The evening wasn't just star-studded, it was star-saturated.
Everywhere one turned Sunday night (March 10) at the T.J. Martell Foundation's fifth annual honors gala in Nashville there was someone who had distinguished himself or herself in music, television, movies or medicine.
The foundation was established within the music industry to raise funds for medical research into cures for cancer, leukemia and AIDS.
Singled out for awards from the foundation were singer and songwriter Vince Gill, musician, producer and musical director T Bone Burnett, civic booster Butch Spyridon and philanthropist and hospital volunteer Peggy Joyce.
On hand to honor the recipients and entertain the capacity dinner crowd at the Hutton Hotel were Academy Award winning actor (and sometimes country singer) Jeff Bridges, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members Elvis Costello and John Mellencamp, multiple Grammy winning singer Amy Grant and blues and roots music favorite Keb' Mo'.
Also in attendance were Nashville TV series cast members Charles "Chip" Esten (Deacon Claybourne), Eric Close (Teddy Conrad), Clare Bowen (Scarlett O'Connor), Jonathan Jackson (Avery Barkley) and Todd Truly (record executive Marshall Evans), hit songwriters Tim Nichols, Rivers Rutherford and Aaron Barker, supporting musicians John Hobbs, Stuart Duncan and Dennis Crouch and rising singer Jenny Gill.
Esten deftly hosted the ceremonies and enlivened the chore with flashes of easygoing humor. He told the crowd he had a personal connection with the event owing to the fact that his daughter Addie had battled leukemia.
Nichols and Rutherford kicked off the evening's entertainment by dedicating to Spyridon songs they had written. Spyridon is president and CEO of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau and championed construction of the imposing new Music City Center, which is set to open May 19.
For that and other achievements, Spyridon was given the foundation's Spirit of Nashville Award.
Seated side by side with Rutherford and each accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, Nichols sang "Live Like You Were Dying." Rutherford followed with his more recently penned tribute to the power of music, "So I Sang," which he said was inspired by his father.
Nichols continued his celebration of Spyridon by going to the podium and reciting a list of his accomplishments, major and minor, including coining such Nashville-oriented T-shirt slogans as "Music Is the Reason I Get Up Every Afternoon" and "Everything's Within Dreaming Distance."
"I really don't like to hear about myself," Spyridon responded when it came his turn to speak. "But that was pretty good."
Warming to the subject of the town he's hired to beat the drums for, he continued, "We don't do a lot of things. But we sing damn better than anywhere else in the world." He said that when he came to Nashville to take his present job, he saw "a really cool city with a soul."
One of his earliest assignments after he took the job, he recalled, was checking out the town of Branson, Mo., which, at the time, was being viewed by national media as a serious competitor to Nashville's music industry.
That perception arose largely because several performers who had already made names for themselves in country music but were then past their chart-prime were moving to Branson to open their own theaters.
With reluctance, Spyridon said, he went to Branson and found nothing there to be disturbed about. Interviewed on a Springfield, Mo., TV station, Spyridon offered this summary of the supposed Branson-Nashville faceoff, "As I see it, Nashville breeds them, and Branson buries them."
Congenitally buoyant, Spyridon nonetheless broke into tears when he thanked his children who sat in the audience. He concluded by saying, "After my wife and kids, this city has my heart and soul."
He got a standing ovation.
The presentations, which started at 7 p.m. and lasted until almost to 11 p.m., moved slowly and were interrupted by brief auctions.
The first one offered a day's work as an extra on the Nashville series. It went for $7,000.
"I can't guarantee you'll be in the final edit," Esten warned the winner. "They don't even guarantee me that."
Gill was up next for honors. The scheduling was propitious, Esten told the crowd, since this day was also Gill and Amy Grant's 13th wedding anniversary.
Gill's daughter Jenny sang "Whenever You Come Around," Gill's 1994 hit, which, she explained, was inspired by "his lovely wife, Amy Grant."
Keb' Mo' then took the spotlight to serenade with "Government Cheese" and soon had the crowd clapping along with his music.
"Jenny Gill, you were the best surprise about marrying your dad," Grant said when stepped up to confer the award. Calling her husband "freakishly gifted," she spoke warmly of his support for other entertainers and of his contentment with being a "sideman."
"He's going to fill in all the cracks," she said. "He's not going to let you fall." But, she warned, "He's very impatient with a non-listening audience. ... He knows you need this [music]."
Grant also gave Keb' Mo' the ultimate compliment: "We did not know Keb' Mo' then," she said to him, alluding to the day she and Gill were wed, "but we made wild, fantastic, married love to your music all that weekend."
In accepting the Frances Williams Preston Lifetime Music Industry Award, Gill looked out at all the approving faces and said the scene symbolized what Nashville at its best had always meant to him -- "a roomful of friends."
"I was crazy about Frances [Preston]," he said, explaining that the late chief of the BMI performance rights organization had been a generous and welcoming presence in his life.
He said he first recorded in Nashville as a member of Pure Prairie League. When the group cut five of his songs on the first album he recorded with them, he was confronted with the question of whether to sign as a songwriter with BMI or its major competitor, ASCAP.
He said he chose BMI because it gave him a small advance against potential royalties. "I don't know if they realized what an impact that had on me," he mused, noting that it enabled him to pay his rent and buy a car.
Gill spoke of his early days as a struggling musician in Los Angeles. One his most reliable gigs was at an outpost called Rawhide, which, he said, "was very much a homosexual club."
There, his most requested numbers, he said, was "Stand by Your Man."
He marveled at how broadly he had been accepted by groups not known primarily for their love of country music. Once he even made the cover of Jet magazine. He said that distinction caused an African American acquaintance of his father to exclaim, "Now your boy's done something good!"
