Justin Ebach

Chairman and CEO of SESAC John Josephson, SESAC Songwriter of the Year Justin Ebach, Senior Vice President of Creative Operations for SESAC Sam Kling, and Vice President of Creative Services for SESAC Shannan Hatch pose for a photo onstage during the 2017 SESAC Nashville Music Awards on Nov. 5, 2017 in Nashville, Tenn.  

Jason Davis/Getty Images for SESAC

Days after the Country Music Association threatened to expel red-carpet reporters at its awards show for asking artists about controversial topics in the news, the SESAC Nashville Music Awards practically embraced the subject Nov. 5 in the first of four straight awards nights in Music City.

Craig Campbell’s publicist told reporters he was prepared to discuss the hard stuff, and SESAC vp of creative services Shannan Hatch jumped on the topic of tragedy in presenting the first award of the night, listing hurricanes, wildfires and the Oct. 1 Las Vegas massacre at a country concert among a series of events that have deflated the general public.

“In the midst of these catastrophes, we can find hope,” she said, in presenting SESAC’s first humanitarian of the year award to Lady Antebellum for the trio’s LadyAID foundation.

The cultural backdrop, said Hillary Scott, made the moment “100 percent” more meaningful, though the trophy is hardly an end result.

"To me, it continues the conversation of, 'There is always more to do,'" she noted. "I feel very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish so far with LadyAID, but there’s a long way to go. If anything, this just spurs us on."

With a flurry of controversies -- from national politics to local sex scandals -- buzzing beneath the festivities, the power of music was addressed multiple times in speeches, but it made its point in more subtle ways, too. Justin Ebach claimed country songwriter of the year after one of his compositions, “Sleep Without You,” changed the life of Brett Young, who earned his first hit with the song. 

And “It Don’t Hurt Like It Used To,” a Billy Currington success that’s built around resilience, brought country song of the year to co-writer Cary Barlowe, who sees music as an essential tool for rising from life’s setbacks. “It Don’t Hurt,” Barlowe suggested, borrows from the Motown playbook, framing a bittersweet lyric in a deceptively upbeat musical package.

“I think even when we don’t realize it, you can be listening to the radio and you feel something,” Barlowe said. “It’s a horrible, horrible time, but the music community -- especially in Nashville -- is such a family. If anybody can keep rolling on and keep the positive light going, I think we can.”

Warner/Chappell’s SESAC affiliate, W.B.M. Corp., walked off with country publisher of the year, and a number of songwriters were recognized for significant airplay of recent hits, including Steve Bogard (“Seein’ Red”), Jaron Boyer (“They Don’t Know”) and Brice Long (“Heartache On The Dance Floor”). 

SESAC continued its support of Americana, with singer/songwriter Jim Lauderdale receiving honors for two albums that were active during the tracking period, and Old Crow Medicine Show kicking off the night with a ragged, Salvation Army-like interpretation of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” The latter song was the first track on SESAC member Bob Dylan’s classic Blonde On Blonde, an album recorded in Nashville in 1966 that was remade by Old Crow in celebration of the original’s 50th anniversary.

Kenny Rogers, heading into retirement from touring after a music career that stretches across six decades, received SESAC’s legacy award, with a bundle of artists reprising some of his familiar material. Campbell earned a standing ovation for his Southernized piano/vocal rendition of “Lady,” while Kim Carnes and Andy Childs applied scratch and smoke to “Don’t Fall In Love With A Dreamer,” Lee Brice gave an expressive reading of the nostalgic “Twenty Years Ago” and Dustin Lynch offered an appropriately sturdy cover of “The Gambler.”

Rogers accepted the legacy award from Scott and his longtime touring partner Linda Davis, thanking the writers for allowing him to be the vessel for his songs and acknowledging the range of his career, which included a stop in jazz before doing folk music with the New Christy Minstrels, dabbling in psychedelia with the First Edition and blending pop and country during his commercial peak years.

“Genre is not a word I understand,” he said, eliciting cheers.

Ebach, meanwhile, was happy to keep the celebration to a minimum, knowing there’s more work to be done creating music designed to connect with people and affect their lives, whether it makes them think more deeply about the world in which they live or simply allows them to escape.

“If you left your hometown, you left your family and you came here to make music, the happiest place you are is when you’re walking away from a day going, ‘I wrote an amazing song today,’” Ebach said. “Honestly, I don’t know if there’s a high bigger than that. This [award] is amazing, and I’m so grateful for this, but I’m just as excited to show up tomorrow and write another song.”