The 14th annual ACM Honors, which saluted special award honorees as well as the ACM Industry and Studio Recording Award winners from the 55th and 56th ACM Awards, served as a homecoming of sorts for Nashville’s country music industry on Wednesday (Aug. 25) at the Ryman Auditorium. Among the artists honored were Luke Combs, Loretta Lynn, Toby Keith and more.
The Academy of Country Music’s CEO Damon Whiteside welcomed the audience to the Ryman, noting that the two most recent ACM Awards ceremonies were held in Nashville and included performances from the Ryman stage.
“Country music is strong, is resilient and we want tonight to be a celebration of our perseverance, our optimism and excellence in our genre,” Whiteside said.
Chris Janson presented the ACM Industry Awards and Studio Recording Awards. This year’s ceremony honored the winners of the 55th ACM Industry Awards, the 55th and 56th ACM Studio Recording Awards. Lauren Alaina celebrated songwriter Hillary Lindsey, known for her work writing hits for Lady Gaga and Little Big Town, and helping to craft several of Carrie Underwood’s signature hits (going back to Underwood’s breakthrough single “Jesus, Take the Wheel”). Lindsey was honored as the 55th and 56th annual ACM songwriter of the year winner. Alaina was then joined by Devin Dawson and HARDY to perform HARDY’s “One Beer.”
The musical portion of the evening was hosted by two-time ACM Award winner Carly Pearce, who started the evening with a rendition of her song “Dear Miss Loretta,” in honor of Loretta Lynn. Lynn, known for her intensely personal, boundary-pushing songs such as “The Pill” and “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” was honored with the ACM poet’s award.
“Her music has not only left an indelible mark on my own songwriting, but I know it has for all female country music songwriters,” Pearce said of Lynn. “She showed me how to be real … and unapologetically direct, and she has truly paved the way for women like me in country music.”
Lynn was not in attendance, but sent in a brief video acceptance speech.
Alan Jackson and Lee Ann Womack also feted Lynn with a performance of Lynn’s 1973 hit duet with Conway Twitty, “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man.”
Other poet’s award recipients included Gretchen Peters (“Independence Day,” “On a Bus to St. Cloud”) and the late Curly Putman (“Green Green Grass of Home,” “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today”). Janson turned in an earnest rendition of the George Jones classic “He Stopped Loving Her Today” in honor of Putman, while newcomer Brittney Spencer offered a slowed-down, intimate version of “Independence Day” to honor Peters. The performance also marked Spencer’s debut at the Ryman Auditorium.
Janson said of Putman, “His contribution to country music is gonna live on forever. It’s always gonna be remembered and it plays on through the years.”
“Songs can literally change the world,” Peters said during her acceptance speech. “The world needs love and empathy more than it ever has. We need to turn on the car radio and hear a song that stops us in our tracks because it makes us feel something so deeply. We need our poets.”
Rascal Flatts and music executive Joe Galante were the recipients of the ACM Cliffie Stone icon award, with Brooks & Dunn’s Ronnie Dunn honoring Galante with a rendition of “Ain’t Nothing ‘Bout You.” Pearce performed Rascal Flatts’ “Bless the Broken Road,” followed by Caylee Hammack and RaeLynn, who offered performances of “My Wish” and “Life Is a Highway.” Gary LeVox was not in attendance, though Joe Don Rooney and Jay DeMarcus accepted the honor.
“Twenty years can fly by like that,” Rooney said. “When you are blessed enough to get to do what you love to do, time flies. … We have been blessed as Rascal Flatts.”
Trio Lady A and songwriter Ross Copperman were honored with the ACM Gary Haber lifting lives award. ACM Lifting Lives Executive Director Lyndsay Cruz introduced both honorees, while Clancey Hopper (an attendee of the annual ACM Lifting Lives music camp) presented the honors. Early in the evening, executive Michael Strickland was presented with the Gene Weed milestone award for his work in lobbying for legislation to aid the live music industry.
ACM Jim Reeves international award recipients Dan+Shay were feted by a medley of performances from a quartet of songwriters — Nicolle Galyon, Laura Veltz, Jordan Reynolds and Jessie Jo Dillon — who had a hand in crafting some of the duo’s top hits such as “Tequila,” “Speechless” and “10,000 Hours.”
When the time came for Dan+Shay’s Dan Smyers and Shay Mooney to accept their honor, the duo quickly shifted the spotlight back on to the songwriters, with Smyers saying, “Without the songwriters in this town, we would have none of this — we would have none of the shows, none of the record sales, none of this. So it all starts with a song.”
“I get emotional when I’m watching moments like this because it’s been a very long time since we’ve been able to look and see some of our friends here in the crowd and actually see them face to face,” Mooney added.
