Five composers whose hit songs are heard around the world were inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame Sunday night (Oct. 16) at ceremonies held in the Grand Ballroom of Nashville's Renaissance Hotel.
The honorees were Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, John Bettis, Thom Schuyler and Allen Shamblin.
Also eliciting cheers was superstar Taylor Swift, who picked up two awards early in the evening and stayed on to sing a tribute to Jackson.
Counting the hour-long cocktail reception, the event ran for five and-a-half hours. Around 1,000 people attended.
Bowing to the formality of the occasion, Brooks wore a white shirt, tie and vest -- but no coat -- when he came to the stage to accept his award. He was inducted by his manager, Bob Doyle, and producer, Allen Reynolds.
Reynolds said after he first met Brooks and began working with him, he was impressed by his insistence on listening to and recording songs written by others instead of limiting himself to his own material.
Brooks had recorded nine songs for his first album, Reynolds recalled, and needed one more to finish the project. Reynolds suggested he use another of his own. But Brooks refused, pointing out that he already had five of his songs on the album and was determined to hold the line there.
This was an attitude that persisted throughout their recording time together, Reynolds said. "Garth, I would say you've struck a wonderful balance," he added.
"Do you realize we've been retired from the road longer than we worked it?" Doyle asked Brooks rhetorically.
Focusing on Brooks' skills and sensitivity as a lyricist, Doyle quoted lines from "The River" and "We Shall Be Free."
Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he moved on to sample the "profound lyrics" from another Brooks composition, which he read in a properly stately tone: "Ain't goin' down 'til the sun comes up/Ain't givin' in 'til they get enough/Goin' around the world in a pickup truck/Ain't goin' down 'til the sun comes up."
Brooks' co-writers sang snippets from songs they had written with him -- Jenny Yates beginning with "When You Come Back to Me Again" and proceeding with Pat Alger ("The Thunder Rolls"), Stephanie Davis ("We Shall Be Free"), Kent Blazy ("If Tomorrow Never Comes") and Victoria Shaw ("The River").
Alger told the crowd he was playing the same guitar he used when they wrote "Thunder." Davis said she was living in a little "rat trap" near Music Row when Brooks backed his truck onto her lawn, told her she needed a new guitar and then presented her with one.
Shaw said after she and Brooks had finished and made a work tape of "The River," they sat together on the floor of her apartment and listened to it again and again on a "boom box."
Brooks was ecstatic about the song, she said, and exclaimed to her, "God, can't you see a stadium full of people waving their lighters as we sing this song?"
She couldn't, she admitted. "I thought, 'This guy is delusional.' I learned a big lesson that day."
In accepting his award, Brooks spoke of playing to a huge crowd in New York's Central Park in 1997. He said he pulled Shaw to the stage when he sang the song they'd written together. "And here they came," he beamed, "the lighters."
Like the honorees who preceded and followed him to the stage, Brooks devoted most of his acceptance remarks to naming those who had helped, encouraged or otherwise inspired him along the way, among them his favorite singer-songwriters, Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton, as well as James Taylor, Bob Seger and Dan Fogelberg.
He also cited Steve Wariner, Tim Menzies, Skip Ewing, Mike Reid and Leslie Satcher among those whose songs he most admired.
"The greatest award a guy can receive is being called a songwriter," Brooks declared. He ended his remarks by praising his wife, Trisha Yearwood, whom he referred to as "Miss Yearwood."
With a catch in his voice, he said, "I never dreamed that life could be this good."
Mike Dungan, the head of Capitol Records Nashville division, spoke on behalf of Jackson, whom he first met when he was an executive at Arista Records, the label to which Jackson had just been signed.
"He is a giant in country music," Dungan proclaimed, citing the fact that Jackson has sold 60 million albums, had 35 No. 1 singles and earned 80 award nominations from the Country Music Association, a record second only to George Strait's 81.
Jackson's induction, Dungan pointed out, came on the eve of his [53rd] birthday.
Dungan said that Jackson's majestic "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" -- which he wrote in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2011 -- "galvanized everyone in America."
The Wrights, a duo that includes Jackson's nephew, Adam Wright and his wife, Shannon, ranged through a medley of Jackson hits, specifically "Good Time," "Remember When," "Chattahoochee," "Don't Rock the Jukebox" and "Here in the Real World."
