By Gayle Thompson
Few events attract such a wide range of country music royalty as the annual Academy of Country Music’s Honors ceremony.
Held last night (Sept. 10) in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the “Mother Church of Country Music” and onetime home of the Grand Ole Opry, the seventh annual event was attended by such current hitmakers as Dierks Bentley (who hosted the show), Jason Aldean, Darius Rucker, Blake Shelton, Chris Young, and members of Lady Antebellum alongside an impressive roster of country legends including Emmylou Harris, Guy Clark, Vince Gill, Wynonna Judd, Ricky Skaggs, and Alabama’s Randy Owen.
On top of that impressive list came significant behind-the-scenes artists, family members of legendary singers, and influential industry veterans, many of whom were receiving industry and other special awards from the Academy of Country Music that were not presented during the televised portion of the ACMs in April (see a full list of ACM Honors winners below). These included Tommy Wiggins, cofounder of the ACM, which launched in L.A. in 1964 and was first called Country & Western Music Academy; songwriter Dallas Davidson; Holly Williams, granddaughter of Hank Williams; and Lorrie Morgan, Jesse Keith Whitley and Morgan Whitley, who were there to honor the late country artist Keith Whitley.
Bentley kicked off the show with a rowdy performance of his current single “I Hold On.” He didn’t mask the fact that he was more comfortable singing behind a microphone than speaking, but his awkwardness as emcee only added to his charm.
ACM cofounder Wiggins was honored with the Mae Boren Axton Award, which is given to an Academy member to recognize their outstanding service. Yodeling queen Janet McBride, Opry member Jeannie Seely, and reigning ACM CEO Bob Romeo were on hand, as were Gill and steel guitar master Paul Franklin, who honored Wiggins with a jaw-dropping version of Buck Owens‘ 1964 hit “Together Again” (which also appears on Gill and Franklin’s new album Bakersfield).
Two of the three members of Lady Antebellum, Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood, accepted the trio’s Jim Reeves International Award, honoring an artist who has helped spread country music across the globe (the band’s third member, Hillary Scott, was still on maternity leave, after giving birth to daughter Eisele Kaye in July). Bentley, admittedly going off the prompter for a moment, joked, “With that touring schedule, I’m not sure how Hillary found the time to get pregnant, but she did!”
“Touring internationally, you guys have no idea how many rednecks there are in Norway,” Haywood deadpanned. “What we’re trying to do as a band is make music that people love, and we’re just trying to continue the tradition which so many country artists in this room have set before, which is take this great genre around this world. So we’re honored to be recognized for that, and we want to keep that legacy alive.”
Dallas Davidson won Songwriter of the Year for the second year in a row. Kelley and Haywood returned to stage to honor the tunesmith with three of his own songs: their own “We Owned the Night,” Luke Bryan’s “I Don’t Want This Night to End” and Jake Owen’s “She Was The One That Got Away.”
Davidson received the trophy by another legendary songwriter, Don Schlitz (“The Gambler”), and he was clearly humbled by the accolade. “I think first and foremost in the Church of Country Music, I should thank God,” Dallas said from stage. “God brought me a guitar and it changed my life.”
Jason Aldean was the night’s honoree for the Crystal Milestone Award, which is given in recognition of a specific, remarkable achievement. In this case, it was his touring success, including the fact that singer sold out historic stadiums such as Boston’s Fenway Park and Chicago’s Wrigley Field, as part of his current Night Train tour. “I’m just glad that people enjoy what I do. I do it because I enjoy doing it. Hopefully I’ll be able to do it for a long time,” Aldean noted. “There’s nothing you could give me that means any more to me than something that has to do with touring. I feel like that’s something that I’ve built my career around.”
Fittingly the evening also included a tribute to the late George Jones, who passed away this past April. After a touching video, Chris Young performed a medley of his hits including “Window Up Above,” “The Race Is On” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
Steve Wariner presented Blake Shelton with the Gene Weed Special Achievement Award, which acknowledges unprecedented, unique and outstanding talent in country music. Wariner laughed as he recalled his first encounter with Blake, almost 20 years ago, in the men’s restroom of a local hotel. “When a tall man with a mullet approaches you like that, it’s kind of frightening,” Wariner shared. “I was a bit jealous back then because his mullet was bigger than mine.” After the laughter died down, Wariner added that Blake is “taking country music to places it has never been before,” and that he “personifies grace and integrity.”
