Four Added to Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame During Crucial Period

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The Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame at the Music City Center in Nashville, Tenn. 

It was their time.

On Oct. 9 at the Music City Center, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame formally inducted four individuals with distinct places in Music City's system of creating songs: Beth Nielsen Chapman, Bob Morrison, Aaron Barker and singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt.

Prolific hitmakers Cole Swindell and Ashley Gorley respectively claimed the songwriter-artist and songwriter of the year trophies from Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI). And Lori Mc-Kenna repeated as a song of the year winner with "Humble and Kind."

"Humble" was particularly timely. The song, a spiritually connected to-do list written by a mother for her five children, made its way into the culture through a sensitive recording by Tim McGraw at a time when a divisive presidential race was heating up. In a strangely timed coincidence, her victory came the same night that the two candidates were duking it out in a nationally televised debate.

"I'm still overwhelmed by the fact that the way I see the song is so small, to my little world, and the way Tim saw it was to a different world," said McKenna.

Successful songwriters get perhaps a 15-year window for their commercial peak years, Morrison suggested in the press room.

"It's not that you run out of gas," he said. "It's that people want to move on. It's kind of an odd thing."

The hall of fame honorees made the most of their time in the sun, each of them leaving a specific sort of legacy:

• Van Zandt was a rough-hewn singer-songwriter whose pre-Americana titles such as "Pancho and Lefty" and -"Freightliner Blues" — performed during the ceremony by Darrell Scott and Don Scott — were typically literate gems with layers of meaning.

Chapman, who landed several adult -contemporary hits as a singer-songwriter, employed pop melodicism to create such upbeat titles asFaith Hill's "This Kiss" and Martina McBride's "Happy Girl." "Sand and Water" — performed during the evening by -Olivia Newton-John,Amy Sky and son Ernest Chapman — gave grief an uplifting face.

Morrison was a full-time writer who crafted material that teased at the pop edges of the country format, -exemplified by Johnny Lee's "Lookin' for Love," Kenny Rogers' "Love the World Away" and Gary Morris' "The Love She Found in Me."

Barker grew out of a rock background to build a series of songs for country traditionalist George Strait, including "Baby Blue," "I Can Still Make Cheyenne" and "Forever and Ever, Amen."

"It was a moment in time where two little left-of-center things came together," said Barker. "We had this really traditional country singer doing these little-more-contemporary songs, and it worked really well."

The current moment in time is a difficult one for the songwriting profession. NSAI has determined that the number of people who make their primary income as full-time composers has declined by 80 percent in the last 15 years, a casualty of the music industry's transition into digital consumption.

Recent figures released by the RIAA indicate the recording business is enjoying an uptick in revenue for the first time in years, a development that songwriters are viewing as a good sign. But those writers are still concerned that the current system is putting their vocation in jeopardy.

"If this was another profession in the United States, there would be a pretty big public outcry to save the little guy," said NSAI board president Lee Thomas Miller, a songwriter.

Chapman was particularly cognizant of the current era's issues. She experienced her peak commercial years as a writer from 1985 to 2000, when CD sales were still a significant source of -songwriting revenue.

"I'm receiving this award, and I'm realizing how fortunate I was to come up in a time where I was able to get a publishing deal and draw money and work my way up the food chain," she said. "That's much more difficult than it used to be, and that's on top of all the usual stuff of competing when there's only one spot at the top of the chart at a time."

Some of the songs that reached that level were on display at the ceremony. Mo Pitney highlighted the loneliness in Barker's "Baby Blue" with a spare, voice-and-guitar rendition. Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White applied plaintive, respectful harmonies to Van Zandt's "If I Needed You," a song they performed at their own wedding in 1981. And William Michael Morgan added a rich tone to Morrison's million-seller "Lookin' for Love."

Gorley was honored for his volume of successes. Among the 11 qualifying titles that aided his songwriter of the year award were Carrie Underwood's "Heartbeat," Dan & Shay's "Nothin' Like You," Swindell's "You Should Be Here" and Thomas Rhett's "T-Shirt."

Gorley attributed it partially to random timing, noting that several other songwriters are turning out a high volume of hits, though their successes may not have fallen as favorably into this year's eligibility window.

"A song can be two or three years old; it could be that a song I just wrote immediately comes out," he said. "Brad Paisley just put out a song I wrote eight or nine years ago. It's just how it all hits."