Then the spotlight shifted to Swift, who sat on a stool and held the audience spellbound as she sang "Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)." The crowd gave her a standing ovation.
"That was the prettiest version I've ever heard," said Jackson of Swift's performance when he came to the stage. He said he had heard Swift's sing "Teardrops on My Guitar" and predicted great things for her, even before he knew her name.
"I knew she was going to be big," he drawled, "but I didn't know she'd be that big." He also complimented the Wrights, noting that Adam, his sister's son, had been the ring bearer at his wedding.
He related that he and his wife came to Nashville knowing nothing about how the music business worked. "I was just stupid enough not to be scared," he said. "So we just came on up here [from their hometown of Newnan, Ga.], and we've been doing pretty good."
Jackson said his songs basically chronicled the happenings in his life, from "Chasin' That Neon Rainbow," which told of his early days playing music locally, to a recent song about his wife surviving cancer.
"I just wrote what I liked and what my fans liked," he concluded.
Schlitz, who gained early immortality by writing "The Gambler" and who looked vaguely rabbinical in the black hat he donned for the occasion, welcomed his friend Schuyler into the Hall of Fame.
Schlitz recounted that Schuyler was born in Bethlehem -- Pennsylvania -- and came to Nashville in 1978, where he worked as a carpenter, among other things.
Seeking to establish himself, Schlitz continued, Schuyler paid a call on ASCAP, the performance rights organization, where he met the legendary Merlin Littlefield.
After listening to some of Schuyler's songs, Littlefield played him "The Gambler" and said, "You need to write like this."
"[Thom's] been a loyal member of BMI [ASCAP's chief competitor] ever since," said Schlitz.
The late Littlefield would subsequently discourage Brooks, but not sufficiently to scare him away from ASCAP.
Songwriters Fred Knobloch and Tony Arata, accompanied by harmonica wizard Jelly Roll Johnson, treated the audience to some of Schuyler's best known songs, including "Love Will Turn You Around," "Old Yellow Car," "Years After You" and "Long Line of Love."
Then Lacy J. Dalton stepped out to sing with this trio Schuyler's most beloved composition, his paean to fellow songwriters, "16th Avenue."
Dalton, who had a Top 10 hit with "16th Avenue" in 1982, sang it as powerfully as ever. The song's refrain is, "God bless the boys who make the noise on 16th Avenue." But Dalton ad libbed, "God bless all the girls who make the noise" as she ended her performance.
"I really do feel honored more than you know to be a part of this community," said Schuyler. "This is the greatest songwriting community on God's green earth. . . . Thank you for setting a place for me at your lovely table."
Schuyler's remarks ping-ponged between the serious to the whimsical. He spoke of the "hideous compositions" he wrote during his college days in Philadelphia, branding them as "dreck," "shitty" and "self-indulgent."
However, he added, "My ego allowed this [bad writing] to go on unchecked." It was only when he overheard someone at a party moan, "Here comes Schuyler and he's brought his guitar," that he began to second-guess his talent, he said.
Schuyler then read what he called "a love letter to these dear companions" in which he cited the first names of dozens of people in and out of the music business who had supported him. He even thanked Nashville "for welcoming so many poets from all over the world."
Bettis' friend and frequent co-writer Michael Clark presented him for the induction, calling him "an uncomfortable poet" who constantly strived for a higher standard of song craftsmanship.
To illustrate how high that standard was, Brett James and Wayne Kirkpatrick performed from Bettis' broad palette of hits -- "Heartland" (George Strait), "Yesterday Once More" (the Carpenters), "Slow Hand" (the Pointer Sisters, Conway Twitty) and "Human Nature" (Michael Jackson).
The piece de resistance came when Lynn Anderson emerged to sing Bettis' "Top of the World," a No. 1 pop hit for the Carpenters in 1973 and a No. 2 country single for Anderson that same year.
"God, Lynn," Bettis exclaimed when he took the stage, "you make me proud every time you do that song."
He said he saw his career as having occurred in a progression of rooms -- from the bedroom in which he dreamed and sang to himself to dorm rooms to garage bands to motel and studio rooms in Nashville.
He recalled staying in a room at the once fashionable King of the Road hotel in Nashville (now a Days Inn) and listening to newcomer Ronnie Milsap playing rhythm & blues there. That encounter inspired him, he said, to co-write with R. C. Bannon "Only One Love in My Life," which Milsap took to the top of the country charts in 1978.
