11th Annual T. J. Martell Dinner Honors Kings of Leon, Alabama and Opry's Sally Williams

Rick Diamond/Getty Images for T.J. Martell Foundation
Honorees Al Ganier, Sylvia Ganier, Sally Williams and Dr. Kathryn Edwards; Back row L to R: Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry, Jeff Cook, Nathan Followill, Matthew Followill, Jared Followill and Caleb Followill attend the 11th Annual Nashville Honors Gala at Omni Nashvillle Hotel on Feb. 25, 2019.

Alabama, Kings of Leon, and the Grand Ole Opry’s Sally Williams were celebrated Monday night (Feb. 25) at the 11th annual T.J. Martell Foundation Nashville Honors Gala at the Omni Hotel. 

The honors gala featured performances by Amy Grant, Brad Paisley, Home Free, Michael McDonald and Old Crow Medicine Show, as well as tributes by presenters Garth Brooks, Aubrey Harwell, Dr. Steven Webber, Zane Lowe and Charlie Daniels. The evening also honored Dr. Kathryn Edwards and farmers/philanthropists Sylvia and Al Ganier. 

Actor/singer Charles Esten hosted the event for the seventh time. “I started in 2013 -- my friend T Bone Burnett was being honored and they asked if I would host and I was thrilled to do it,” Esten told Billboard. “I came and found out what this benefit is about. It’s about honoring the very best in Nashville, bringing out people who deserve to be lifted up whether they are in the medical field or the field of the arts. This is always a great night, and that I get to be up there in the middle of it all is always a thrill to me.”

Many at the event, including a number of the honorees, felt a personal connection to the cause. Esten’s youngest daughter is a cancer survivor, as is Alabama’s Randy Owen. “Being a cancer survivor, I will never forget when I asked my doctor, ‘Are you sure?’ And he said, ‘I’m absolutely sure,’ Owen says of being diagnosed with prostate cancer. “That was once of the worst statements I’ve ever heard in my life. Luckily, that was nine years ago. So it’s great to be here.”

"We’ve all been affected by cancer -- my dad is battling is right now," Home Free’s Tim Foust told Billboard. "So anything we can do to help, we’re here."

Williams was honored with the Frances Preston Outstanding Music Industry Achievement Award. “This is a very, very personal honor to me because my mother is currently in treatment for breast cancer and has been off and on since 2001,” Williams, SVP of programming & artist relations for Opry Entertainment and GM of the Grand Ole Opry, told Billboard. “To have had the opportunity to help shine light on what T.J. Martell, and more generally, the music community can do together, I’m proud of that. This organization has touched my life and has touched so many other lives I know. The music community is so generous. We should all be proud of that we do together.”

The evening began with remarks by CAA’s John Huie, who serves as president, T.J. Martell Foundation Southern Region, and event co-chairs Becky Gardenhire and Diane Pearson. The first honoree was Edwards, a professor of pediatrics in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and an internationally recognized expert in vaccinology, who received the Medical Research Advancement Award. Esten told the crowd that Edwards’ work “will prevent cancer in our children and grandchildren” before introducing Grant’s performance.

“If I had a sick child, I’d want to be here in Nashville,” Grant told the crowd, acknowledging the excellent health care available in Music City. 

Before performing her 1991 Hot 100-topping hit “Baby, Baby,” Grant added, “My daughter, Millie, is 29 years old and she’ll be walking down the aisle April 27. She was six-weeks-old when Keith Thomas and I wrote this song about her.”

On accepting her award, Edwards drew thunderous applause when she spoke of the research being done that is close to wiping out cervical cancer.

McDonald, accompanied by his son Dylan, performed the Kings of Leon’s song “Revelry,” before a congratulatory video played featuring Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley, Tennessee Titan Taylor Lewan and One Direction solo star Harry Styles, among others. Apple Music host and DJ Zane Lowe presented the Kings with their award and the Followill brothers took the stage to thank the foundation for the honor. “What a wonderful evening. Nashville has embraced us from day one, and we’re very grateful for that,” Caleb Followill told the crowd. “They took a chance on four kinda hairy kids that showed up and had a dream. You guys allowed us to let that dream blossom into what it is today.”

The Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua kicked off Williams’ segment. Secor told Billboard earlier in the evening that Williams saw the band perform at MerleFest and brought them to Nashville. “We wouldn’t be in Music City if it weren’t for Sally Williams,” added Fuqua. “She saw our performance and pretty soon we were doing the Opry Plaza parties [outdoor shows before the Grand Opry performances].  Now we’re members of the Opry. That has Sally written all over it.”

Friends and colleagues, including Bobby Bare, Secor and CMA chief Sarah Trahern, shared their congratulations via video before Brooks took the stage to present her honor. He praised Williams’ strong work ethic:  “You could work this woman like a rented mule, and she’s gonna perform every time,” he said, before also telling the crowd, “She’s got more balls than most men in this town.”

He spoke of her dedication and ability to make things happen. “Any time I see her name in my inbox or when I see her name come up on my phone, I get excited, because she’s gonna have some idea that is sincere, loving, sweet and big, and she’s not gonna be scared. That’s the kind of people you saddle up with,” he said. “If you think you’re at the top of your game and you wonder how you can get better, go home and start tomorrow trying to be like the woman who is about to receive this award.”

“This community rallied around me and my parents providing us strength and hope and world class care,” Williams said, during a moving acceptance speech that spoke of her mother’s breast cancer battle.  

Looking in the audience at her parents, Williams closed by saying “I would like to dedicate this honor to my mom, Mary Williams. You are strong. You are smart. You’re spunky and you’re loving. You are the greatest inspiration of all.”

Following a performance by Home Free (who performed an energetic rendition of Tom Cochrane's “Life is a Highway”), and the tribute to Sylvia and Al Ganier, founders of Nashville’s largest organic farm operation Green Door Gourmet, the evening closed with the presentation to Alabama of the Tony Martell Outstanding Entertainment Achievement Award. The award is named for T.J. Martell’s founder, who started the organization after his son died of cancer. 

“I’ll never forget the best advice I ever got as a new artist,” said Paisley, before launching into some Alabama classics, mixed with his hit “Old Alabama.” “I’d gone to perform at St. Jude [Children’s Hospital]  and it was the day I met Randy [Owen]. He came over to me and said, ‘Son you’re having hits, but when you look back the only thing that will matter’---and he pointed to all those kids---‘is the good that you do.’ And I’ve never forgot it.”

Following a video salute that included well wishes from former Sony Music Nashville chief Joe Galante,  Blake Shelton, Sony/ATV Nashville head Troy Tomlinson and their former booking agent Barbara Hardin, Charlie Daniels delivered a thoughtful speech that detailed Alabama's illustrious career and their many philanthropic endeavors. The band's Owen and Teddy Gentry helped bandmate Jeff Cook, who is suffering from Parkinson’s, to the stage, thanking the crowd for the honor. 

“We’ve gotten a lot of awards for different things, but getting this is such an honor,” Cook told Billboard. “But the good that this organization accomplishes is what we’re really here to celebrate tonight.” 

“When you’re at these deals, you are around the elite of the industry and they care enough to come out and support the foundation and cancer research,” Gentry said. “That makes it a really special night.”


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