In the course of an awards show broadcast, not every category can get the time and attention that each merit. With that in mind, the Academy of Country Music makes a trip east to Nashville each September to do just that.
Tuesday night’s 9th Annual ACM Honors helped to shine the spotlight on some of the format’s unsung heroes — as well as a few names that fans everywhere are familiar with.
RCA’s Jake Owen hosted the Ryman Auditorium event, which began with a moment of silence in honor of longtime Nashville publicist Jeff Walker, who passed away last week. The first performance of the evening was Owen tipping the cover hat to Alabama with “Feels So Right.” The legendary act would be named the Career Achievement Award winner later in the night. “There’s nothing like a little Alabama to get you in the mood…for good music,” quipped Owen after his performance of the romantic ballad.
The first presentation of the night was handled by The Swon Brothers. The duo made the announcements of the industry awards, which were as follows:
Venue of the Year (Small Capacity) – The Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, TN
Venue of the Year (Medium Capacity) – Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison, CO
Venue of the Year (Large Capacity) – The Hollywood Bowl, Hollywood, CA
Casino of the Year (Medium Capacity) – MGM Grand Casino, Las Vegas, NV
Casino of the Year (Small Capacity) – Hard Rock Live, Biloxi, MS
Festival of the Year: Country Thunder USA East, Twin Lakes, WI
Don Romeo Talent Buyer of the Year: Sally Williams, The Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, TN
Nightclub of the Year: Joe’s Bar, Chicago, IL
Promoter of the Year: Ed Warm, Joe’s Bar, Chicago, IL
Next up was the announcement of the Studio Recording Awards — for excellence in the studio. Kelsea Ballerini recognized the following for their achievements:
Drummer: Greg Morrow
Guitar Player: Tom Bukovac
Piano / Keyboard: Michael Rojas
Steel Guitar: Dan Dugmore
Specialty Instrument: Ilya Toshinsky
Bass: Glenn Worf
Audio Engineer: Chuck Ainlay
Producer: Jay Joyce
The evening then segued into the “Special Awards” segment of the night. Reigning ACM Entertainer of the Year Luke Bryan was recognized for the success of his Crash My Party (six number one singles on the Billboard charts) album with the Gene Weed Special Achievement Award. Saluting Bryan in song was one of his opening acts this year, Randy Houser, who performed one those hits — “Roller Coaster.” In his comments to the audience, the Capitol Nashville recording artist said: “It’s an exciting night, because I know Blake Shelton isn’t going to come up and rush me off,” he said in reference to his co-hosting the CBS telecast of the 50th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards in April. “I get a chance to say what’s on my mind. I see so many songwriter buddies out there, and bar owners. When you’re on TV, you don’t get a chance to thank the truck drivers, the bus drivers, or catering. When I sat here and watched the screen come down, Caroline and I cried. What an amazing year!” The singer noted that September 1 marked the fourteenth anniversary of his move to Nashville.
Next up was the presentation of the Mae Boren Axton Award. The career of Tim DuBois was feted in a video produced by the ACM showcasing his career as a songwriter and record executive. As a songwriter, his hits included “Love in the First Degree” (Alabama), and “She Got The Goldmine (Jerry Reed). He also helmed Arista Nashville for well over a decade, helping acts such as Alan Jackson, Pam Tillis, and Brooks & Dunn to gain prominence throughout the 1990s. Saluting DuBois in song was Restless Heart, who turned back the hands of the time to the summer of 1988 for a flawless rendition of his “The Bluest Eyes In Texas.” Addressing the audience, DuBois stated: “I want to thank the board for this wonderful honor. To be honored with Alabama, Bob McDill, and Loretta Lynn is an honor beyond words. Mae Axton was always there with her wisdom and encouragement. We all miss her.”
