Music City honored the artistry of four exceptional tunesmiths Sunday night, inducting Rosanne Cash, Mark James, Even Stevens and Craig Wiseman into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. The 45th annual gala awards dinner at Nashville’s Music City Center was attended by more than 1,000 music industry professionals and featured tribute performances to the new Hall of Fame members from Tim McGraw, Hunter Hayes, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, Ronnie Dunn and more.
Cash, who enjoyed a string of chart-topping hits throughout the Eighties including “Seven Year Ache,” “Blue Moon With Heartache” and the Grammy-winning “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me,” has evolved into one of the genre’s most sophisticated, confessional writer-performers. She continues, at age 60, to possess a strong, expressive voice, both literally and in terms of the material she’s written and recorded recently, especially 2014’s multi-award-winning The River and the Thread. She also remains an outspoken advocate on topics including gun control and fair compensation for songwriters. Vince Gill and Emmylou Harris both sang Cash’s songs during the event, and her former producer and ex-husband Rodney Crowell did the formal induction.
“It means everything to me,” Cash told Rolling Stone Country of the honor prior to the ceremony. “As an 18-year-old songwriter, [I] was really struggling to begin to write good songs and couldn’t quite find the keyhole, but just kept soaking up those good songwriters around me. . . what they said and how they did it, deconstructing songs for myself to figure out why they worked. Then, here we are 40 years later and other songwriters are recognizing me? It’s the best feeling in the world. I’m trying to take it in. I’m a little shocked.”
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Even Stevens was inducted by his longtime friend, Hall of Fame songwriter Hugh Prestwood (“Ghost in This House,” “The Song Remembers When”), and celebrated with Loving Mary’s performance of the 1980 crossover smash, “Drivin’ My Life Away,” which was just one of some 900 songs he and Rabbitt penned together. James recalled the hardscrabble early days living in Nashville and sleeping in his converted postal vehicle before striking gold with hits that also included “When You’re in Love With a Beautiful Woman,” a worldwide hit for Dr. Hook, which was performed at the ceremony by American Idol alum Paul McDonald.
Mark James, who was responsible for, among other hits, the best-selling single in the phenomenal career of Elvis Presley, was inducted by BMI executive Jody Williams, and feted with Hunter Hayes’ dynamic performance of the aforementioned hit, 1969’s “Suspicious Minds.” Singer B.J. Thomas then delivered a powerful rendition of “Hooked on a Feeling,” which was twice a major pop hit; first by Thomas in Thomas in 1968, then a Number One blockbuster for Blue Swede in 1974. James was also a co-writer of “Always on My Mind,” the Elvis hit that later came to life on the pop charts with two incredibly different versions, one by Willie Nelson, the other by English duo Pet Shop Boys.
The emotional highpoint of the night was the humorous and heartfelt acceptance speech from Craig Wiseman, introduced by his friend and fellow Hall of Fame member, Bob DiPiero. To cover just a few of Wiseman’s many hit, Hall of Famer Jeffrey Steele performed a medley that included, among many other tunes, Kenny Chesney’s “Summertime,” Montgomery Gentry’s “Hell Yeah” and “Boys ‘Round Here,” cut by Blake Shelton. Two powerhouse vocal performances followed, from Ronnie Dunn (“Believe”) and Tim McGraw (“Live Like You Were Dying”). In his speech, Wiseman name-checked dozens of acts that have recorded his songs and also paid homage to his many co-writers and employees of his music-publishing company, Big Loud Shirt.
“This is kind of ‘it,” Wiseman told Rolling Stone Country before taking the stage. “I’ve got Grammys and all the Songs of the Years and all that stuff goes to the side. This goes dead center. This is the purest. It’s by songwriters for songwriters.”
Although the job description is neatly packaged in the title of songwriter, throughout his own career, Wiseman says he has found that several elements go into making one a songwriter.
“There’s a little bit of cowboy, because of the long odds,” he explains. “It’s a weird mix because you have to be sort of self-reliant and self-contained. The thing I like about Nashville is there’s so much community in it. It’s a symphony of contradictions and you throw in several neuroses. A lot of obsessive-compulsive disorder helps. It’s the ability to see what’s going on [within the industry] and, at the same time, ignore all that shit and imagine where it’s going to be in three or four years. But you’re skatin’ on ice. You’re skatin’ on ice that’s warm water, waiting for it to freeze up.”
Prior to the Hall of Fame inductions, another organization, the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI), presented its annual Songwriter Achievement Awards, recognizing the record-breaking Little Big Town hit, “Girl Crush” as its Song of the Year.
The three writers, Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose (a/k/a the Love Junkies), performed a breathtaking rendition of the song after accepting their award.
Rodney Clawson was named Songwriter of the Year, recognized for the success of hits he co-wrote for Kenny Chesney (“American Kids”), Lady Antebellum (“Bartender,”) Jason Aldean (“Burnin’ It Down”), Florida Georgia Line (“Dirt,” “Sippin’ on Fire”) and more.
For the seventh time, the Songwriter/Artist of the Year honor was presented (in a pre-taped piece) to Taylor Swift, who spoke of her continuing admiration for the Nashville songwriting community and its influence on her. The writers of NSAI’s Professional Songwriters Division also singled out 10 songs and their writers for the organization’s 2015 awards, informally dubbed “The Songs I Wish I’d Written,” although a tie led to a field of 11 honorees. The recipients were: “A Guy Walks Into a Bar” (Melissa Peirce, Jonathan Singleton, Brad Tursi /recorded by Tyler Farr), “All About That Bass” (Kevin Kadish, Meghan Trainor /recorded by Meghan Trainor), “American Kids” (Rodney Clawson, Luke Laird, Shane McAnally/recorded by Kenny Chesney), “Diamond Rings And Old Bar Stools” (Barry Dean, Luke Laird, Jonathan Singleton/recorded by Tim McGraw w/Catherine Dunn), “Dirt” (Rodney Clawson, Chris Tompkins/recorded by Florida Georgia Line), “Girl in a Country Song” (Taylor Dye, Maddie Marlow, Aaron Scherz/recorded by Maddie & Tae), “I Don’t Dance” (Lee Brice, Dallas Davidson, Rob Hatch/recorded by Lee Brice), “Neon Light” (Andrew Dorff, Mark Irwin, Josh Kear/recorded by Blake Shelton), “Raise ‘Em Up” (Tom Douglas, Jaren Johnston, Jeffrey Steele/recorded by Keith Urban and Eric Church), “Shake It Off ” (Max Martin, Shellback, Taylor Swift/recorded by Taylor Swift) and “She Don’t Love You” (Eric Paslay, Jennifer Wayne/recorded by Eric Paslay).