“A singer is nothing without a song,” said Country Music Hall of Fame member Emmylou Harris on Monday evening (Nov. 1) during a celebration at Nashville’s Music City Center.
Nashville’s songwriting and music publishing community would heartily agree, as they congregated to celebrate one of the highest honors a Nashville tunesmith can receive — induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
As last year’s induction ceremony was postponed, the 50th and 51st classes of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame were inducted together, with 10 top songwriters and artist-writers going into the hall. Guiding this year’s festivities was Sarah Cates, board chair of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame Foundation, as well as Mark Ford, executive director of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
The Class of 2020 included Kent Blazy and Brett James in the songwriter category, Spooner Oldham in the veteran songwriter category, Steve Earle in the songwriter/artist category and Bobbie Gentry in the veteran songwriter/artist category.
The Class of 2021 included Rhett Akins and Buddy Cannon in the songwriter category, John Scott Sherrill in the veteran songwriter category, Toby Keith in the songwriter/artist category and Amy Grant in the veteran songwriter/artist category.
To say that the stars showed up at this event would be an understatement: The evening’s performers featured several members of the Country Music Hall of Fame, including Bill Anderson, Garth Brooks, Ronnie Dunn, Vince Gill, and Harris. And those were just a few of the superstars on hand to pay homage to the writers and artist-writers who have left an indelible mark on country music.
The first honoree of the evening was Gentry, writer and singer of hits like the classic 1967 story song “Ode to Billie Joe,” a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hit that was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. As expected, the long-elusive Gentry was not in attendance, though Gretchen Peters accepted on her behalf. Trisha Yearwood, whose deep respect for and reliance on top-shelf songwriters has led to her holding the record for the most Grammy nominations in the best country album category (with eight), honored Gentry with a rendition of “Billie Joe.” The performance got off to a rocky start due to microphone issues, though they were quickly resolved — and, ever the professional, Yearwood turned in a stunning, soulful performance of the song.
John Anderson feted John Scott Sherrill by performing the 1982 No. 1 hit “Wild and Blue,” which marked the first chart-topping song for both Sherrill and Anderson. Sherrill’s hits also include “The Church on Cumberland Road,” “Nothing But The Wheel,” “Would You Go With Me,” and more.
Thomas Rhett honored his father Rhett Akins with a rendition of “That Ain’t My Truck,” a song Akins had a hit with as an artist in 1995. Akins went on to become one of country music’s most prolific songwriters, penning hits including “I Don’t Want This Night To End,” “Honey Bee,” “Boys ‘Round Here,” “Dirt on My Boots,” and more. He was named BMI’s Country Songwriter of the Year in 2011 and 2014, and was named the 2017 ACM Songwriter of the Year, followed by the 2019 ACM Songwriter of the Decade. Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Byron Hill presented Akins with the honor.
“I want to say how proud I am of ya,” Rhett told his father. “This is the most incredible achievement of all time. I feel like you wake up every day and you wonder if you’re gonna write another hit, and here you are, sitting here with millions of hit songs and an even better person — such an amazing dad and you taught me more than anything that I could have ever dreamed of.”
Akins thanked several people have helped build his career, including his fellow “Peach Pickers,” Dallas Davidson and Ben Hayslip. He also offered advice to the next generation of rising songwriters and artists.
“If there are any young kids who want to get in the music business or maybe have been in it a while and you’ve been stuck in a rut, I can tell you, I know that rut,” Akins said. “I’ve been in that rut, I’ve been under that rut. I’m here for one reason — I love country music too much to quit when the chips are down.”
“You have to have that to stick around in this business,” he continued. “You have to love country music like George Strait loves Dean Dillon, like Garth Brooks loves ‘The Dance’ and Alan Jackson loves the ‘Chattahoochee,” and Johnny loves June. If you love it that much, you just might get a phone call from Mark Ford one day saying that you are the newest member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.”
Next up was Brett James, who quit medical school to pursue a career as a country artist, and ultimately found success as a songwriter — penning hits of the late ’00s and early ’10s like Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus, Take The Wheel” and “Something in the Water,” Chris Young’s “The Man I Want to Be,” Dierks Bentley’s “I Hold On,” Kenny Chesney’s “Out Last Night,” Rascal Flatts’ “Summer Nights,” and more. Underwood was joined by James’ “Jesus” co-writers Hillary Lindsey and Gordie Sampson to perform the breakthrough ballad, which earned a Grammy in 2006 for best country song. Fellow Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Rivers Rutherford presented James with the honor.
“I want to thank the songwriting community and all my fellow songwriters,” James said. “This award especially belongs to you.” He also offered a special thank you to all of the artists who have recorded his songs, but especially to Underwood and Chesney “for sharing your talents and being so good to me for so many years.”
Spooner Oldham, already a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, added another accolade with his induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Oldham’s early career work included time as part of the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, performing on soul classics like Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” and James and Bobby Purify’s “I’m Your Puppet,” while also penning hits including Sledge’s “A Woman Left Lonely.” Jason Isbell performed “Puppet,” which was a No. 6 Hot 100 hit for the Purify cousins in 1966.
Up next was inductee Buddy Cannon, who was feted by Chesney, performing the Cannon-penned Vern Gosdin hit “Set ‘Em Up Joe.” Cannon is known for his production work with artists like Chesney and Willie Nelson, but as a songwriter, Cannon earned the 2007 ACM song and single of the year for “Give It Away,” recorded by George Strait. He also penned the Mel Tillis classic “I Believe in You,” and other Gosdin hits including “Dream of Me” and “I’m Still Crazy,” as well as George Strait’s “I’ve Come to Expect It From You” and Billy Ray Cyrus’s “She’s Not Cryin’ Anymore.” Bill Anderson presented Cannon with the honor.