The other recipient of the Mae Boren Axton Award was Barry Adelman, who once worked as a writer for “Hee Haw,” and has since gone on to serve as writer and executive producer of The Academy of Country Music Awards. Paying tribute to the television exec was his former co-worker in “Kornfield Kounty,” Roy Clark — who delivered a stirring version of his 1969 hit “Yesterday, When I Was Young.” The honoree thanked Clark for making the trip to Nashville, telling the crowd “I can’t say enough to you. ‘Hee Haw’ was such a part of my life, and his eyes still twinkle. That’s the mark of a superstar.”
Another mark of a superstar is the ability to select great material, which more than often comes from the songwriters. Taking the prize for Songwriter of the Year was Luke Laird. The tunesmith was celebrated by Kacey Musgraves, who honored Laird with a performance of “Good Ol’ Boys Club,” from her album Pageant Material. The track was penned by Laird (along with Musgraves as Natalie Hemby). Laird admitted the night was very surreal, recalling his first trip to Nashville two decades ago. “We ate every morning at Shoney’s, and to this day, my sister still won’t eat French toast sticks,” he said with a laugh. “I love ’90s country. I’ve still got my Wade Hayes and Daryle Singletary tapes. I couldn’t do this without all of my co-writers,” he said before thanking his family. “Without them, it wouldn’t mean anything,” he said.
Next up was a career retrospective to Alabama, in which longtime fan Jason Aldean took to the stage to perform a medley of three of the group’s early hits — “Tennessee River,” “Love In The First Degree,” and “The Closer You Get.” The current ACM Male Vocalist of the Year winner then reminisced about the music of Alabama and what an impact it made on him. “These guys are a huge reason that I wanted to get in this business,” he said. “I never thought I would be presenting them an award as a child.” After a lengthy standing ovation, lead singer Randy Owen said: “He (Jason Aldean) did our songs better than we did.” The singer turned emotional when mentioning his father teaching him to play the guitar. The singer’s father passed away just as the group was beginning their climb up the charts in 1980.
The presentation of the Jim Reeves International Award was next, and just like its namesake, it went to an artist who has helped spread the name of country music from an international standpoint. Eric Church was toasted for the success of his The Outsiders world tour. Holly Williams saluted the singer with a bare-bones version of “Like Jesus Does” with just her guitar, which was one of the highlights of the night. In his remarks, Church said: “I remember being in Cologne, Germany. I think it was the most scared I’ve ever been. I thought it could go one of two ways…They sang every song, held their boots up…and smoked marijuana…I learned that you don’t have to speak English to speak music fluently…I’ll never be able to thank those people enough.”
The spotlight shined on three of Nashville’s greatest songwriters next, with the presentation of the Poet’s Awards. First up was a tribute to the husband / wife team of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant. Among their hits together included “Rocky Top,” “Bye Bye Love,” which was performed in honor of the Bryants by Chris Isaak. Accepting for their parents were their sons Dane and Del Bryant. “They were the first professional songwriters in Nashville. They wrote dozens of songs that people know, and more that hopefully people will discover.”
The second Poet’s Award was awarded to Bob McDill. One of the most successful writers in the format’s history, the Texan scored with such blockbusters as “Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On,” “All The Good Ones Are Gone,” “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” and the 1980 Don Williams hit “Good Ole Boys Like Me,” which was performed by Josh Turner. The Nashville Songwriters’ Hall of Fame member said that “I’ve always wanted to stand on this stage. Tonight, I get the chance. Thank you, Nashville, for letting me be a part of this club for thirty-plus years.”
The final presentation of the evening was the Crystal Milestone Award, which was awarded to the iconic Loretta Lynn. Miranda Lambert — who collaborated with the singer (and Sheryl Crow) on a 2010 cover of “Coal Miners’ Daughter” — appeared to honor the singer with “Rated X.” Lambert noted that songs like Lynn’s “Rated X,” which tells the story of a socially outcast divorced woman, opened doors for her. Watch her sing it below.
Always quotable, the veteran performer lived up to her reputation, telling the audience: “I was going by, and thought I would drop in to see if Miranda was keeping it country…I want to thank you for this award, and I’ll be back next year for another one,” she said before walking off the stage to yet another standing ovation.