dean Dillon, who was given the Icon trophy, BMI's loftiest award for composers. Also spotlighted were Rodney Clawson, the song "Wanted" and Sony/ATV Music. They were honored, respectively, as songwriter, song and publisher of the year.
Inside BMI's cavernous and festively-decorated reception hall, guests flocked to a line of well-stocked bars that ran the length of the room.
Reporters, photographers and other music industry gawkers hovered near the doors, hoping for a news tip, a quotation or, best of all, a handshake or hug from the stars sweeping by.
Among the celebrities circulating at the soiree were George Strait, Kenny Chesney, Eric Church, Justin Moore, Lee Brice, Luke Bryan, Keith Urban, Hunter Hayes, Jake Owen, Kacey Musgraves and Toby Keith.
Also, The Band Perry, Lee Ann Womack, The Del McCoury Band, Gary Allan, Brantley Gilbert, Florida Georgia Line, Kix Brooks, Dustin Lynch, Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts, Kip Moore, Casey James and the Eli Young Band, along witth Charles Esten and Sam Palladio of the ABC series Nashville and four members of the Robertson family from Duck Dynasty.
After the cocktail party had run for an hour, guests elevatored to the building's fourth floor parking garage which had undergone a Cinderella transformation into an elegant, white tablecloth restaurant.
Each place setting on the 163 tables featured a circular cardboard device with a rotating disc, which, when turned, revealed the evening's hosts, schedule, menu, musical performances and post-awards activities.
Printed brightly on the disc was the phrase "I ain't here for a long time, I'm here for a good time," the refrain from Strait's hit "Here for a Good Time," which the singer co-wrote with his son, Bubba, and Dillon.
In keeping with the Dillon theme, the table assignment cards handed to each guest at arrival read "Well excuse me, but I think you've got my chair ... I don't mind if you sit here at Table ... ."
Instead of taking their seats promptly, as a voice from the loudspeaker repeatedly implored them to, the guests mingled and visited the bars, ignoring for the moment the bottles of red and white wines that awaited them at their tables.
Songwriters, ever alert to cement their connections, clustered around artists -- and the artists, always on the lookout for a hit song, welcomed their attention.
The socializing continued through dinner, which consisted of Black Angus filet, Coca-Cola fried chicken thighs, whiskey ginger glazed carrots, sautéed collards with pork belly and roasted rosemary fingerling potatoes.
Finally, BMI's Jody Williams mounted the stage to call the room to order and begin handing out the first of 50 songwriting awards.
"There's more interest in our music and our lifestyle than ever before," he told the crowd.
He went on to praise the tenure of BMI president Del Bryant, who will retire in 2014 after 42 years of service to the organization.
"You've got a great big room full of folks who love you," he said to Bryant, the son of legendary songwriters Felice & Boudleaux Bryant.
BMI assistant vice president of writer-publisher relations Clay Bradley joined Williams to help hand out the awards. Bradley announced that the ceremony was dedicated to the memory of Cowboy Jack Clement and George Jones, both members of the Country Music Hall of Fame who had died within the past year.
After the first 25 awards were dispensed, Bryant came forward to praise Dillon and explain why he was being honored with the Icon award.
"He connects country's honky-tonking ancestry to its arena-packing present," Bryant declared. He said Dillon and Frank Dycus wrote the song "Unwound" thinking it would be perfect for Johnny Paycheck.
"Unfortunately," Bryant continued, "[Paycheck] was in jail at the time."
Consequently, the song was pitched to Strait's producer, who convinced the aspiring young Texan to record it. It became his first hit -- and the first of 54 Dillon songs he would eventually record.
Among those songs were such keepers as "Down and Out," "Marina del Rey," "The Chair," "Nobody in His Right Mind Would Have Left Her," "Ocean Front Property," "Famous Last Words of a Fool," "If I Know Me" and "Easy Come, Easy Go."
Bryant told how a penniless Dillon had made his way to Nashville from East Tennessee, hoping to become a songwriter.
"He would have slept in his car, but he didn't have a car," Bryant said. "So he slept in a coal bin on Music Row."
Once Dillon's story had been told, it was time for some of his songs to be heard. Backed by the house band, Luke Bryan began with a blistering version of "Unwound," leaning into the microphone and raking his guitar as if delivering a sermon.
After the applause subsided, Bryan looked down at the table where Dillon was sitting and told him how influential his music had been on his own career.
"I could sing your songs before I could talk," he said.
Lee Ann Womack came next with the desolate "An Empty Glass," a song Dillon co-wrote with Gary Stewart and with which Stewart had minor chart success in 1988.
