The CMA Awards may be the rightful centerpiece of awards weeks in Nashville, an evening of glamour and musical moments created especially for TV, but last night’s BMI Awards hold a certain spontaneous sway over Music City. Traditionally held on the evening before the CMAs, the BMI performing-rights organization’s ceremony recognizes the Top 50 songs of the year in rapid-fire succession, with a parade of songwriters and artists ascending and descending the stage to collect their award and pose for a photo. It’s mesmerizing to watch, for both those seated at the tables and the honorees themselves.
“I say it every year and it never changes or fades in the slightest, but the honor of being a songwriter and being among this group of songwriters is a big deal,” Hunter Hayes told Rolling Stone Country prior to the awards. The singer was sporting the signature BMI gold medallion around his neck, recognizing him as an honoree. “It’s always a special moment. It’s never something you expect.”
“There’s a medal around my neck that says BMI on it,” grinned Chris Young, echoing Hayes’ comments. The dual BMI honoree recalled setting foot in the BMI building on Music Row early in his career. “The first time I co-wrote, it was in this building. I co-wrote with a guy who used to work at the Bluebird and we came here. I love being a part of the night.”
In the end, “Wagon Wheel,” famously written by Ketch Secor from a Bob Dylan song sketch and recorded by Secor’s Old Crow Medicine Show and, later, Darius Rucker, won Song of the Year. Rhett Akins, a member of the Georgia writing team known as the Peach Pickers, was lauded as Songwriter of the Year.
The emotional highlight of the evening, however, came with Vince Gill being named this year’s BMI Icon. The singer, guitarist and, of course, songwriter sat and watched as Keith Urban, Ashley Monroe and Michael McDonald all performed his compositions. Monroe sang “Whenever You Come Around,” while McDonald showed off his famous golden throat on “When I Call Your Name.” But it was Urban who arguably stole the show, first performing “I Still Believe in You” and then joining Monroe on a rollicking run through “Liza Jane,” all the while playing one of Waylon Jennings’ leather-adorned Telecasters. Urban acquired the famous guitar in 2010.
Afterward, Gill gave a typically emotional speech, singling out country veteran Bill Anderson in the crowd and telling a story of how he inadvertently spurred Anderson to return to songwriting success.
“To all you songwriters out there,” Gill concluded, “try to move somebody with your songs.”
Holly Williams, another attendee at last night’s awards, took that advice to heart. She and Gill have been collaborating this past summer for her upcoming new album and plan to duet together for the project. She says that despite the sometimes lamented glut of disposable pop-country songs overtaking radio, songwriting is alive and well in Nashville.
“Right now the focus is on radio but there are still amazing songs being written all over this town that I hear every day from different writers. It’s all about great lyrics,” the granddaughter of Hank Williams told Rolling Stone Country. “I remember my grandfather said: ‘I don’t know what you mean by country, I write songs the way I know how.'”