The Academy of Country Music paid a visit to Music City Tuesday night for the 8th Annual ACM Honors, an evening of special tributes to the honorees and winners of awards that are not a part of the yearly CBS awards-show telecast.
Held at the Ryman Auditorium, the program’s host, Jake Owen, opened the night’s festivities with a stirring version of “Back On My Mind Again,” a 1978 hit for Career Achievement Award winner Ronnie Milsap . He then brought Justin Moore to the stage for a presentation of the industry awards, including Live Nation’s Brian O’Connell named as promoter of the year and Nexte Event Marketing’s Nicole More being named Don Romeo talent buyer of the year. Taking home the ACM honors for casino of the year were (small capacity) Mohegan Sun Wolf Den and (medium capacity) Mohegan Sun Arena — both located in Uncasville, Ct.
The legendary Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth was named as nightclub of the year, while winning the venue of the year honors were Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater in Austin, Texas in the small capacity field, while Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House and Bridgestone Arena netted the prizes in the medium and large capacity categories, respectively.
The career of country legend Ronnie Milsap was celebrated by Hunter Hayes — who helped announced the singer’s impending induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame — by singing Milsap’s No. 1 hit “I Wouldn’t Have Missed It For The World.” Also being given the career achievement prize was Toby Keith, who was not present at the ceremony.
Thomas Rhett presented the studio recording awards to several of Nashville’s top session players — including bassist Michael Rhodes, drummer Shannon Forrest, guitarist Rob McNelley, pianist/keyboardist Charlie Judge, Bryan Sutton (specialty instrument), and Paul Franklin for his work on steel guitar. Justin Niebank was honored with the audio engineer trophy, and Dann Huff brought home the prize for producer of the year.
Following their electric performance of “Elvira,” The Oak Ridge Boys received a standing ovation and presented the Mae Boren Axton Award to WME’s Paul Moore, who recently announced his forthcoming retirement.
Shane McAnally was named as songwriter of the year by the ACM, while Kelly Clarkson, Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott and Kacey Musgraves all saluted him with performances of songs he has helped write for them during the past year (“Tie It Up,” “Downtown” and “Merry Go ‘Round,” respectively. He was presented the award by surprise guest Kenny Chesney — who recorded McAnally’s first No. 1 hit with “Somewhere With You.” Chesney’s appearance stunned the tunesmith, who said, “I’m in shock right now. I knew I was going to win, but I didn’t how it was going to happen. This is a huge deal.”
The night was also big for Carrie Underwood, the recipient of the Gene Weed Special Achievement Award. The former ACM entertainer of the year was celebrated in song by The Swon Brothers, who impressed the crowd with their medley of “See You Again” and “Wasted.” Underwood — who announced her pregnancy last week — was visibly moved to tears (or as she referred to it, “misty-eyed”) when thanking the ACM. “Country music has always been so good to me. I had all kinds of stuff to say…..but it’s all gone,” she quipped to the audience.
Owen returned to the stage, announcing former Florida Gators star Tim Tebow to present the Jim Reeves International Award to Rascal Flatts for their success in promoting country music overseas. The moment proved to be an emotional one, with Jay DeMarcus saying proudly, “I feel privileged to share the stage with these guys. The day I look over and I don’t see Gary and Joe Don will be the saddest of my life.”
Also presented with the Jim Reeves International Award was Gaylord Entertainment’s Steve Buchanan. The executive has helped to grow country’s brand internationally by helping to re-establish Nashville as a tourist destination through his role in the 1994 transformation of the Ryman Auditorium, as well as for being a part of the ABC series Nashville. Two members of the show’s cast, Clare Bowen and Sam Palladio, performed following Buchanan’s acceptance speech in honor of the two Reeves Award winners.
Tony Joe White brought the audience alive with a tasty version of his 1969 hit “Polk Salad Annie,” which he performed in tribute to late music publishing giant Bob Beckham, who was honored with the Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award. Brenda Lee thanked Beckham for bringing to her attention Kris Kristofferson’s “Nobody Wins,” which became her first major country hit in 1973.
Rounding out the night were the Poet’s Awards, handed out to four of the format’s greatest songwriters. Jack Clement and Buck Owens were celebrated posthumously in song by Shawn Camp, Billy Burnette, Dierks Bentley and Dwight Yoakam. The two living honorees were Dean Dillon — feted by fellow songwriter Rodney Clawson and Lee Ann Womack, who delivered a riveting performance of “An Empty Glass” — and Kris Kristofferson. The acclaimed singer/songwriter was feted by Jack Ingram, who gave a fine performance of “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,”and Will Hoge, who presented perhaps the finest musical moment of the evening with a rendition of “Me And Bobby McGee.”
In accepting the award, Kristofferson reflected on his early days in Nashville. While working as a janitor at Columbia Records, the future icon would be allowed in at the Grand Ole Opry for free at the Ryman — if he had his military uniform on. “To me, this is a religious experience. I feel like I’m in church,” he said. “I can’t thank you enough.”