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Justin Ebach rode a pair of relationship-themed pieces to songwriter of the year, and Wyatt Durrette III turned “Beautiful Crazy,” a romantic waltz-tempo ballad that honors Luke Combs’ fiancée, into the song of the year during the SESAC Nashville Music Awards at a Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum event space on Sunday (Nov. 10).
The night represented a return to the winners’ circle for both composers. Ebach -- whose victory recognizes his successes with two positive love songs, Dustin Lynch’s “Good Girl” and Brett Young’s “Here Tonight” -- claimed the SESAC songwriter title in 2017, while Durrette previously took the song of the year in 2015 with “Homegrown,” co-written with Zac Brown and Niko Moon.
Ebach helped Warner Chappell score a repeat medal as publisher of the year, a distinction the company achieved in 2017. In addition to his titles, the publisher honor recognizes the company’s success with another love song -- the Rascal Flatts hit “Back to Life,” penned in part by SESAC writers Cary Barlowe and Niko Moon -- plus Barlowe’s work on the Chris Young hit “Raised On Country.”
Ebach cited his wife, former Curb/Word publishing executive Janine Appleton, as a key part of his achievement during his acceptance speech. “I am an absolute hopeless romantic, or a serial monogamist, if you will,” Ebach said on the red carpet. “I wanted to find love and, you know, I love that bond with one person. So I definitely think that inspires some of that romance in the lyrics.”
The SESAC ceremony rewarded the top 15 country titles from its repertoire over the last year, as well as a handful of Americana songs, including Rosanne Cash’s “Not Many Miles To Go.” The country contingent included Russell Dickerson’s “Blue Tacoma,” co-written by SESAC member Casey Brown; Runaway June’s “Buy My Own Drinks,” by group members Hannah Mulholland, Naomi Cooke and Jennifery Wayne; Chris Stapleton’s version of “Millionaire,” originally recorded by singer/songwriter Kevin Welch; and Florida Georgia Line’s “Talk You Out Of It,” co-written by SESAC’s Alysa Vanderhaym.
The bulk of the trophies were handed out by SESAC executives, though Dustin Lynch introduced Ebach’s award, and Eric Church made a surprise appearance to hand Ray Wylie Hubbard his medallion for “Desperate Man.”
“He's equal parts poet, blues man, singer, songwriter, entertainer, troubadour,” Church said, of Hubbard. “But he's entirely my friend and my hero.”
Blanco Brown kicked off the event with a melismatic reworking of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” a signature civil-rights anthem that signaled an evening of subtle change. Jimmie Allen and co-writer Josh London revised their medallion-winning title “Best Shot” as an acoustic guitar/piano number that leaned heavy on the keyboard bass notes. Hubbard delivered “Desperate Man” with rough-cut, Johnny Cash-influenced guitar and Bob Dylan-style harmonica. SESAC vp of creative services Shannan Hatch made her last appearance as an awards maven with the PRO before shifting fulltime to president of the new Fourward Music.
The awards were the first of four straight nights of ceremonies in Nashville. ASCAP hands out its country songwriter awards Nov. 11, and BMI conducts its version Nov. 12. The 53rd annual Country Music Association Awards air live from the Bridgestone Arena Nov. 13 on ABC, with Carrie Underwood, Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton cohosting.
The songwriter ceremonies remind Nashville composers why they love for their craft, despite the heartbreak and uncertainty that accompany its pursuit.
“One of the things about tonight is even if you're a successful songwriter, you're told no 98% of the time,” Durrette said on the red carpet. “So it's tough. You're laying your heart on the table a lot, and people are telling you ‘No, it's not good enough.” So these things kind of reset and just remind you it's worth the grind to keep chasing.”
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