Elvis had not left the building Friday night.
At ACM Stories, Songs & Stars: A Songwriter’s Event Benefitting ACM Lifting Lives Friday night (April 13), Jon Pardi took being in Las Vegas to heart. He came on stage dressed in full Elvis Presley regalia, complete with white jumpsuit and cape, red scarf and sunglasses.
Pardi’s appearance was the sizzle in a night that was devoted to the steak: songwriters telling the stories behind some of their biggest hits. The event — hosted by The Joint at the The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino — featured a Murderer’s Row of Nashville’s top songwriters, including Academy of Country Music Awards songwriter of the year nominees Rhett Akins, Ashley Gorley, Hillary Lindsey, Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, as well as Lori McKenna and Liz Rose, who combined are responsible for hundreds of hits. Gorley alone has written 36 No. 1 songs, a fact that gave Osborne an opportunity to crack a good-natured joke: “At one point, Ashley has 11 of the songs in the Top 10.”
The songwriters were brought out in rounds, with a chart-topping artist joining them for each turn throughout the loose-limbed evening. For the first round, Thomas Rhett joined Gorley, McAnally and his dad, Rhett Akins. McAnally, Gorley and songwriter Jesse Frasure, who was in the audience, shared the story behind Rhett’s recent No. 1, “Marry Me,” a heartbreaking tale that he will perform on the 53rd ACM Awards Sunday night (April 15).
“Everybody was tired of hearing about [Thomas Rhett’s] happy life,” Frasure joked. The song, written on Rhett’s tour bus, is “the anti-Thomas Rhett love song,” Frasure said. Before launching into it, Rhett called it the “saddest song” he’s ever recorded.
While the evening focused on recent hits, Rhett reveled in sharing the stage with his dad, who took home the ACM Award for songwriter of the year, which was presented at the event’s end. “It is really cool to write songs with your frigging father,” he said, noting they penned their first song together when he was 7. Rhett also credited his father with the wide range of influences in his music. “He would play me Tupac, DMX and the Rolling Stones on the way to school,” he said. Akins, who performed his 1998 hit “That Ain’t My Truck,” later recalling that the last time he was nominated for an ACM award was that year. “Some kid named Kenny Chesney won,” he added.
Pardi’s appearance was brief but memorable. He played a song he wrote with Akins, and then a brief bit of “Dirt On My Boots” before disappearing with a Presley-like flip of his cape.
Cole Swidell next joined the lineup first to perform with Akins “Gotta Get Me Some Of That,” their collobration which was the first chart topper for Rhett. Swidell got emotional before performing “You Should Be Here,” a song he wrote with Gorley following his father’s death.
They didn’t invoke the King by also donning capes, but Midland’s Mark Wystrach, Cameron Duddy and Jess Carson still provided plenty of comic relief as they joined Osborne and McAnally to perform their ACM Awards record of the year nominee, “Drinkin’ Problem,” which “we wrote over six or 16 Coronas,” Wystrach said. The ACMs presented new vocal duo or group of the year to Midland, with Wystrach wisecracking, “We’re a bunch of idiots. We’re just lucky to be here.”
Kip Moore, Lee Brice, Cam and Little Big Town all took the stage as well, performing songs on their own or with their co-writers. Cam joined McKenna to sing “Forgetting You When I’m Alone,” a searing ballad that will appear on Cam’s next album. She followed that with an impromptu performance of “Diane.” the single that drew inspiration from Kendrick Lamar for its compelling visual.
Moore performed three tunes on his own, “Hey Pretty Girl” and “Crazy One More Time” from his 2012 album, Up All Night and “Plead The Fifth,” from current album Slowheart.
Brice entertained the audience with his freewheeling stories about creating “Songs in the Kitchen,” a cut inspired by a conversation with Kellie Pickler, and his enthusiastic endorsement of the songwriters on stage. He kept that encouraging sentiment going by bringing on Nicolle Galyon, who co-wrote recent single “Boy,” to perform the song.
The evening ended on a musical high note with Little Big Town trading off verses of “Girl Crush” with Lindsey, McKenna, and Rose, who wrote the song in two hours in McKenna’s kitchen.
Proceeds from the evening, which included a banquet beforehand, benefitted ACM Lifting Lives, the philanthropic arm of the Academy of Country Music dedicated to improving lives through the power of music.