The annual Nashville Songwriter Awards, presented by the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI), shine the spotlight on unsung heroes — the songwriters, the crafters who unearth and then fuse together melodies, words and deep-seated emotions, whose creative highs, lows and daily work are the essential backbone underpinning an entire industry. Often these writers are unheralded, even as they are spurred by creative impulses to soundtrack the lighthearted moments, and bring beauty from heartache — while artists bask in the acclaim that comes with being center stage.
But on Tuesday evening (Sept. 20) at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, it was largely the artists feting their fellow creatives — and often, their co-writers on various songs.
The evening’s biggest moment came as the night drew to a close, as Taylor Swift was lauded as songwriter-artist of the decade.
The honor celebrated Swift’s successes between 2010 and 2019, a time period that saw Swift fully transition from country to pop, amassing hits and fan favorites including the pop-country crossovers “Fearless,” “Mine” and “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” to the electrifying pop of “Shake It Off,” “Style” and “Blank Space” to more intimate tracks such as “Lover” and “New Year’s Day.”
Swift’s acceptance speech served keen insights into her songwriting process, including categorizing her lyrics as most would categorize music into genres. She also thrilled the crowd is a performance of the 10-minute version of “All Too Well.”
“For me, tonight feels brimming with a genuine camaraderie between a bunch of people who just love making stuff, who love the craft, who live for that rare, pure moment when a magical cloud floats down right in front of you in the form of an idea for a song and all you have to do is grab it. Then shape it like clay. Prune it like a garden,” Swift told the audience. “And then wish on every lucky star or pray to whatever power you believe in that it might find its way out into the world and make someone feel seen, feel understood, feel joined in their grief or heartbreak or joy just for a moment … to be honored by you means more than any genre of my lyrics could ever say.”
The evening’s winners testified to both the depth and breadth of the talent in Nashville’s songwriting community, pulling in songwriters from not only the country genre, but highlighting Music City as an epicenter of hit songs in the pop/rock and contemporary Christian music genres.
Matthew West was named songwriter-artist of the year, marking the first time a primarily Contemporary Christian Music artist has won the honor. The feat comes one year after a primarily CCM-centered songwriter, Ethan Hulse, became the first to win the NSAI songwriter of the year.
West teamed with “Sunday Sermons” hitmaker Anne Wilson to perform “Me on Your Mind.”
Each year, the NSAI’s voters choose 10 “Songs I Wish I’d Written” — tunes selected from songwriters’ peers as songs of high quality. Among this year’s honoree songs was pop/rock artist GAYLE’s “abcdefu.” The song, an international hit that topped multiple Billboard global charts, tapping into the angst, anguish and impulse to strike back after being scorned by a lover.
Wielding her guitar, GAYLE performed a freewheeling, vicious take on the song, gleefully offering musical F-bombs to an ex-lover and everyone associated with them — with the exception of the dog, of course.
While most of the evening honored chart hits from the past year, the Kris Kristofferson lifetime achievement honor celebrated a canon of songs made famous by Garth Brooks, songs that are both timeless and very timely, given the celebration of ‘90s country influences in the country sphere. As one of ‘90s country’s chief architects, Brooks is the recipient of an accolade that recognizes a songwriter “whose works have made a significant contribution to the American songbook and who has inspired the careers of others.” Brooks has been a co-writer on several of his biggest hits, including “The River,” “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up”) and “That Summer.”
Trisha Yearwood introduced Brooks, offering a lengthy list of her husband and fellow artist’s accomplishments. Brooks is the first and only artist to earn nine RIAA Diamond-certified albums, and has seven CMA entertainer of the year wins. But according to Brooks, the attainment of these accolades have been a byproduct of his lifelong, dogged pursuit of mastering the craft of songwriting, having been influenced by writers including Dan Fogelberg and James Taylor. Yearwood called Brooks “a poet, a good man, a songwriter’s best friend and my best friend.”
A group Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame writers then took the stage, with Tony Arata performing “The Dance,” Pat Alger performing “The Thunder Rolls” and Kent Blazy performing “Ain’t Goin’ Down (til the Sun Comes Up).” Reigning CMA entertainer of the year Luke Combs honored Brooks with a rendition of Brooks’ 1995 hit “Beaches of Cheyenne.”
