There were many tender moments and sweet tributes at last night’s ACM Honors in Nashville, but the highlight of the evening came from a different, more jubilant direction: Chris Janson. Minutes before racing a few blocks away to an amphitheater show with Brett Eldredge, the “Fix a Drink” singer, songwriter and harmonica ace took the stage to pay homage to Shel Silverstein, the posthumous recipient of the Poet’s Award, along with Toby Keith. “He ignited my creativity,” Janson told the crowd before launching into a slingshot version of Silverstein’s biggest hits, “A Boy Named Sue” and “Cover of the Rolling Stone,” made famous by Johnny Cash and Dr. Hook, respectively. It was a dynamite showing from a live legacy in the making. (Watch a clip below.)
A satellite event to April’s Academy of Country Music Awards, the Honors bestowed several special trophies: to Reba McEntire (with a performance by Hillary Scott, Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman), the show Nashville (celebrated by cast members Clare Bowen and Charles Esten) and Lori McKenna, who was the recipient of Songwriter of the Year.
“The thing about songwriters is we don’t define ourselves by gender, race or anything else – we just call ourselves songwriters,” McKenna told the crowd as she collected her award, which recognized her impressive body of game-changing songs like “Girl Crush” by Little Big Town (who sang their McKenna-penned single “When Someone Stops Loving You”) and “Humble and Kind” by Tim McGraw.
Kelsea Ballerini, in attendance to collect the Gene Weed Milestone Award for her impactful rise to the top of the charts (including setting a record for a female in the genre, with three consecutive Number One songs from her debut The First Time), also emphasized the importance of the songwriter. “It wasn’t long before I decided I wanted to be Hillary Lindsey when I grew up,” a tearful Ballerini said, before performing a subdued acoustic version of her current single “Legends,” a Lindsey co-write. She then turned things up a notch for an energetic medley of her hits.
Other highlights of the night, taped to air as a CBS special next month, included Dolly Parton, there to accept the Gary Haver Lifting Lives Award. “When I think of Dolly, I think of the Tennessee Mountains,” said Brad Paisley, who honored Parton by playing “Tennessee Mountain Home,” in a chuckle-inducing, possibly unintentional reference to Parton’s famous, er, assets. Maren Morris also sang a sweet ode to the late Glen Campell: his hit “Galveston,” which saw Morris digging back into her native Texas roots.
The night ended on an appropriately legendary note, with George Strait receiving the Cliffie Stone Icon Award, with performances by Alan Jackson, Chris Stapleton and Strait himself.
“It’s been an amazing career,” Strait said. “I’m still going strong. Heck, I feel like I’m in my prime.”
The ACM Honors is scheduled to air September 15th on CBS.