“I am so grateful to be in this class going into the Songwriters Hall of Fame with these wonderful writers and so many friends,” Cannon said. “I’m just thankful to be in the presence of every one of you.”
“I’m here to honor my friend Buddy Cannon,” Chesney said. “Buddy, as a lot of you know, has been my record producer for a lot of years. Buddy is more than a producer, he’s been a brother in this business. He’s been my family. Buddy, I’m very happy for you… you’ve taught me so much about the business, about song sense and a lot about making records.”
Amy Grant helped launch the Contemporary Christian Music genre, and earned the genre’s first platinum-selling album with her 1982 set Age to Age. Her fellow musician and husband Gill feted Grant with a rendition of Grant’s “Breath of Heaven.” Though instrumental sound issues threatened the performance, guitar ace Gill made the best of the situation, turning in one of the evening’s most captivating performances. With just a guitar and his voice, Gill silenced the industry crowd with his rendition of the song, earning a standing ovation.
“The best thing is just being part of the family, the music community in Nashville,” Grant said, later adding, “As a songwriter-artist, I just want to say to all the songwriters in the crowd who don’t have a chance to be on the stage, especially post-COVID, the country is so tenderized and I get to see every night just how music is so healing and brings people together… it’s such a gift to be part of this circle and the greater circle of all of the songwriters here. I hope the best songs are ahead.”
Harris honored inductee Earle with a rendition of his song “Pilgrim,” while Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame board member and host of “The Songwriters” public television show Ken Paulson presented Earle with his honor.
After sharing some of his musical journey of coming to Nashville and collaborating with artists such as Guy Clark, Earle shared how much this induction meant to him in the middle of an otherwise very tough time. “When I got the phone call, I got it in the midst of what was a bad year for everybody — but I had just lost my firstborn son, who did what we all do here and was pretty damn good at it,” he said, referring to the passing of his son and fellow singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle last year. “Probably the only good thing that happened during that time was that I got a call saying that I was going to receive this, so I thank you very much.”
Over the course of his three-decade career, Toby Keith has notched 20 No. 1 hits on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart, the great majority of which he wrote or co-wrote.
“This is very important to me, because the only thing I ever wanted to do is be a songwriter,” Keith told the audience, sharing that his mom was a singer and his grandmother ran a bar, providing the “perfect storm” for Keith to hone his music skills. “I wanted to play guitar real bad and I learned how to play real bad,” he quipped of his early days learning music. “Like Roger Miller said, when Chet [Atkins] was playing up here [gesturing closer to the body of a guitar] you’re playing in the dusty part… all the money is in this end of the neck.’ So while my buddies were all doing Van Halen and Glen Campbell, I was down here trying to be Merle and Willie and Harlan.”
Dunn tributed Keith with a rendition of Keith’s 1993 breakthrough hit “Should’ve Been a Cowboy,” which became the most-played song of the ‘90s on country radio. Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer Mac McAnally presented Keith with his honor.
“I’m real proud that Ronnie did that song — because back in those days when you came to town, 200 artists would come to town every year,” Keith said. “‘Should’ve Been a Cowboy’ opened doors for me and gave me a foundation to learn and grow.”
Rounding out this year’s inductees was Kent Blazy, known for penning hits including Garth Brooks’s “Ain’t Goin’ Down ‘Til The Sun Comes Up,” “She’s Gonna Make It,” and “Somewhere Other Than The Night,” as well as Diamond Rio’s “That’s What I Get For Lovin’ You” and Chris Young’s “Getting’ You Home (The Black Dress Song).” Brooks took the stage to celebrate his longtime collaborator Blazy with another of their sterling collabs, “If Tomorrow Never Comes.”
Blazy addressed the crowd, asking, “How does it get any better than this? We’re all here together, finally. I’m standing here as living proof of the magic in the miracles of Music City, where truly anything is possible… I joke with young artists and songwriters that we have to be crazy to think that we can come here and compete with the ones that have come before us, yet we come anyway.”
He also recalled the time when, being emotionally crushed by the music industry, he almost left Nashville when he got an offer to run a music store in Kentucky. “When my late wife Sharon came in from work, I couldn’t wait to tell her the news. She looked at me and said, ‘I didn’t move here for you to move back home.’ It stuck with me.” A few months after that, he got a fateful call from Bob Doyle to meet a newcomer singer-songwriter who was selling boots in Nashville at the time. Blazy recalled how on Feb. 1, 1988, Blazy wrote for the first time with that newcomer — Garth Brooks — penning “If Tomorrow Never Comes.” The song was not only their first co-write, but it became Brooks’s first No. 1 Hot Country Songs hit, and was named NSAI’s song of the year in 1989.
“I worship Kent Blazy, I love Kent Blazy,” Brooks raved. “His contribution to songwriting is something we can all learn from. He gives every songwriter, no matter if their first day in town or 50 years in town — he gives them his home. He gives them his love and friendship. I camped out on Kent Blazy’s couch forever. He took me in like a brother, and I’ve seen him do it to a lot of people, and he continues to do it.”
According to Brooks, Blazy’s top contribution to his life was not a hit song, but an introduction that would change Brooks’s life. “When I think about the contributions Kent Blazy made to my career… you can talk about ‘Ain’t Goin’ Down ’til The Sun Comes Up,’ ‘Beer Run,’ and all these things — but the greatest thing Kent Blazy gave me was insisting on introducing me to a young lady from Georgia, whom he thought we kind of sang alike. And she ended up being the love of my life,” he said, referring of course to his wife and fellow artist Trisha Yearwood.