The Academy of Country Music paid a rare visit to Music City on Tuesday night for the 7th Annual ACM Honors show at the Ryman Auditorium. A program designed to salute those ACM Award winners who are not awarded during the CBS telecast this past April, the night was a balanced mix of winners from both the stage and from behind the scenes in the industry.
Dierks Bentley served as host for the evening, and kicked things off with his latest single, "I Hold On," from his upcoming Riser CD. He then introduced the first presenter of the year, David Nail, who announced the winners of the industry awards. Winning in the Casino of the Year category was Las Vegas' Red Rock Casino & Resort. Taking home the Nightclub of the Year prize was Chicago's Joe's Bar, which was represented by Ed Warm – who also netted the prize for Promoter of the Year. Jerry Hufford was named Talent Buyer of the Year, representing Buck Owens' Crystal Palace in Bakersfield. The ACM did recognize one Nashville venue – as their host for the evening, the Ryman Auditorium, was named Venue of the Year.
Taking to the stage next was Deana Carter – in the middle of a media blitz for her upcoming Southern Way Of Life disc. The daughter of legendary guitarist Fred Carter, the songstress presented awards to the individual Musicians of the Year. They were; Matt Chamberlain - Percussionist/Drummer, J.T. Corenflos – Guitarist, Aubrey Haynie – Fiddle, Mike Johnson - Steel Guitar, Michael Rojas – Piano/Keyboard, Jimmie Lee Sloas - Bass Player of the Year, and Ilya Toshinsky for Specialty Instrument. Chuck Ainlay was named Audio Engineer of the Year, and Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Little Big Town) netted the prize for Producer.
The focus then shifted to the Special Awards recipients. West Coast pioneer Tommy Wiggins – instrumental in establishing the ACM Awards in the mid 1960s - was bestowed the Mae Boren Axton Award, and then saluted with a jaw-dropping performance of "Together Again" from Vince Gill and Paul Franklin.
Next up was the presentation of the Jim Reeves International Award – celebrating an act for taking country music overseas. This year's winner was Lady Antebellum, who enjoyed a successful trip overseas in 2012. In their acceptance speech, member Dave Haywood spoke of how universal their audience is – regardless of location. "You have no idea how many rednecks there are in Norway," he said to the packed crowd. Haywood and fellow member Charles Kelley stayed on stage to perform a medley of songs written by Dallas Davidson – the winner of the ACM's Songwriter of the Year award. Among the hits performed included Lady A's "We Owned The Night," as well as "I Don't Want This Night To End" and "The One That Got Away" - hits for Luke Bryan and Jake Owen, respectively. "God brought me a guitar, and changed my life for the better," said the tunesmith in his acceptance speech.
It was a sense of deja vu for the night's next winner, Jason Aldean. Given the Crystal Milestone honor for his touring accomplishments such as selling out Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, Aldean was presented the award by Alabama's Randy Owen. The superstar told the crowd that he had memories of a concert that inspired him. "I learned to be an entertainer from Alabama," he stated. "I remember when watched the '40 Hour Week tour'..I was in the second grade," he said as Owen playfully walked off the stage.
The evening then took a sentimental turn as the ACM saluted George Jones, who passed away in April. Video footage from Jones's ACM appearances over the years were shown before Chris Young took to the stage to perform a medley of 'Possum' hits such as "The Race Is On" and "The Window Up Above."
It was a one-time collaborator with Jones – Blake Shelton – that turned up next, winning the Gene Weed Special Achievement Award for expanding the boundaries of country music. Often highly irreverent in his speeches, Shelton struck a different tone. "When you get going in this business, sometimes you don't take the time to stop and look around and see how lucky you are," he spoke. "In 1994, Mae Axton encouraged me to move to Nashville, and I was completely obsessed with country music. All I dreamed about was wanting to be one of them," he said, referring to acts such as Steve Wariner, who presented him with the honor. "20 years later, I know Steve, and I have all these friends. I got to be one of them – at least for a minute," he ended.
The ACM also saluted the legendary Hank Williams and Guy Clark with the Poet's Award. Williams' granddaughter Holly saluted him in song with Jamey Johnson, while Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris saluted Clark.
The evening's final presentations were to the winners of the Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award. First was the late Keith Whitley, saluted in song by Bentley and Ricky Skaggs – who performed "Don't Cheat In Our Hometown" - a song that Skaggs and Whitley performed together many times while in Ralph Stanley's band, then the highlight of the evening was Whitley's widow, Lorrie Morgan performing a duet of "Til' A Tear Becomes A Rose" with their son Jesse Keith – born two years before his father's death. The final honorees of the night were the Judds, who were paid tributes from Kree Harrison and Thompson Square. The Pioneer Award recipients were both signed to RCA by Joe Galante, who presented both Whitley's family and Wynonna with their plaques.
Proceeds from the evening will go to the ACM's charitable organization, ACM Lifting Lives. For more information, go to ACMLiftingLives.com