Shelton, of course, couldn’t resist adding a joke of his own. “I consider myself pretty steeped in country music. I try to do my homework,” he said. “When they told me I was getting the Gene Weed award, I Googled it. Because, I had my ideas, and I wasn’t surprised to see that Willie Nelson has gotten this award. And then I scrolled down and saw that Taylor Swift had gotten it, and I was like, ‘That can’t be right!’”
The “Boys ‘Round Here” singer might be known for his humor, but he quickly got serious and gave one of the evening’s most memorable speeches.
“In 1994, Mae Axton encouraged me to move to Nashville,” he recalled. “She was from Oklahoma, and I met her through some different circumstances. She talked me into moving to Nashville. That was almost 20 years ago now.”
Country legend Hank Williams and singer-songwriter Guy Clark were both the recipients of the Poet’s Award, for outstanding musical and/or lyrical contributions. Recently-reunited band the Mavericks performed a musical tribute, and Hank’s granddaughter Holly Williams also paid tribute to her late grandfather by joining surprise guest Jamey Johnson for two songs: a flawless, almost holy rendition of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” followed by “I Saw the Light.”
Texas country icon Robert Earl Keen gave a powerful acoustic performance of Guy Clark’s song “Let It Roll,” but the real magic happened when Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell perfectly delivered Clark’s “She Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.”
Gill presented Clark with the honor, remembering that his first gig ever in Los Angeles was opening for Clark, which he called “one of the greatest nights of my life.” Upon accepting his award, Clark cited lyrics from his friend Townes Van Zandt’s song “Two Girls”: “The swimming hole was full of rum, and I tried to find out why/All I learned is this my friend, you’ve got to swim before you fly.”
Country duo the Judds and the late singer Keith Whitley were awarded the Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award. During a tear-jerking video remembering Keith’s life, son Jesse Keith Whitley shared that when he needs to feel close to his father, he drives into the middle of a field and listens to The Essential Keith Whitley from start to finish.
American Idol runner-up Kree Harrison sang the Judds’ “Love is Alive,” but it was another country duo, Thompson Square, who brought the entire auditorium to their feet with the Judds hits “Why Not Me,” “Grandpa, Tell Me About the Good Old Days” and “Love Can Build a Bridge.” As they were singing their final song, a group of developmentally disabled adults, supported by the charitable ACM Lifting Lives organization, joined the duo on stage for the final chorus, resulting in the longest standing ovation of the almost three-hour show.
A full list of winners of the seventh annual ACM Honors awards is below.
Special Awards Recipients:
Jason Aldean – Crystal Milestone Award
Guy Clark – Poet’s Award
Blake Shelton – Gene Weed Special Achievement Award
Keith Whitley (posthumously) – Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award
Tommy Wiggins – Mae Boren Axton Award
Hank Williams (posthumously) – Poet’s Award
Lady Antebellum – Jim Reeves International Award
The Judds – Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award
MBI (Musician/Bandleader/Instrumentalist) Award Winners:
Chuck Ainlay – Audio Engineer of the Year
Matt Chamberlain – Percussionist/Drummer of the Year
J.T. Corenflos – Guitarist of the Year
Aubrey Haynie – Fiddle Player of the Year
Mike Johnson – Steel Guitar Player of the Year
Jay Joyce – Producer of the Year
Michael Rojas – Piano/Keyboard Player of the Year
Jimmie Lee Sloas – Bass Player of the Year
Ilya Toshinsky – Specialty Instrument(s) Player of the Year
Industry Award Winners:
Jerry Hufford, Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace – Don Romeo Talent Buyer of the Year
Ed Warm, Joe’s Bar – Promoter of the Year
Joe’s Bar (Chicago, IL) – Nightclub of the Year
Red Rock Casino & Resort (Las Vegas, NV) – Casino of the Year