Hunt found himself among some other significant figures at the ASCAP awards. Ashley Gorley was recognized as the performing rights organization's top country songwriter a second straight year and third time overall. Six of his songs were recognized during the evening, and Luke Bryan was on hand to help perform two of them – "I See You" and "Play It Again," which included an appearance by Gorley's daughter, Sadie Gorley.
Trisha Yearwood walked off with the ASCAP Voice of Music Award in a presentation that had so much star power that husband Garth Brooks wasn't even required to leave his table. Justin Timberlake emceed the segment, and President Jimmy Carter gave the introductory speech following Lady Antebellum's fragile rendition of Yearwood's hit "Walkaway Joe," Allie Brooks' innocent take on her stepmom's "She's In Love With The Boy," and Reba McEntire's stylish reimagination of "The Song Remembers When."
"Trisha Yearwood is iconic and kindly, and it's wonderful to see somebody be that monstrously successful who has such a light around her and such a great heart," said ASCAP president Paul Williams, a notable songwriter himself ("We've Only Just Begun," "An Old Fashioned Love Song"). "It seems like Garth and Trisha are just exemplary of the best in this business."
Billboard Cover: Sam Hunt on Breaking Down Stereotypes, Teaming With Taylor Swift and Recruiting a 'Team of Misfits' on His Rise to Country Fame
Some of the best-received music of 2014-2015 was on display from the outset. Old Dominion kicked off the banquet at the Omni Nashville Hotel with "Break Up With Him," a song that currently reigns atop the Country Airplay chart. Several of the band members later found their way back to the stage as winners – lead singer Matthew Ramsey and keyboard player Trevor Rosen were honored for writing Dierks Bentley's "Say You Do," and guitarist Brad Tursi picked up a medallion for co-writing Tyler Farr's "A Guy Walks Into A Bar" with Jonathan Singleton.
Lady Antebellum's Charles Kelley shared a winning entry with bandmate Dave Haywood for "Bartender," and another with Darius Rucker for co-writing "Homegrown Honey." Dierks Bentley was joined by songwriters Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins in accepting for "Drunk On A Plane." And Hunt totaled up four individual song awards with two of his own hits, "Leave The Night On" and "Take Your Time," plus a pair of songs that he landed as a writer with other acts: Keith Urban's "Cop Car" and Billy Currington's "We Are The Night."
During his acceptance speech, Hunt recalled an unexpected turning point when he attended a Tom T. Hall event at the Country Music Hall of Fame. Asked about the state of modern country, Hall told the audience that his generation "entertained my generation the way they wanted to be entertained, and this generation will entertain this generation the way they want to be entertained."
Lady Antebellum's Charles Kelley Channels The Highwaymen With 'Driver' Single
The statement resonated with Hunt, who soon felt more freedom to employ the modern pop and hip-hop phrasing that influenced him alongside country. One of the most obvious examples, "Take Your Time," is nominated for single and song of the year at the 49th annual Country Music Association Awards Nov. 4.
"I bought a cheap acoustic pawn-shop guitar the summer after I graduated from high school because I was bored," Hunt recalled in his ASCAP acceptance speech. "And it's amazing now thinking about how such a seemingly insignificant moment in my mind had such a drastic impact on the rest of my life."
It was the beginning of that upward trajectory, which shows no sign of stopping any time soon.