Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Marc Cohn, Bekka Bramlett and J. Fred Knobloch were among those paying tribute Sunday night (Oct.7) as Larry Henley, Kim Williams, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Tony Arata were inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
"I love this night because it is about the songwriter," Yearwood told Billboard shortly before the event kicked off in the Renaissance Nashville ballroom. "I don't consider myself a songwriter. I'm more of an interpreter, so I am so indebted to these great songs that I've found in my career so to be able to pay tribute back to those guys is a real honor."
Yearwood was among the artists who performed special tributes in honor of the inductees. She sang Henley's classic "Wind Beneath My Wings," following Bramlett and Billy Burnette, who performed a medley of Henley hits that included "Is It Still Over?," "Lizzie and the Rain Man," "He's a Heartache" and "Til I Get it Right." Richard Leigh welcomed Henley to the stage to accept the honor.
"I was shocked," Henley told Billboard of his reaction to getting the new that he would be inducted. "I had already given up and was thinking they'd never call me cause I was too old."
After a hiatus, the evergreen tunesmith has been writing again, frequently collaborating with writer/producer Billy Joe Walker, Jr.
Brooks performed a tribute to Williams that included "New Way to Fly" and "Papa Loved Mama." Brooks shared the story of how they wrote the latter song when he was looking for one more song to record on his Ropin' the Wind album -- Williams showed up at the studio with a newspaper, pointing to an account of a semi-truck running into a motel and told Brooks they were going to write a love song. Brooks concluded the set with a moving version of the Randy Travis hit "Three Wooden Crosses."
"I've been on over 150 million units since I've been in this business and over half of that -- 77 million -- is Garth Brooks," Williams told Billboard before his induction. "That's what put me here and I learned so much writing from him. He has the ability to be above a song, look down on yourself singing it to an audience and get the whole picture. Where a lot of the times I'd be fragmentary, working on a cool line or something, he saw the whole picture."
Williams says when he called to ask Brooks to be part of his induction, he didn't hesitate. "When I asked him to do it he said 'Hell, I'll even wash your car if you want me to.' He would too," Williams says with a smile. "He's that kind of guy."
"I'd do anything for Kim," Brooks confesses. "He's fantastic. When I heard he was coming in [to the Hall of Fame], I said 'Let me do everything.' He said 'what do you mean?' I said, 'Let me 'Wash your car, drive you there, feed you, everything.'"
Carpenter's friend and occasional collaborator Don Schlitz handled her induction, welcoming Cohn to the stage to perform "The Hard Way," followed by Yearwood who sang "He Thinks He'll Keep Her." It was Schlitz who had informed Carpenter that she would be among the newest inductees. "I was in Iowa City, Iowa and Don Schlitz called me and I ignored his phone call," Carpenter shared with Billboard before the festivities. "It was early in the morning. We had just rolled in and I was drinking a cup of coffee and waking up. I ignored his phone call so he texted me and said, 'Pick up your phone!' That's how I found out."
Carpenter confessed she was humbled by the honor. "I don't feel that whatever I say adequately expresses the joy and gratitude I feel to be a part of this," she said. "With a few marvelous exceptions, I've always written by myself, so it's a solitary pursuit. You look out into the world and find inspiration externally, but so much of it is from inside and the internal landscape of your life and for me, it's how I've always connected with the world because I'm a shy person. I'm a quiet and private person and the part of success that's been hard for me is the obligation to be a public person. I've always struggled with that and songwriting has been like a refuge that allows me to do what I do."
Pat Alger, already a Hall of Famer himself, welcomed Tony Arata to the exclusive club sharing a little bit about the Georgia-born songwriter's history and welcoming Knobloch, Pete Wasner and Jellyroll Johnson to the stage. Knobloch delivered a compelling treatment of the Patty Loveless hit "Here I Am," while he and Wasner traded verses on the Lee Roy Parnell hit "Holdin' My Own." Brooks returned to the stage to perform "The Dance."
"I will always claim that was the song that birthed Garth Brooks," he shared earlier in the evening. "'Friends in Low Places' was the next one after, which was probably our biggest song, but 'The Dance' put us in our light and that was hard to get at that time was your own light, especially if you wore a hat. 'The Dance' set us up that way. I'm forever grateful to Tony Arata."
"The Dance" was the first song Arata had recorded after he moved to Nashville. "It's the perfect example, to me, of what can happen in this town," he said. "I wrote the song and handed it in with a guitar vocal and what they gave me back was a song that, when it first started playing, I didn't recognize it. I didn't think it was my song because I didn't have a piano intro in a minor key. You hand in something and they hand you back something more."
Arata says when he heard of the list of nominees for this year, he didn't expect to be inducted. "It's a most humbling honor," Arata said. "I know who has preceded me in this place and it's pretty hallowed ground. I'm very grateful and honored."
Earlier in the evening before the Hall of Fame inductions, the Nashville Songwriters Assn. International (NSAI) also bestowed other annual awards. Taylor Swift was named Songwriter/Artist of the Year for the fifth time in six years. It was her first time to miss the festivities, but she accepted the honor via video as she was in the U.K.
Dallas Davidson, who has co-written such hits as Lady Antebellum's "We Owned The Night" and Luke Bryan's "Country Girl (Shake It for Me)" was named songwriter of the year. Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" was named Song of the Year. Parton accepted via video.
The late Donna Hilley was honored with the Frances Williams Preston Mentor Award. Don Cook, Paul Worley and Kix Brooks shared remembrances of the publishing legend. Brooks recalled when Brooks and Dunn sold out the amphitheatre in Nashville and Hilley gently coerced him into donating all the proceeds to Vanderbilt Children's Hospital. He's spent the last 20 years on the hospital's board and thanked Hilley's vision for giving him such a gift.
NSAI also named 10 tunes to the annual list of "Songs I Wish I'd Written." The winner were: "A Woman Like You" (Phil Barton, Johnny Bulford, Jon Stone); "Better Than I Used To Be" (Ashley Gorley and Bryan Simpson); "Cost of Livin' (Phillip Coleman, Ronnie Dunn); "Even If It Breaks Your Heart" (Will Hoge, Eric Paslay); "Fly Over States" (Michael Dulaney, Neil Thrasher); "I Will Always Love You" (Dolly Parton); "Just Fishin' " (Casey Beathard, Monty Criswell, Ed Hill); "Red Solo Cup" (Brett Beavers, Jim Beavers, Brad Warren, Brett Warren); "Springsteen" (Eric Church, Jeff Hyde, Ryan Tyndell); and "You and Tequila" (Matraca Berg, Deana Carter).
Brooks said he felt like the evening brought the songs and writers being honored full circle. "This is the circle's end because this is where it all started. It all started with a vocal and guitar," he said. "It gets its glitz and glamour out on radio and world tours then it comes back for their induction and you're back to vocal and guitar. You'll see the great songs stand on just vocal and guitar."