"Tonight, it's all about the songwriter," David Nail told Rolling Stone Country at last night's 53rd annual ASCAP Country Music Awards in Nashville. "I wouldn't be here without them." Indeed, in a week that culminates with the crown jewel in the Nashville honors crowd, Wednesday's CMA Awards, smaller shows like ASCAP's (along with SESAC's this past Sunday and BMI's tonight) pay tribute to the backbone of the industry, assuring that the folks in the writing rooms — and not just behind the mic – get their ample due.
And while Sam Hunt and Ashley Gorley snagged top honors, one of the night's most unusual guests is more schooled in writing treaties than Number Ones: President Jimmy Carter, perhaps the Least Likely to Pop Up at a Country Awards Show. President Carter was on hand to present the Voice of Music Award to Trisha Yearwood, who has become friends with the Nobel laureate over the years through their work with Habitat for Humanity – they had even been on-site at a home build in Memphis earlier in the day. "She's always on top of scaffolding and the roof trusses, almost like an acrobat, performing her duties," President Carter said of her fearless dedication.
"Since her debut in the early Nineties, Yearwood has given women a voice through song," said another surprise guest: Tennessee native Justin Timberlake, in town to join Chris Stapleton for a performance at Wednesday's CMA Awards. "The epitome of southern charm: strong, confident and, of course, very smart…and I am sure my buddy Garth [Brooks] would agree, pretty damn hot."
Yearwood was celebrated with an all-star tribute of her timeless tracks. Lady Antebellum sang a sweet, harmony-laced version of "Walkaway Joe" that put Hillary Scott on lead vocal, Reba McEntire offered "The Song Remembers When" and Brooks' daughter Allie performed a take on her stepmother's "She's in Love With the Boy" that captured the track's early innocence.
"I'm a singer, and I'm not really a songwriter," Yearwood told Rolling Stone Country. "So for the songwriting community to honor me, I feel really lucky. I'm such a fan of great songs."
The event, which took place at Nashville's Omni Hotel and opened with Old Dominion performing their new Number One hit "Break Up With Him," recognized many of the year's most-played songs with one major winner: Hunt. In a dapper tie-less tuxedo, he brought home Songwriter-Artist of the Year and Song of the Year for "Leave the Night On," taking the stage on the acoustic guitar with co-writer Josh Osborne to play a stripped-down version of the track that reminded the crowd how deep his country roots do indeed run.
Gorley, one of the most sought-after collaborators in Nashville, took Songwriter of the Year. To celebrate, he performed two of his biggest hits for Luke Bryan: "Play It Again" and "I See You," joined by his young daughter along with Bryan and Dallas Davidson.
Other performances included Josh Kear on Lee Brice's "Drinking Class," introduced by Kip Moore, who went off the cuff about how he first was entranced by Kear as he played a nearly-empty show years ago at East Nashville's 5 Spot; and Cole Swindell, Rhett Atkins and songwriter Michael Carter singing Thomas Rhett's "Get Me Some of That." Both tracks joined "Leave the Night On," "Play It Again" and "I See You" as Top Five Songs of the Year at the event, which also featured Kelsea Ballerini, Charles Kelley and John Rich as presenters.
"You know you are in Nashville," Rich said, "when you are at the urinal and Rhett Atkins is standing there."