To celebrate Cherry Lane Music founder Milt Okun's Lifetime Achievement Award at this year's Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony, the publishing mainstay's first signee, Tom Paxton, sang John Denver's "

To celebrate Cherry Lane Music founder Milt Okun's Lifetime Achievement Award at this year's Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony, organizers paired a bit of the old with the new. The publishing mainstay's first signee, Tom Paxton, sang John Denver's "Leaving on a Jet Plane" with Cherry Lane's newest addition, 22-year-old Madi Diaz.

"Madi Diaz is someone I'll be watching carefully . . . She has the goods to go far," Paxton later wrote on his Web site.

Diaz, originally from "BF nowhere" Pennsylvania, made an early fan out of Ty Stiklorius, a member of John Legend's management team. Stiklorius "was at [New York's] the Bitter End for somebody who was playing before me, but came up to me after my set and was like, 'OK, I'm not crazy, I'm just about to sound crazy. I work for John Legend. And now I want to work with you,' " Diaz recalls.

By the time Stiklorius had settled in as her manager, Diaz had already waved goodbye to her scholarship at Boston's Berklee School of Music and taken up co-writing with songsmith Kyle Ryan (who would also go on to be signed to Cherry Lane). Last year she scored a spot at the Newport Folk Festival, while this year she performed at the Rocky Mountain Folk Fest.

Only two months ago, she and Ryan moved to Nashville and into the good company of artists like Landon Pigg, Garrison Starr, Jeremy Lister and David Mead—all songwriters from a similar country- and folk-influenced pop vein. Dixie Chicks/Alison Krauss producer Gary Paczosa has "taken me under his wing," according to Diaz, and she, with her band, have been recording an EP to shop in the coming months. Jay Joyce (Patty Griffin, John Hiatt) and Marshall Altman (Kate Voegele, Matt Nathanson) have also had a hand in producing Diaz.

In the meantime, she and Ryan continue to work five or six days a week writing new material for Cherry Lane and showcasing in New York, Nashville and other major music markets. She will play Next Big Nashville Sept. 12 and will share the stage with Roman Candle and Keegan DeWitt Oct. 11 in Music City.