The Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame welcomed five new members Sunday night (Oct. 28) as Ronnie Dunn, Wayne Kirkpatrick, K.T. Oslin, Byron Hill and Joe Melson were inducted during a sold out gala at Nashville’s Music City Center. In addition to the inductions during the 48th annual event, Reba McEntire was honored with the inaugural Career Maker Award recognizing her impact on the careers of Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame members.
Oslin was the first songwriter of the evening to be inducted. Hall of Fame member Rory Bourke recapped Oslin’s impressive career before welcoming Runaway June to the stage to perform Oslin’s hit “Do Ya.” Brandy Clark followed with a poignant performance of “80’s Ladies,” accompanied by Hall of Famer Mike Reid on piano.
“This is really an honor and I’m thrilled to be taking it,” Oslin told Billboard before the event started. “It’s my peers saying ‘Your work is very good and here’s an honor for you.’ You can’t beat that! It’s people who do what you do looking this over and saying, ‘It’s pretty darn good stuff.’”
Hill was the second songwriter of the night to be inducted. A North Carolina native, he moved to Nashville in 1978 and has penned such hits as Gary Allan’s “Nothing On but the Radio,” George Jones’ “High Tech Redneck” and George Strait’s first Hot Country Songs No. 1 hit “Fool Hearted Memory.” Hill’s longtime friend and collaborator Mike Dekle welcomed him to the Hall of Fame. Shawn Camp performed “Born Country,” a Hill-penned song that was a hit for Alabama, and Mo Pitney performed “Fool Hearted Memory.”
“I was sitting at home, watching TV with my wife when I got a call from Pat, and the first words out of my mouth were, ‘You’re kidding me!’ It was quite a surprise,” Hill says, recalling the phone call from Pat Alger, board chair of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame Foundation, alerting him of the honor.
“I moved here 40 years ago to be a songwriter and it’s been a big year for me. It seems like one of those years that a lot of things are happening. I got my Medicare card and I got in the Hall of Fame the same year,” he laughs.
Following a break for dinner, all the Hall of Fame members present at the event were called to the stage to honor McEntire. Layng Martine Jr., who wrote the first song Reba ever recorded, “I Don’t Want to be a One Night Stand,” called her to the stage to receive the Career Maker Award. During her career, she’s recorded songs by 45 Hall of Fame songwriters, including new inductee Dunn.
“Anything to do with the songwriters is really special to me because without them I wouldn’t have a job,” McEntire told Billboard before the event. “I’m not a songwriter by profession. I’ve done it once or twice, a few times. I’ve owned publishing companies, but I usually leave the songwriting to the professionals. I so enjoy getting the demos and getting to listen to them. That’s one of my favorite parts of the recording business is finding the songs.”
BMI’s former President/CEO Del Bryant inducted Joe Melson. A native Texan, Melson met and began writing with a then-unknown Roy Orbison in 1957. In 1960, their collaboration, “Only the Lonely (Know the Way I Feel)” launched Orbison’s career and he and Melson would go on to co-write such hits as “Crying” and “Blue Bayou.” During the ceremony, Jesse LaBelle performed “Crying” and Jamie Floyd delivered “Blue Bayou” before Melson took the stage and spoke fondly of his collaborations with Orbison and thanked the NaSHOF. “I appreciate the association loving my songs enough to bring me here to this point,” he told the crowd.
Next up, Kix Brooks took the stage to honor Dunn, recapping how former Arista Nashville chief Tim DuBois had put he and Dunn together as a duo and spotlighting Dunn’s achievements as a songwriter. Jon Pardi performed “Neon Moon” and Dunn’s longtime friend/collaborator Terry McBride delivered a raucous version of “Play Something Country.”
During his two decades with Brooks & Dunn, the Texas born singer/songwriter earned numerous accolades including 14 CMA Vocal Duo of the year trophies. The Brooks & Dunn hits “Neon Moon,” “Hard Workin’ Man,” “She Used to be Mine,” “She’s Not the Cheatin’ Kind,” “Little Miss Honky Tonk” and “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” were all written solo by Dunn and he co-wrote such hits as “Brand New Man,” “My Next Broken Heart” and “Believe.”
“Songwriting is the thing that’s going to last after all else is forgotten. After we’re dead and gone and the band is forgotten, these songs are the things that we hope will live on,” Dunn told Billboard. “I remember distinctly seeing the nominees. I got an email. When I found out [about the induction], I don’t know where I was. I think I blacked out. I feel like I won the lottery or robbed a bank and got away with it.”
Of all the accolades he’s won, Dunn acknowledged that this newest recognition holds special significance. “People used to ask us in interviews early on, ‘What’s the one thing you want to accomplish?’” Dunn said backstage. “We’d say, ‘longevity.’ These songs carry that weight. We don’t.”
For the evening’s last induction, Gordon Kennedy took the stage to celebrate Kirkpatrick. Gabe Dixon performed “Change the World,” the Grammy winning Eric Clapton hit, penned by Kennedy, Kirkpatrick and Tommy Sims. Little Big Town spoke emotionally about Kirkpatrick’s guidance and friendship. “We wouldn’t be a band if it wasn’t for Wayne,” Karen Fairchild said before the group launched into their hit “Boondocks,” one of several LBT hits co-written by Kirkpatrick.
“It’s so surreal. It’s icing on an already big cake,” a smiling Kirkpatrick told Billboard early in the evening. “It’s an incredible honor. It’s not even something I would have put on my radar as a possibility. The goal was always, ‘Can I write a song that somebody else would want to record?’ And that’s really it. Stuff like this is gravy. I never sat around and thought, ‘One day I’m going to be in the Hall of Fame.’ I didn’t even think it could happen.”
In addition to writing country, Christian and pop hits, Kirkpatrick and his brother Karey wrote the smash Broadway musical Something Rotten and are currently working on the Broadway adaptation of the hit Robin Williams’ film Mrs. Doubtfire.
The final acceptance speech of the night ended with a note of encouragement from Kirkpatrick. He recalled a conversation he’d heard between two songwriters at the same event a different year. When one asked the other what he’d been up to, the second songwriter responded, “Just trying to matter.” Kirkpatrick didn’t interject into the conversation that night, but shared with the NaSHOF audience what he wished he had said.
“We start out with these dreams of becoming a songwriter and we pound the proverbial streets trying to get someone to record our songs, knowing that if that can happen, then we can feel validated,” he said. “Once it does happen, once we are validated then we spend the rest of our time just trying to stay relevant. That’s the life. I wanted to go up to that gifted, talented songwriter, whose songs I was familiar with, and say something to him…. What I wanted to say to him was ‘You do matter. You matter because you write songs, and songs do things to people. Songs are far reaching. Songs can come alongside of you and share your pain, help you celebrate your joy. Songs create new memories and they can recall old ones. Songs change hearts. Songs change minds. You do that. One song can make a difference to someone. And sure one era gives way to another era and it may cause you at times to no longer feel relevant, but you are because songs are long lasting. I guarantee you we have either been influenced by you directly or by someone else who has been influenced by you. We are all connected and you matter to me.’ And I extend that thought to every writer here tonight, young and old and in between. You matter to me. What you do matters. You speak to me. You sing to me. At any given time, I’m inspired by you, in awe of you, jealous of you, envious of you and ultimately happy for you. I’m honored to be in this town and to be in your company or just be in your orbit. We are songwriters, but more than that, we are Nashville songwriters and isn’t it awesome to be able to say that?”