"This is the room," he said, gesturing to the crowd. "This is where we want to be. This is where we belong."
The audience had dwindled noticeably by the time Reid came forward to induct Shamblin, but the level of enthusiasm among those remaining was still high.
Reid said this was a time to disregard such peripheral concerns as looks and fashion. "This night wants to know one thing," he asserted. "What have you written?" In this regard, he noted, Shamblin stood tall.
Reid explained Shamblin was from the tiny hamlet of Huffman, Texas, where the main industry was "jury duty." Shamblin came to Nashville in 1989 and had his first success in 1990 when Randy Travis went to No. 2 with his "He Walked on Water."
Shamblin's songs, Reid said, "seek to do more than simply entertain. ... Allen's songs respect the ordinary." That quality was once again exemplified, Reid continued, through Shamblin's co-composition with Tom Douglas, "The House That Built Me," a No. 1 for Miranda Lambert and the Country Music Association's song of the year for 2010.
"He is a private man of deep faith," Reid summarized.
Lionel Cartwright performed passages from Shamblin's "He Walked on Water," "Don't Laugh at Me" and "The House That Built Me," while Wynonna provided a dramatic conclusion with a torchy reading of "I Can't Make You Love Me."
"When I was growing up," Shamblin told his well-wishers, "there was food, water, air and songs." He was encouraged to write songs by his sister, he said, who found some of his poems tucked away in a closet.
"You need to finish these," she told him, indicating passages from the poems she had circled in red. "There's a million dollars in this box."
"And I was broke," Shamblin added wistfully.
He remembered his first visit to Don Schlitz's office to co-write and how intimidated he was by the experience. He said he walked down a long hallway with gold and platinum records festooning both walls, then turned the corner into another hallway with more gold and platinum hanging along the sides.
Shamblin said he spotted a restroom beside the door to Schlitz's office and ducked inside hoping to calm down. "And there was a Grammy sitting on the commode," he marveled.
It was Schlitz's wise counsel, he said, that brought him back to earth. "He said, 'In this room, there's only one star. It's the song.'"
Additionally, Schlitz advised Shamblin, "Show up. It puts you 95 percent ahead of everyone else. And be nice to everybody. Today's receptionist is tomorrow's label head."
As had the previous inductees, Shamblin played down his own talent, electing instead to praise others, particularly his publishing mentor, Pat Halper.
"If I've done anything right in this town," he said, "it's because of the people around me."
The evening began with the announcement by Nashville Songwriters Association International of "Songs I Wish I'd Written," an annual list voted by its songwriter members.
Those songs were "American Honey" (written by Cary Barlowe, Hillary Lindsey, Shane Stevens), "Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not" (Jim Collins, David Lee Murphy), "Hello World" (Tom Douglas, Tony Lane, David Lee), "Homeboy" (Casey Beathard, Eric Church), "Honey Bee" (Rhett Akins, Ben Hayslip).
Also, "If I Die Young" (Kimberly Perry), "Mean" (Swift), "Pretty Good at Drinkin' Beer" (Troy Jones), "The Boys of Fall" (Casey Beathard, Dave Turnbull) and "Who Are You When I'm Not Looking" (Earl Bud Lee, John Wiggins).
NSAI gave its song of the year award to Perry for "If I Die Young." Since The Band Perry, the group she leads, was on the road with Reba McEntire, Perry sent her acceptance remarks on video.
Songwriter of the year prize went to Chris DuBois, for such compositions as "Anything Like Me," "Old Alabama" and "Water."
For the fourth time, Swift took the songwriter/artist of the year trophy. "I can't believe I'm here with my heroes," she said.
David Conrad accepted the Frances Williams Preston Mentor Award for his support and guidance to others.
It was Preston who recommended Conrad to open and helm the Almo/Irving publishing office in Nashville, a post he held for 22 years and during which he helped the company score 186 Top 10 singles.
After explaining how he had been guided by such legendary publishing and recording figures as Preston, Chet Atkins, Owen Bradley, Charlie Monk, Tom Collins, Bob Beckham and Harlan Howard, Conrad offered some advice for those on their way up in the music business.
"Try not to let your common sense cloud your judgment," he warned. "It will stop you from doing great things."