Carrie Underwood sang “Jesus Take The Wheel”. Garth Brooks released “If Tomorrow Never Comes” and Kenny Chesney tackled ’80s country favorite “Set ‘Em Up Joe.”
But for one night in Nashville, these massive stars — and many more who took to the stage Monday — weren’t the center of attention. Instead, this evening was all about those who put a pen to the stamp and brought these classic songs to life.
The Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame inducted 10 new members at its annual gala at the Music City Center’s Grand Ballroom. The ceremony doubled in size this year, as it celebrated both the class of 2020 – whose induction was postponed due to the pandemic – and that of 2021.
This group included several stars in their own right: Toby Keith, Amy Grant, Steve Earle, Bobbie Gentry (who retired in the 1980s and did not participate) and Rhett Akins. They were joined by Kent Blazy, Buddy Cannon, Brett James, Spooner Oldham and John Scott Sherrill.
Over Grant’s 45-year career, being recognized as a songwriter and artist has been formative for her.
“I had been making records for years, but the first time I was asked to sing at the Bluebird (Cafe), my heart was racing,” she recalled with a laugh before the ceremony.
“And then I thought, ‘Oh my God, I guess I’m a songwriter,’ because the focus shifted to other areas of my work.”
Monday’s ceremony was also a rare opportunity for Grant – in the midst of an extremely busy year – to pause and reflect.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m a mole in a mole race. You go and go and go and then you raise your head and (say) ‘Ok, now where are we at?’ … It’s been a real gift. It makes me feel the cumulative impact of my efforts for 45 years and how these songs have found a place in the hearts of my audience.”
Many an inductee had vivid memories of coming to Music Row and literally knocking on the doors of publishing houses and record labels. In Earle’s case, he hitchhiked from Texas and was dropped off by a tractor-trailer in the middle of the night.
Although he forged his own path out of the Nashville mainstream, he had fond memories of his early years on Music Row and respectful words for the editors he knew, like Bob Beckham and Bill Hall.
“These were guys who knew you had to let Kris (Kristofferson) write ‘The Silver-Tongued Devil and Me’ if you wanted to get ‘Help Me Get Through the Night,'” he said. .
“It was a great time to learn how to be a songwriter. And I always tell people who want to be songwriters to come here.”
Monday’s ceremony was a great opportunity for giants like Chesney and Brooks to take their hats off to the collaborators who have been by their side since the early days.
Besides writing songs for George Strait, Vern Gosdin and others, Cannon has co-produced nearly every Chesney album, starting with “I Will Stand” in 1997. He said he didn’t want Chesney feels the pressure to perform for him at the ceremony, only to learn later that he had insisted on coming to pay his respects.
Before Brooks performed “Tomorrow” at the ceremony, his co-writer Blazy recalled that he might be “the only person who had a top 5 or a top 10 that would write with (Brooks) when he was starting out. “.
“He’s the most loyal person. He remembers who was there at the start.”
Other tribute performers had even closer relationships with the award winners. Akins’ biggest hit as an artist, “That Ain’t My Truck”, was performed by his superstar son, Thomas Rhett.
Grant often performs alongside her husband (and 2005 inductee) Vince Gill, but it’s rare to see one of them performing the other’s song alone. It happened on Monday as Gill sang his wife’s “Breath of Heaven.”
“He’s so improvisational in everything he does, so it was really nice for me to hear him practice and practice in the other room,” Grant said. “And I said, ‘Dude, I know how it goes. If you want to edit, cut short. He went the extra mile.”
Among other performances, Trisha Yearwood kicked off the evening with Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe”; John Anderson revisiting his 1982 “Wild and Blue” chart for John Scott Sherrill; Jason Isbell singing “I’m Your Puppet” in honor of Oldham; Emmylou Harris greeting Earle with “Pilgrim” and Ronnie Dunn singing Keith’s first number 1 “Should’ve Been a Cowboy”.
Hours before Underwood, Hillary Lindsey and Gordie Sampson took the stage to sing “Jesus, Take The Wheel” for their co-writer, Brett James, the inductee was already emotional at the thought.
“If they’re going to put a song on my grave, this will be it,” he said.
“For all three of them to do this for me tonight, I’ll try to stick together.”