One of the cool things about the annual ACM Honors show is that it usually features unexpected and unpredictably wonderful performances.
Or, as host Joe Nichols put it, “You’ll see musical moments here that you won’t see anyplace else.”
On Monday night at The Ryman Auditorium (9/19), those moments were headed by a celestial sounding The Isaacs, the sizzling Jack Ingram, a hearty collaboration between The Gatlins and Jamaican reggae star Romain Virgo, a soulful Buddy Miller, a tender Dean Dillon, the merrily rocking Brett Eldredge, jaunty Jerrod Niemann and a rich, resonant performance by Nichols, himself.
We were gathered to honor behind-the-scenes folks, achievement in film, international accomplishment, songwriters and lifetime contributors. Following opening remarks by the Academy of Country Music CEO Bob Romeo and Nichols, Robin Meade presented the Industry Awards. Steve “Bogie” Bogdanovich was named Talent Buyer of the Year. Joe’s Bar in Chicago was Nightclub of the Year. Winning its third Casino of the Year was Mohegan Sun Casino of Uncasville, CT. No one showed up to accept that one.
“I guess they’re getting used to this,” quipped Meade.
The Ryman’s Sally Williams earned the eve’s first standing ovation when she won her first ACM as Promoter of the Year. The Ryman was also named Venue of the Year.
“I am the most blessed person in this room,” she said. “I am so honored to be a part of this community….I will work hard to lift you up, just as you have lifted me up.”
Laura Bell Bundy presented the MBI Awards. Aubrey Haynie won his 4th Fiddler of the Year. Eddie Bayers repeated for the 14th time as Drummer of the Year. Dan Dugmore won his 3rd Steel salute, and Gordon Mote earned his 2nd Piano prize. Not present were winners Glenn Worf (bass), Bryan Sutton (specialty instrument), Tom Bukovac (guitar) and Chuck Ainlay (engineer).
Paul Worley was named ACM Producer of the Year for the first time. “You guys are all my family, and I hope I am yours,” he said.
The Tex Ritter Award was presented to the film Country Strong. Gary Overton, who marketed the soundtrack, accepted. “I’ve always wanted to say this: I want to thank the Academy,” he wisecracked. Brett Eldredge, who appeared on that soundtrack, turned in a sprightly “It Ain’t Gotta Be Love.”
To salute Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers for their Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award, Thompson Square teamed up with Randy Houser on “Houston.” Then came the stunning medley by The Isaacs of “Broken Lady,” “I Don’t Want to Cry,” “I Just Wish You Were Someone I Love” and “Healin’ Stream,” the last-named of which appeared on their 2009 CD Naturally.
“What a performance,” said a clearly moved Nichols. Amen to that, brother.
The Oak Ridge Boys presented the honor. “I don’t believe there has been a friendship and a brotherhood between two music groups that there is between The Gatlin Brothers and The Oak Ridge Boys,” said the Oaks’ Joe Bonsall.
Larry Gatlin recalled singing backup for the late Dottie West on the Opry at the Ryman. “I don’t think we could have envisioned this,” he said. “The man who loves his job is always on vacation,” he added, expressing gratitude for a life in music. “Thank you. God bless.”
Taylor Swift, who is multi-Platinum in 14 countries and triumphantly swept around the globe earlier this year, won the Jim Reeves International Award. “I didn’t go to college,” she told us. “I went on this journey that taught me so much….Thank you for giving me the opportunity to study something I really wanted to learn about, country music.”
Longtime ACM Treasurer John Dorris was given the Mae Boren Axton Award. He is, “one of the finest men in Nashville,” said Sharon White before The Whites saluted him with “This World Is Not My Home.” The group has been managed by Dorris for 28 years. Montgomery Gentry, another Dorris client, did “Hillbilly Shoes.” Romain Virgo joined The Gatlins for “All the Gold in California.” On the Reggae Goes Country CD, Virgo transforms the song to suit his style, but at the Ryman he conformed to the Gatlin arrangement, splendidly.
“He’s a man of great integrity and my best friend of 20 years,” said presenter John Michael Montgomery. “If there’s anybody on this earth who’s more blessed and lucky than me, I’d like to shake his hand,” the widely beloved Dorris responded.
Reba McEntire was given the Career Achievement Award by her pal Ronnie Dunn. “After all these years, she’s just as real as the day she rode into town,” he said. In accepting, she recalled having to leave an Opry show as a seven-year-old to upchuck outside on the Ryman steps and that she lost her first award nomination as an ACM contender for New Female Vocalist. “Thank y’all for putting up with me all these years,” she added. “I love y’all to pieces.”
Garth Brooks won the second Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award. Bob Doyle introduced a video where the superstar explained his absence by saying it was “my wife’s birthday.” Rodney Atkins saluted Garth with “Much Too Young to Feel This Damn Old.” Jerrod Niemann offered his co-written “Good Ride Cowboy.”
Tom T. Hall won the eve’s first Poet’s Award and was saluted by Buddy Miller with “How I Got to Memphis,” by a fiery, rocking Jack Ingram with “Faster Horses” and by Lee Ann Womack with “Harper Valley PTA.” Presenter Ralph Emery noted that the Ryman was dubbed “The Mother Church of Country Music,” by the Opry’s Trudy Stamper, who died in July.
“Every time I get an award, Ralph comes to give it to me,” said Hall during the evening’s most amusing acceptance speech. “God willing, he’ll speak at my funeral, and that will be the end of it.”
The late Hank Cochran (1935-2010) was the other Poet winner. Dean Dillon sang “The Chair,” Joe Nichols did “Miami My Amy” and Jamey Johnson performed a medley of “I Fall to Pieces,” “Make the World Go Away” and “He’s Got You.” Widow Suzi Cochran accepted.
Can I get a witness for the evening’s band? Larry Paxton, Gary Prim, Mark Beckett, Jon E. Conley, Bobby Terry, Mike Johnson, Wyatt Beard and Liana Manis not only looked like they were having a ball, they sounded like it, too. Buddy Cannon was musical director.
The industry people mostly showed up in respectful, award-show cocktail attire. The fans wore jeans and yelled, “I love you!” at their favorites. In the former category were Bobby Cudd, Bob Beckham, Dale Bobo, Dale Dotson, Dave Pomeroy, David Ross, Dan Rogers, Tony Conway, Tony Brown, John Grady, Joe Chambers, Jody Williams, Brenda Colladay, Todd Cassetty, Scott Borchetta, Rod Essig, Fred Foster, Neal Spielberg, Eileen Littlefield, Lane Brody, Narvel Blackstock, Steve & Ree Guyer Buchanan, Peter Cooper, Dixie Hall and Karen Clark.