“I never felt like a songwriter until I heard him sing ‘Beaches of Cheyenne,’” Brooks said, becoming emotional as he thanked Combs for the performance. He added, “If you get to hang out with songwriters, you’re lucky, ‘cause these people are dreamers. It’s like sitting with Victoria Shaw in a house that she couldn’t afford, that she was renting. We’re sitting there, talking about James Taylor, and we talk about a line that says, “I know the river and the railroad/ Would run through the valley still.’ ‘The River,” the only writer that’s missing on that song is James Taylor. I ripped everything I could from James Taylor.” Brooks added that he later told Taylor the story when they had dinner one time, relaying that Taylor said that impulse to be heavily influenced by other writers “sounded familiar.”
Later in his speech, hugging his Kris Kristofferson lifetime achievement honor, Brooks noted the ultimately eternal contribution of songwriters: “It’s the songs that live forever.”
Ashley Gorley, who recently aligned with Sony Music Publishing, has earned 50 Billboard Country Airplay No. 1 hits to date, as well as 14 Hot Country Songs chart leaders (upping the tally to 63 total No. 1 hits if non-Billboard charts are considered). Gorley was honored as both songwriter of the year and songwriter of the decade. Craig Wiseman, who previously earned the songwriter of the decade honor for his work from 2000-2009, took the stage to “pass the torch” to Gorley.
Referencing Gorley’s amassment of hits, Wiseman quipped, “You’re buying us all a chicken parm at [Nashville restaurant] The Palm after this.”
“You’ve written 60-something No. 1s, and this is not one of them,” HARDY quipped as he ripped through an acoustic rendition of the song.
Thomas Rhett performed “What’s Your Country Song,” telling Gorley, “I love you so much. You’re like family.” Babyface offered a slowed down, R&B-tinged rendition of Rhett’s “Unforgettable,” highlighting the genre-transcending modality of the song.
But with 50 chart leaders packed into a relatively scant 10 years, it still took a medley of tunes to pay tribute to Gorley’s undeniable impact on country music over the past decade. To that end, songwriters Ben Johnson, Wyatt McCubbin and Hunter Phelps performed snippets of Gorley hits, including “Don’t Forget to Remember Me” (recorded by Carrie Underwood), “Dirt on My Boots” (Jon Pardi), “Play It Again” (Luke Bryan), “You’re Gonna Miss This” (Trace Adkins) and his latest, Cole Swindell’s “She Had Me at Heads Carolina.”
Gorley was also feted with videos from his family. Taking the stage, he thanked those who have had a part in his career, and recalled that it was over a decade before he notched his first hit as a songwriter, encouraging any aspiring songwriters to keep working. Throughout the evening, Gorley’s indefatigable work ethic was lauded. Gorley acknowledged his intense pace, noting that he was in a writing session before he came to the awards show. “It’s where I go, it’s my safe place,” Gorley said. “What gatherings like this do is make you feel like part of this community, but it also makes you feel like you have a long way to go.” He also thanked NSAI for their support of songwriters.
Sony Music Publishing chairman and CEO Jon Platt was honored with the president’s keystone award, presented by NSAI board president Steve Bogard. Bogard noted that during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Platt and Sony Music Publishing stepped forward with a $250,000 donation to NSAI, which helped launched the writer foundation to offer $1,000 grants to help songwriters in need. Bogard also noted that Platt and Sony Music Publishing later stepped up again, offering a second $250,000 donation to NSAI.
“They had his heart, and he had their back,” Bogard said, before Little Big Town performed “Rich Man.”
Taking the stage, Platt’s respect and dedication to songwriters was immediately evident, as he turned the spotlight back to the writers. After thanking NSAI for their work to advocate for songwriters, he said, “It’s incredible to be in the presence of all of you tonight, especially some of the greatest songwriters in the world … to be honored for the Keystone award is beyond anything that I ever expected. The Keystone award is special because the keystone is defined as the central stone at the summit of an arc, which locks the whole together as one. When you think about it, I may be receiving this award tonight, but that’s exactly what songwriters represent. The entire music business, and in many ways our world, revolves around the song and songwriting is at the summit. That’s why I will always say it is essential to put songwriters first.”
Other performers during the evening included Kelsea Ballerini, Larry Fleet, Sam Hunt, Walker Hayes, Alana Springsteen, sister duo Tigirlily, Brett James, Jonathan Singleton and Nicolle Galyon.
Those performances were in celebration of the winners of this year’s “10 Songs I Wish I’d Written” Awards (which actually stretched to 11 honorees this year). In addition to GAYLE’s “abcdefu,” this year’s recognized songs were “7500 OBO,” “Sand in My Boots,” “23,” “You Should Probably Leave,” “Fancy Like,” “Knowing You,” “Half of My Hometown,” “Never Wanted to Be That Girl,” “‘Til You Can’t,” and “Things a Man Oughta Know.”