Cary Barlowe was clearly surprised by his win as country songwriter of the year, honoring his Dustin Lynch ear candy "Where It's At (Yep, Yep)" and a song Barlowe co-wrote for FGL, "Sun Daze," that namechecks a range of acts from Merle Haggard to Bob Marley. Wyatt Durrette, Brown and Niko Moon earned country song of the year for "Homegrown," a country-harmony title that climbed to No. 1 at the same time that Brown's crew scaled the modern rock chart with "Heavy Is The Head," a darker song that paired them with Chris Cornell.
"That's what's fun about music," Barlowe enthused on the red carpet. "If you're a music lover -- whether it be classic country or reggae or pop or classical music, whatever the heck it is -- great music's great music."
Held at the Country Music Hall of Fame, the SESAC event was the first of four nights of trophy presentations in Nashville, culminating with the 49th annual Country Music Association Awards on Nov. 4. They come at a time when country has gone through several stylistic waves that have traditionalists gnashing their teeth. The advent of bro country mashed tailgating and bonfire romances with more synthetic soundscapes. That gave way to the current trend toward R&B-flavored country.
Two of the songs that ushered in that danceable wave were honored at SESAC. Jerrod Niemann walked the carpet with songwriter Lance Miller, who was recognized a second straight year for the pounding, dancehall number "Drink To That All Night," the 2014 country song of the year. Larry McCoy, who co-wrote the Bee Gees-influenced Thomas Rhett single "Make Me Wanna," also picked up a medallion. Rhett retooled his just-released sophomore album, Tangled Up, to reflect more R&B, specifically because of his "Wanna" success.
"It was totally different than everything else on the radio," McCoy noted. "When it came out, everybody was like, ‘Uh, what are we doing now?' But it's chord progressions that have been around forever. You just put a country singer on top of it and it worked."
While the songs work, the compensation system has been under fire. As music usage increased in the last year, rights payments actually declined. Despite that recess, SESAC has signed more than 2,000 new songwriters in the last year and is currently building a new office in the heart of Nashville's historic Music Row. It's an investment, SESAC vp, writer/publisher relations Tim Fink said, in the people who write the songs at the heart of every successful project.
"Your creativity fuels the machine that we call the music industry," he told the roughly 500 artists, songwriters and publishers in attendance.
Lady Antebellum's Hillary Scott ("Bartender," "Long Stretch Of Love"), Rob Hatch ("I Don't Dance") and Jaron Boyer ("Hell Of A Night") were among the other 2015 honorees. Randy Houser's gut-punching performance of "Like A Cowboy" drew hoops and hollers, while Michael Ray turned in a ringing version of "Kiss You In The Morning."
Reba McEntire and Crystal Gayle also performed, delivering "The Greatest Man I Never Knew" and "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue" as SESAC celebrated Richard Leigh with the Songwriter Legacy Award. Leigh noted that he had been orphaned on Nov. 1, 1953, making the Nov. 1 date of the SESAC honor a full-circle moment.
"The greatest gift you can give another person, sometimes, is just to listen to them," he said.
In 2015, the edgy version of country is certainly being heard. A number of SESAC writers have the medallions to prove it.