The BMI Country Music Awards were held Tuesday evening (Nov. 8) at BMI’s Nashville headquarters, and a cavalcade of music artists and industry members attended the ceremony to venerate the year’s 50 most-performed songs, as well as the songwriters and music publishers behind them.
Over 900 guests attended the shindig, including artist-writers Ashley McBryde, Kelsea Ballerini, Priscilla Block, Kane Brown, Kenny Chesney, Luke Combs, Michael Hardy (who records under the name HARDY), Elle King, Miranda Lambert, Dustin Lynch, Jake Owen, Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban. Also in attendance were former BMI CEO Del Bryant, as well as previous BMI Icon winners including Bob DiPiero and Bill Anderson.
Leading the ceremony was BMI president/CEO Michael O’Neill, who welcomed the crowd, saying, “We are thrilled to honor all of you who are delivering the best in country music.” Also feting this year’s winning songs, writers and publishers were BMI vp, creative, Nashville Clay Bradley, as well as AVP, creative Mason Hunter, AVP, creative Leslie Roberts and executive director, creative Shannon Sanders.
Bradley noted that among this year’s honorees were 72 first-time BMI award-winning songwriters.
The evening launched with Shy Carter performing “Beer With My Friends” alongside David Lee Murphy.
Sony Music Publishing was named BMI music publisher of the year, having published 25 of the 50 most-performed songs of the year, including Ballerini’s “Half of My Hometown,” the King/Lambert collaboration “Drunk (And I Don’t Wanna Go Home),” Brown’s “One Mississippi,” Lambert’s “If I Was a Cowboy” and Morgan Wallen’s “Sand in my Boots.”
The 2022 BMI country song of the year honor went to Luke Combs’ “Forever After All,” written by Combs, Drew Parker and Rob Williford and published by 50 Egg Music, Big Music Machine, Oak Tree Swing Publishing, Rowdy Rob Music, Straight Dimes Music, and Sony/ATV Tree.
Hardy was named BMI country songwriter of the year, following his ACM songwriter of the year win earlier this year.
Roberts gifted him with a custom guitar with BMI songwriter of the year as he took the stage to thank those who have been instrumental in his career. As a songwriter, Hardy has written not only his own hits including “One Beer,” and “Give Heaven Some Hell,” but was a contributing writer to Dierks Bentley’s “Beers on Me” (which also features him as a vocalist), Morgan Wallen’s “More Than My Hometown” and “Sand in My Boots,” Blake Shelton’s “Come Back as a Country Boy” and Cole Swindell’s “Single Saturday Night.”
Hardy thanked his parents and sister for their influence in his life and career, as well as champions including Casey Beathard and Ashley Gorley.
“When I heard that I had won, which was very recently, my first thought was, ‘I’m so glad that I’m with BMI, because it’s the only way I would ever beat Ashley Gorley in anything,'” he quipped. He went on to thank Relative Music Group’s Dennis and Jesse Matkosky.
“Dennis was the first and only person to sign me to a publishing deal back in 2014,” Hardy said. “Since then, we have started a real publishing company called Relative Music and we are damn proud of that s***.”
Hardy thanked his sister Madison for leading him to sign with BMI, and thanked Roberts for being a strong champion for him.
“She took a chance on me…she let me go into her office and play her literally the five or six songs I had to my name,” he said, recalling that one of the songs he played her was “Scars.” “At the end of that meeting, I remember Leslie saying something along the lines of, ‘Yeah, these are okay, but there’s this one song called ‘Scars’ that is pretty good and I think you’re onto something.’ That one comment Leslie made meant the entire world to me. Just like everyone in this room, I moved from a small town to Nashville…hearing that from Leslie gave me all the confidence to believe that I could actually make it in this town.”
Toby Keith was presented with the BMI Icon award, commemorating his work as a songwriter, including crucial contributions to his own catalog of hits, including “American Soldier,” “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” and “How Do You Like Me Now?!”. Previous recipients of the honor include Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton. Keith was previously named BMI country songwriter of the year three times, and won the BMI country song of the year honor for “As Good As I Once Was.”
O’Neill said of Keith, “His creative accomplishments are second to none but at his heart he is a songwriter. That’s who we are celebrating tonight—the writer behind the hits.”
Bradley added, “You are a songwriter’s songwriter.”
Keith’s fellow Oklahoma native Underwood performed Keith’s No. 1 Country Airplay debut hit, 1993’s “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” which Keith wrote by himself.
“It was artists like you that taught kids like me that greatness is possible,” Underwood said.
Eric Church offered a slowed down, uniquely “Chief” version of Keith’s 2003 Billboard Country Airplay chart leader “I Love This Bar.” Church also shared his first memory of seeing Keith at the Fiddle & Steel Guitar Bar in downtown Nashville, an incident which involved Keith taking a bullying barfly by the collar and dragging him down a line of barstools, before depositing him at the end of the bar just as Church walks in.
“I thought, ‘I like this motherf***er.’ So that was my first Toby Keith memory, and I cherish that,” Church said. “For me, he’s always been a guy who did it his own way.”
Video tributes poured in throughout the evenings from Willie Nelson, Scotty Emerick, and Keith’s longtime manager TK Kimbrell. Later in the evening, Keith’s dedication to military members was lauded, and as footage of Keith’s post-9/11 Billboard Country Airplay hit “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)” played on the screen, several in the music industry crowd began singing along, ultimately giving Keith a standing ovation. Emerick and Dean Dillon performed Keith’s “A Little Too Late.”
Keith took the stage and offered heartfelt thanks to his parents and family, as well as to Kimbrell and producer Harold Shedd (known for his work with Alabama, K.T. Oslin, Lorrie Morgan and more), who produced Keith’s earliest albums. Shedd was in attendance, spending his 91st birthday to help celebrate Keith. Keith also namechecked producer James Stroud, who co-produced albums including Keith’s Dream Walkin’, How Do You Like Me Now?! and Shock’n Y’all.
Keith also recalled being a Nashville newcomer singer-songwriter from Oklahoma with a collection of songs and a dream.
“When I got to Nashville, was they said, ‘You got to get affiliated.’ I said, ‘What the f***’s affiliated?'” On the advice of producer Shedd, he walked into the BMI Nashville office “in 1990 or 1991” and quickly met Bradley.
“You know how you got that intern that you always dump your s*** on? They dumped me on Clay,” Keith said. “Since 1990 or 1991, I’ve been affiliated with the greatest organization in the music business, and that’s BMI. They’ve been so great to me as a songwriter because I knew that even if I didn’t make it as an artist, that maybe somebody would cut my songs. I always felt that the songwriting was the most important part of this whole industry.”
Keith also thanked his agent Curt Motley, Live Nation’s Brian O’Connell, and his frequent collaborators Emerick, Dillon, Bobby Pinson and others who have collaborated with him on the road though the years.
“TK [Kimbrell] ’bout gave his career up as a manager to have to manage me, because I was hard to handle…everywhere we went, whatever label we were on, we were in a fistfight. I wanted to play my songs and dress out of my closet and it didn’t work that way then…back then they wanted to groom you and I was ungroomable. Bless TK’s heart, he said ‘I’m with ya, dawg.'”
In closing, Keith made it clear that of all the accolades he’s received in his career, it’s the ones that honor the craft of songwriting that mean the most to him.
“All I ever cared about was Songwriters Hall of Fame, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and BMI Icon,” he said.