The Ken Burns documentary Country Music was the recipient of the ACM Tex Ritter film award. Sam Williams — son of Hank Williams Jr. and grandson of Hank Williams — offered a soulful, gravelly rendition of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” on the same stage where his grandfather performed 70 years ago.
Backing every performance was the Derek Wells-led house band, which included Elizabeth Chan, Annie Clements, Stephcynie Curry, Kris Donegan, Mike Hicks, Jordan Lawson, Justin Schipper and Therry Thomas.
The Country Music Association’s CEO Sarah Trahern honored RAC Clark as this year’s recipient of the ACM Mae Boren Axton service award. Clark was celebrated by Jackson and Womack returning to the stage for a surprise rendition of one of Clark’s favorite songs, “Murder on Music Row.”
Trace Adkins honored 21-time ACM award winner Toby Keith with the ACM Merle Haggard spirit award, relating how Keith — much like Haggard — has found enduring success through top-shelf songwriting and an independent spirit. Adkins also performed Keith’s “Love Me If You Can” in honor of Keith, who was not in attendance.
In an audio acceptance speech Keith sent in, he called Haggard “one of the greatest songwriters in American music, and one of the greatest country voices ever.” He added, “He took me under his wing when I was young. We shared many hours and a guitar on his bus. He gave me years of advice. We’ve cut each other’s songs, we sang together, we had so much fun. I was onstage with him the last time before he passed away and I will cherish those memories for the rest of my life, getting to sing with him that night, so thank you for this award.”
When Keith Urban and Luke Combs each took the mic at different points during the evening, both chose to highlight another immensely talented performer on the show’s program.
“Two words: Ashley McBryde!” Urban exclaimed before launching into “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16,” in honor of Copperman. Copperman has been heavily involved with ACM Lifting Lives for at least the past decade, including taking part in the annual ACM Lifting Lives Music Camp.
McBryde performed twice during the evening, first singing her breakthrough hit “Girl Goin’ Nowhere” in honor of esteemed journalist and ACM Senior Vice President Lisa Lee, who died on Aug. 21.
In closing out the show, McBryde returned to the stage to honor her friend Luke Combs with a rendition of his hit “She Got the Best of Me,” as Combs was awarded as another recipient of the ACM Gene Weed milestone award. Since releasing his debut single “Hurricane” in 2016, Combs took his first 10 singles to No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.
“Thanks to country music fans. [They are] the reason I get to do what I love to do … because of people like you listening to our music, loving what we do and that is not lost on me,” he said. “There is a whole hell of a lot more country music in this boy right here.”
Fans who were not able to attend the event in-person will be able to watch the ceremony later this year, when Circle TV airs the show on Nov. 23 at 8 p.m. ET, with an encore on Nov. 24.
In addition to the above honors, the following Studio Recording Award winners and Industry Award winners were also honored:
56TH ACM AWARDS (2020 STUDIO RECORDING AWARD WINNERS):
- Bass player of the year: Tony Lucido
- Drummer of the year: Aaron Sterling
- Guitar player of the year: J.T. Corenflos (Awarded Posthumously)
- Piano/keyboards player of the year: Dave Cohen
- Specialty instrument player of the year: Ilya Toshinskiy
- Steel guitar player of the year (tie): Dan Dugmore & Mike Johnson
- Audio engineer of the year: F. Reid Shippen
- Producer of the year: Jay Joyce
55TH ACM AWARDS (2019 INDUSTRY AWARD WINNERS):
- Casino of the year-theater: The Joint: Tulsa – Tulsa, OK
- Casino of the year-arena: MGM Grand Garden Arena – Las Vegas, NV
- Fair/rodeo of the year: Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo – Houston, TX
- Festival of the year: Tortuga Music Festival – Fort Lauderdale, FL
- Club of the year: Joe’s Live – Rosemont, IL
- Theater of the year: The Beacon Theatre – New York, NY
- Outdoor venue of the year: Red Rocks Amphitheatre – Morrison, CO
- Arena of the year: Madison Square Garden – New York, NY
- Don Romeo talent buyer of the year: Gil Cunningham – Neste Live!
- Promoter of the year: Brian O’Connell – Live Nation
55TH ACM AWARDS (2019 STUDIO RECORDING AWARD WINNERS):
- Bass player of the year: Jimmie Lee Sloas
- Drummer of the year: Miles McPherson
- Guitar player of the year: Rob McNelley
- Piano/keyboards player of the year: Gordon Mote
- Specialty instrument(s) player of the year: Jenee Fleenor
- Steel guitar player of the year: Paul Franklin
- Audio engineer of the year: Justin Niebank
- Producer of the year: busbee (Awarded Posthumously)