"An empty glass/That last cigarette/It's closing time/And I'm drunk again," she sang. "That's how my day ends/Every night for me."
Kenny Chesney belted out the raucous "Holed Up in Some Honky Tonk," a song Dillon co-wrote and charted as a recording artist in 1991. The giant TV screens located around the room showed Dillon smiling, nodding and mouthing the words as Chesney sang.
Then Strait took the stage. Seated on a stool and holding a microphone, he began by thanking Dillon for sending him songs "when nobody knew who I was." He said he'd included at least one Dillon song on every album he'd recorded -- except for one.
On that one, he explained, Dillon had recommended a song by another writer and, in so doing, had knocked off one of his own songs Strait had been prepared to cut.
Strait first sang part of "Marina del Rey," then segued into "The Chair." The crowd stood to applaud him, and he finished with "Here for a Good Time."
When Dillon came up to accept the Icon award for "his unique and indelible influence on generations of entertainers," he and Strait embraced.
"I live, eat, sleep and breathe songs," Dillon declared. "It's all I've ever done. It's all I've loved to do. ... In the immortal words of [songwriter] Hank Cochran, 'Isn't this wonderful!'"
Following the presentation, 25 more songwriter awards were given out. The ceremony ended with the announcement of the song, songwriter and publisher of the year.
Clawson's array of award-winning songs included "Drink on It" (recorded by Blake Shelton), "Drunk on You" (Luke Bryan), "One of Those Nights" (Tim McGraw), "Take a Little Ride" (Jason Aldean) "Where I Come From" (Montgomery Gentry) and "Did It for the Girl" (Greg Bates).
"Wanted," the year's top song, was recorded by Hunter Hayes and co-written by Hayes and Troy Verges.
Sony/ATV earned its publisher of the year trophy by having its brand on 20 of the 50 most-peformed songs.
When the partiers went back downstairs, the reception area had been rearranged to accommodate a stage for legendary guitarist Harold Bradley's band and provide space for tables and dessert counters. There were also displays of seafood appetizers labeled "Ocean Front Property." The bars doled out liqueurs, coffee and all the other more conventional libations.
As always, BMI demonstrated it knows how to party.
View photos from the event.
Here is a complete list of BMI's most-performed songs of the past year:
Brett Beavers, Jim Beavers
"A Woman Like You"
Phil Barton, Johnny Bulford
"Alone With You"
Tony Martin, Wendell Mobley
Blair Daly, Kip Moore, Troy Verges
Toby Keith, Bobby Pinson
"Better Than I Used to Be"
"Come Wake Me Up"
"Cowboys and Angels"
Josh Leo, Dustin Lynch, Tim Nichols
Eric Church, Marv Green
Tyler Hubbard, Brian Kelley, Joey Moi, Chase Rice, Jesse Rice
"Crying on a Suitcase"
Lee Thomas Miller
"Dancin' Away With My Heart"
"Did It for the Girl"
Greg Bates, Rodney Clawson
"Drink on It"
Rodney Clawson, Jon Randall
"Drunk on You"
"Even if It Breaks Your Heart"
"Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)"
"Fastest Girl in Town"
"Goodbye in Her Eyes"
Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, John Hopkins, Sonia Leigh
"Hard to Love"
Billy Montana, John Ozier
"How Country Feels"
Vicky McGehee, Wendell Mobley
"Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye"
Luke Bryan, Jeff Stevens
"Love's Gonna Make It Alright"
"Lovin' You Is Fun"
Jim Beavers, Bob DiPiero
"Merry Go 'Round"
Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, James Otto
"One of Those Nights"
Rodney Clawson, Luke Laird
"The One That Got Away"
Dallas Davidson, Jake Owen, Jimmy Ritchey
Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton
Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird
"Postcard From Paris"
Jeff Cohen, Kara DioGuardi, Kimberly Perry, Neil Perry, Reid Perry
"Red Solo Cup"
Brett Beavers, Jim Beavers, Brad Warren, Brett Warren
Andrew Dorff, Hunter Hayes, Luke Laird
"Somethin' 'Bout a Truck"
Dan Couch, Kip Moore
Eric Church, Jeff Hyde, Ryan Tyndell
"Take a Little Ride"
Dylan Altman, Rodney Clawson, Jim McCormick
"Til My Last Day"
"Time Is Love"
Tony Martin, Mark Nesler, Tom Shapiro
"Tip It on Back"
Ross Copperman, Tully Kennedy
Delta Maid, Natalie Hemby
"Two Black Cadillacs"
Hunter Hayes, Troy Verges
"Where I Come From"
Rodney Clawson, Dallas Davidson
"You Don't Know Her Like I Do"
Brantley Gilbert, Jim McCormick