Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame: How Signature Songs Influenced the Class of 2019

Garth Brooks
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Garth Brooks performs onstage at Music City Center on Oct. 14, 2019 in Nashville, Tenn.

Dwight Yoakam, Larry Gatlin, Sharon Vaughn, Rivers Rutherford and Kostas were inducted at the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame Gala.

Just weeks after the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's version of one of country's signature songs, "Wildwood Flower," served as the final material in PBS' Country Music: A Film by Ken Burns, Dirt Band vocalist Jeff Hanna rendered another signature song in a significant moment on Oct. 14.

Joined by Matraca Berg and Levi Hummon, Hanna sang "Bless the Broken Road" during the induction of Marcus Hummon — who cowrote "Broken" with Hanna and Bobby Boyd — into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame during a dinner ceremony at the Music City Center. 

Marcus is one of six members of the class of 2019 whose inductions will ultimately be cemented with the installation of a brick in a walkway outside the Music City Center that names both the writer and his or her signature song. Those titles have not been officially announced, but the induction ceremony provided solid clues about what those titles might be:

?•?Dwight Yoakam was saluted with Jeffrey Steele's version of "Guitars, Cadillacs" and Brandy Clark's cover of "The Heart That You Own."

?•?Larry Gatlin was honored with The Oak Ridge Boys' take on "All the Gold in California" and Vince Gill's rendition of "I've Done Enough Dyin' Today," supported by Steve and Rudy Gatlin.

?•?Sharon Vaughn was celebrated by Garth Brooks' performance of "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys" and a John Rich/Isaacs collaboration on "Y'all Come Back Saloon."

?•?Rivers Rutherford was represented by Brooks & Dunn's romp on "Ain't Nothing 'Bout You" and a Brett James/Hillary Lindsey duet of "When I Get Where I'm Going."

?•?Kostas was recognized through Holly Williams' cover of "Timber, I'm Falling in Love" and Parker Millsap's interpretation of "Ain't That Lonely Yet."

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Honorees Larry Gatlin, Dwight Yoakam, Sharon Vaughn, Rivers Rutherford, Kostas and Marcus Hummon attend the 2019 Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame Gala at Music City Center on Oct. 14, 2019 in Nashville, Tenn.

Those signature tunes are what defines a songwriter's career. The bulk of most writers' material never actually gets recorded and remains in music publishers' vaults. A percentage makes it onto albums, and a smaller portion becomes hits. In the most ideal situations, one or two — maybe even a handful of titles — will be memorable decades after they became part of the vernacular. That was the case for Marcus' "Born to Fly" (performed during the induction ceremony by his cowriters, Sara Evans and Darrell Scott) and for Larry's "All the Gold In California," which topped Country Airplay 40 years ago this week.

"Time is a goofy thing," Larry told Billboard. "It seems like yesterday we recorded it right down there at Monument Studio. We went outside, and we put up two wrenches, clinking them together" to create a gold-mining sound effect for the a cappella introduction.

The six new writers and their signature songs take their places among more than 200 previous Hall of Fame inductees and their own trademark titles, including Bobby Braddock ("He Stopped Loving Her Today"), Don Schlitz ("The Gambler"), A.P. Carter ("Will the Circle Be Unbroken"), Kris Kristofferson ("Me and Bobby McGee") and Loretta Lynn ("Coal Miner's Daughter").

Invariably, a specific recording is the best-remembered version of those songs, but the material is often influential in ways that the composer could not have anticipated. For example, Brad Paisley performed Rutherford's "When I Get Where I'm Going" at Buck Owens' funeral, "Ain't Nothing 'Bout You" became a beer commercial, and Kostas' "Timber, I'm Falling in Love" emerged as background music for a bar scene in the Tom Cruise movie A Few Good Men.

Vaughn probably did not foresee "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys" becoming the title of a 1991 movie that featured Kate Capshaw and Gary Busey. It did, however, have "film" written all over it from its conception.

"It was the strangest thing because it came to me as a movie," she recalls. "I absolutely saw the projection of the character, what he was doing and what he was saying. He was lying on a mattress with no sheets in a flophouse — which, I have never been to a flophouse — but with his legs crossed at the ankles with his boots still on. I had this whole image."

"Bless the Broken Road," which likewise inspired the title of an independent 2018 movie, not only became a wedding song, but a theme for people who have found their way through some extraordinarily broken paths. One particularly inspiring moment came when Marcus sang it for inmates at a women's prison in Kentucky.

"I remember standing out in the sun in a common area, and there's razor wire and those guys up there with machine guns," says Marcus. "I got to the first chorus, and I just felt the intensity of 600 or 700 women singing that song back to me in prison. I could barely get to the second verse. I was able to finish the song, but it was not without help."

The emotional adaptability of that song is key to appreciating the 2019 inductees in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Whether it's the tear-inducing power of "Bless the Broken Road," the honky-tonk intensity of "Guitars, Cadillacs" or the unabashed glee of "Timber, I'm Falling in Love," the writers were recognized for creating music that puts fans in closer touch with the inner workings of their hearts. It's not always easy to know the difference between success or failure in such a subjective line of work, but induction into the hall is certainly a signature definition.

"For me, this is confirmation," says Marcus. "There's some things that can't be taken away. This would be one of them."