From “Tennessee River” to “I Knew You Were Trouble,” the Nashville songwriters behind several decades worth of instantly recognizable tunes were honored Sunday night at the Music City Center.
Four new members were welcomed into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the writers responsible for the past year’s biggest hits were honored by the Nashville Songwriters Association International.
Alabama frontman Randy Owen and songsmiths Will Jennings, Layng Martine Jr. and Jeffrey Steele are the Hall’s 2013 inductees, and all (save Jennings, who was unable to attend) gathered for dinner with hundreds of Music Row colleagues, friends and family members Sunday night to accept the honor — and hear their songs performed by a surprise cast of musical stars.
Speaking to The Tennessean before the ceremony, Owen called his induction “the most special thing that ever happened to me individually.” It was an honor that made him think back to Alabama’s earliest gigs — and even earlier, when he was first inspired to write a song.
“My daddy taught me to love poetry, and he used to read me poetry. I just loved the way words flowed.” He said. “He would also (play) the Hank Williams stuff, and Hank was just so perfect with the way he wrote. It was very inspiring to me, to get a guitar and think, ‘You know, I might could do that.’”
Owen and his fellow inductees saw firsthand how their songs inspired scores of other artists, as more than a dozen performers — kept secret from the inductees and the audience — performed their songs in tribute. That included some of Nashville’s most familiar faces: Vince Gill and Emmylou Harris on Jennings’ “Tears In Heaven” and Ray Stevens saluting Martine with “Rub It In”; as well as newcomers rocker Aaron Lewis (Steele’s “What Hurts the Most”), “American Idol” alum Kree Harrison (Owen’s “Feels So Right”).
Bluebird Cafe founder Amy Kurland, who was given the Frances Williams Preston Mentor Award, was saluted not with a song, but with a speech and a shush, in a nod to the Nashville songwriter’s haven’s famous practice of quieting chatty audience members during its concerts.
Other young artists, including Taylor Swift, also got to shine early in the evening as the Nashville Songwriters Association International presented its annual Songwriter Achievement Awards.
It was an emotional occasion for songwriters Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Jimmy Yeary as they accepted the song of the year award for “I Drive Your Truck,” inspired by the real-life story of a father and his son, who was killed in action in Afghanistan and posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Songwriter of the year winner Rodney Clawson was a writer on “Crash My Party,” “Drunk On You” and “Sure Be Cool If You Did” among many recent hits.
Swift broke a record for the association this year as the pop/country star was named artist/songwriter of the year for the sixth time since 2007. Though she was hours away from flying to South Africa to film her scenes for the upcoming film, “The Giver,” Swift made a point to attend Sunday night’s ceremony.
“I get really excited to meet the writers, because I wouldn’t be able to do this as a career if I wasn’t a writer,” she said. “I don’t see a world where I would have been a singer without a writer. That’s definitely the most important part of what I do, and that’s where my biggest heroes lie, in the songwriting. I will probably have a few geek-out moments tonight.”
As of May, those heroes now have a home — just a few floors below the ballroom that hosted Sunday’s ceremony, the hall’s near-200 members are set in stone in the new Songwriters Square, and visitors can learn about their work in a new interactive digital museum. Sunday night’s inductees reminded the audience that their work is still in progress.
“It’s been a long journey,” Steele said from the podium. “And I’m hoping it keeps going.”
Contact Dave Paulson at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 615-664-2278.Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame 2013 inductees
Layng Martine, Jr.
Frances Williams Preston Mentor Award
Song of the Year
“I Drive Your Truck” by Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Jimmy Yeary
Songwriter of the Year
Songwriter/Artist of the Year
The writers of NSAI's Professional Songwriters Division also singled out 10 songs and their writers for the organization's 2013 awards, informally dubbed "The Songs I Wish I'd Written." Recipients were:
“Better Dig Two” (Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Trevor Rosen / recorded by The Band Perry)
“Cruise” (Tyler Hubbard, Brian Kelley, Joey Moi, Chase Rice, Jesse Rice / recorded by Florida Georgia Line)
“Hard To Love” (Ben Glover, Billy Montana, John Ozier / recorded by Lee Brice)
“Highway Don’t Care” (Mark Irwin, Josh Kear, Brad Warren, Brett Warren / recorded by Tim McGraw & Taylor Swift)
“I Drive Your Truck” (Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, Jimmy Yeary / recorded by Lee Brice)
“Like Jesus Does” (Casey Beathard, Monty Criswell / recorded by Eric Church)
“Mama’s Broken Heart” (Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves / recorded by Miranda Lambert)
“Merry Go ’Round ” (Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves, Josh Osborne / recorded by Kacey Musgraves)
“Pontoon” (Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird / recorded by Little Big Town)
“Wagon Wheel” (Bob Dylan, Ketch Secor / recorded by Darius Rucker.