The words of Johnny Cash set the tone for the evening at the 2018 SESAC Nashville Music Awards on Sunday, as Jamey Johnson shared the stage with John Carter Cash to open the annual event with “Spirit Rider” from the Forever Words collection. The slow, stately number paired Johnson’s melodic instincts with Cash’s lyrics, while Cash’s son John Carter, who produced the album, stuck mostly to strumming his acoustic guitar while Johnson sang.
Held at the Country Music Hall of Fame with the lights of downtown Nashville serving as the twinkling backdrop, the SESAC Awards had a touch of old Hollywood glamour as the performing rights organization acknowledged writer affiliates who scored hits in country and Americana in the last year. Those in the latter category included Chris Stapleton’s From A Room: Volume 2, as well as Margo Price’s All American Made. On the mainstream country side, SESAC writers had a hand in songs including Chris Young’s “Losing Sleep,” Russell Dickerson’s “Yours,” Jordan Davis’ “Singles You Up,” Lady Antebellum’s “Heart Break,” and Luke Combs’ “One Number Away.”
Coming on the eve of Veterans Day observance, the event also included a group of representatives from the Tennessee National Guard, who were greeted with an enthusiastic standing ovation. Singer-songwriter Lee Brice was part of a related presentation to the Folds of Honor organization. Brice gave a powerful acoustic performance of his hit “I Drive Your Truck” (penned by Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Jimmy Yeary) at the awards, before being recognized alongside Folds of Honor work on behalf of United States servicemen and women.
Performer Kane Brown wasn’t able to attend the SESAC Awards, but his presence was definitely felt. The Georgia native, who released his new album Experiment on Friday, was connected to all three of the major awards given out by the performing rights organization. “Heaven,” from the deluxe version of Brown’s self-titled debut album, was named Song of the Year for its dominance on the charts in 2018. The song’s publisher, Smackworks, run by ace songwriter-producer Shane McAnally, was named Publisher of the Year. And finally, Smackworks writer Matt McGinn was named Songwriter of the Year, having co-written “Heaven” along with other recordings by Florida Georgia Line, Cassadee Pope, Michael Ray and more.
“We’re fucking nightmares. I get it,” said McGinn as he praised his publisher’s patience for songwriters. “Thank you so much for dealing with us.”
Shannan Hatch, SESAC’s Vice President of Creative Services, hosted the event, the first of several industry galas ahead of the CMA Awards on Wednesday.