The CMA Awards may get the lion’s share of the attention in country music this week, thanks mainly to its three hours in primetime on ABC, but Tuesday night’s BMI Awards exude a certain kind of unmatchable cool.
Only in the confines of BMI’s Nashville parking garage — where tables, a stage, and multiple bars are set up on the hard concrete — would you see the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, in a black poncho and hat, and Margo Price in a rhinestone suit singing Dwight Yoakam’s “Fast as You” backed by a house band that included Randy Houser and Audley Freed. But perhaps such collabs come about because the BMIs aren’t televised. Instead, it’s a loose evening for artists of all stripes — Luke Combs, Carrie Underwood, Eric Church, Midland, and Tanya Tucker were all milling about — to let down their guard and pick up their drink.
At its core, the invitation-only banquet recognizes the 50 most performed country songs of the year in a rapid-fire presentation of certificates and photo ops. It’s a dizzying spectacle broken up only by a few speeches and performances in honor of the recipient of the BMI President’s Award, the evening’s centerpiece. This year, that honor went to Yoakam, who spoke at length about the origins of his songwriting.
“I wrote primarily because I needed things to sing, and it’s flattering to be given this award tonight, it’s flattering to be honored by BMI… Every placard that I’ve received from BMI over the years is an award that I cherish, right alongside any platinum album that I got,” he said. “[They are] to remind me how lucky I’ve been, how fortunate I’ve been to be able to make a living doing something I would have done for free.”
It was the performances of his hits, however, that distinguished this year’s gala. Along with Price and Weir’s wonderfully ramshackle “Fast as You,” Jon Pardi delivered a faithful take on Yoakam’s 1986 honky-tonker “Guitars, Cadillacs” that proved him just as much of a neo-traditionalist as the evening’s President’s Award winner. But the hush moment came from the Highwomen — Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires, and Natalie Hemby — who assembled to perform “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere.” With Jason Isbell joining the house band on guitar, the group harmonized their way through the forlorn 1993 hit. It was a dazzling performance punctuated by Carlile’s spot-on Yoakam yodel and further cemented the Highwomen as 2019’s MVPs.
By night’s end, Nicolle Galyon and Ross Copperman shared Songwriter of the Year honors, and Dan + Shay’s “Tequila” — which Galyon co-wrote — received Song of the Year.
“Rocky Top,” the enduring bluegrass romp written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, received the inaugural Evergreen Award, with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder offering a performance of the number, one of Tennessee’s state songs.