Ever the dutiful dad himself, Gill joked with Esten that Jenny "would like to be a cast member on Nashville -- and [get] a record deal while you're at it."
He praised Grant for giving him the best 13 of "my 55 years." And he focused attention as well on the three musicians who had backed Jenny on her song -- Hobbs (a longtime member of Gill's own band), Crouch (a former member of the Time Jumpers) and Duncan (who Gill first knew as a fiddling prodigy in Los Angeles).
Gill said that when Jenny was 15 years old, she liked to bowl. So trying to be an understanding and accommodating father, he decided to take her and her boyfriend to a movie that he heard was about bowling, The Big Lebowski, a vehicle that would forever identify Bridges as "the Dude."
To his horror, Gill discovered the movie was sexually explicit. He said that watching it with his daughter and her boyfriend was among the most excruciating two hours of his life.
Recently, Dawn Sears -- who sings with the Time Jumpers and toured for years in Gill's band -- was diagnosed with stage three lung cancer. Gill began weeping when he spoke of Sears, characterizing her as "one of the greatest female singers" he had ever heard. He said that one of the reasons he joined the Time Jumpers was to draw attention to Sears' formidable talents.
The ensuing auction saw a new Fender Telecaster guitar and an autographed copy of Gill's Guitar Slinger album go for $10,000.
By this time, it was well past 9 p.m. "We want to get this thing going so we won't have to serve breakfast," Esten quipped.
Songwriter Barker then came to the stage to tip his hat to honoree Peggy Joyce, whom he said he first met at a Country in the Rockies fundraising event. He sang his wistful and reflective "Touch," which he associated with a 40-year-old terminal cancer patient who lamented to him that her greatest regret about dying was that she would miss holding her 9-month-old baby.
The crowd rewarded Barker's performance with loud and sustained applause.
Dr. Jennifer A. Pietenpol, who presented the Lifetime Humanitarian Award to Joyce, called her "a quiet force of nature" and noted she had been a volunteer in the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center for 25 years, often acting as a patient advocate. The Henry Joyce Cancer Center at Vanderbilt, Dr. Pietenpol said, was named for Joyce's husband.
At the auction interval, an acoustic guitar donated and autographed by Mellencamp went for $5,500.
Swinging into the final award presentation of the evening, Esten described T Bone Burnett as "the life's blood" of the Nashville TV series, which was created by Burnett's wife, Callie Khouri. Burnett, who serves as Nashville's executive music director and co-composer, received the T. J. Martell Lifetime Entertainment Achievement Award.
Greeted by mighty cheers, Mellencamp sang "Save Some Time to Dream," a song Burnett had produced on his 2010 album, No Better Than This, and the evergreen "Little Pink Houses."
He bowed out to a standing ovation.
Two roundtrip airline tickets, hotel accommodations and concert tickets to Taylor Swift's upcoming two-day appearance in Los Angeles were auctioned off for $4,000.
A Jeff Bridges package of goodies, including inscribed copies of the Crazy Heart soundtrack album and his book, The Dude and the Zenmaster, proved so appealing that two bidders won a package for $7,000 each.
Bridges urged the bidding on by rising from his seat and proclaiming, "If you dig Bone, this is something for you."
A dinner for four with Esten at Nashville's Palm restaurant brought $4,000.
At 10:05 p.m., the lavishly bearded Bridges came forward to praise all things Burnett. Indulging himself in "meat metaphors," Bridges presented his friend as a "well done" talent.
"When he was born, he wasn't to be Tony or Pete," Bridges intoned in Biblical cadences. "No. Somebody said his name shall be T Bone. And it was good."
Burnett, Bridges assured the crowd, is "a work in progress ... willing to glean from any source. ... He's like the Willy Wonka of music, coming up with golden flavor for our ears. ... He's a leading citizen of this musical planet."
In all, it took Bridges 10 minutes to descant on how remarkable Burnett is.
Burnett came to the stage to a recording of Hank Thompson singing "The Wild Side of Life." He noted the song had its roots in "Wildwood Flower" and "The Great Speckled Bird" and that "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," Kitty Wells' spinoff of the song, had "one of the greatest couplets in country music."
That phrase, Burnett said, was "The glamour of the gay night life has lured you/To the places where the wine and liquor flow."
"We in this country have defined ourselves through music from the beginning," he said. "Recorded music is to the United States as wine is to France. It is at the very heart of our national identity. ... We have spread our culture all over the world with it."
He then sounded an alarm.
"The arts have always led the sciences," he said. "But now the world of music has been under a 20-year attack by the technology community, and Nashville is the last bastion -- the Alamo -- of the recording arts."
He cited continuing loss of revenue because of decreased record sales and the decline in clubs, record stores and "the whole ecosystem that led to our great advance." Even so, he said, "Remnants of that [ecosystem] still exist in Nashville in great concentration. There has probably never been this intense a concentration of musical talent ever -- anywhere."
Burnett described his long and close relationships with Bridges, Mellencamp and Costello, the last of whom he said taught him "more about making music and maybe about life in general ... than anyone I can think of. He taught me the beautiful carelessness of art."
Although the official presentations were over, Costello came on to entertain the still enthusiastic crowd with a set that included "King of America," "A Slow Drag With Josephine," "The Scarlet Tide" and "Sugarcane."
Duncan and Crouch, who worked with Costello on his 2009 Sugarcanes tour, accompanied him, and Bowen stepped forward to sing lead and harmony with him on "The Scarlet Tide," which he and Burnett co-wrote for the movie Cold Mountain.
Bowen told the crowd she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer when she was 4 years old but had been saved by an experimental treatment.
The program ended at 10:50 p.m.. However, the honorees and their admirers lingered and chatted near the stage for long after that.