This year’s Academy of Country Music “Honors” event was the most star-studded in the organization’s history.
Staged at the Ryman Auditorium on Wednesday evening (Aug. 23), the 2017 edition of this annual show featured appearances by superstars Alan Jackson, Dolly Parton, George Strait, Reba McEntire, Toby Keith and Brad Paisley, as well as a bevy of younger hit makers. This was the 11th ACM Honors presentation.
“Tonight’s honorees are so iconic, they only need one name – Reba, Toby, Dolly and George,” said Maren Morris, who introduced the show with Thomas Rhett.
McEntire was presented with a Mae Boren Axton Award for outstanding service to the ACM. Hillary Scott sang “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” to salute the Hall of Famer. Scott then teamed with Karen Fairchild on “Does He Love You,” which McEntire originally sang with Scott’s mother, Linda Davis. Then Kimberly Schlapman sang lead on “Little Rock” with Scott and Fairchild providing trio harmonies on the chorus.
“The Academy of Country Music has been so sweet to me,” said McEntire. “For you girls, my buddies, to sing my songs, that meant so much to me. Mae has always been my guardian angel. I miss her so much. And I’m so proud to be getting this award with her name on it.”
“There are few artists who manage to write their own legacies,” said Jimmy Webb in saluting Keith. “He’s a master songwriter.” Webb presented the star with a Poet’s Award.
“I was a songwriter before I was an artist,” said Toby Keith. When the ‘artist’ is done, I will still be a songwriter. And I want to thank God for letting me be a songwriter.”
Keith then rocked and roared through “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” and “Who’s Your Daddy,” demonstrating that his vocal power is the equal of his composing gifts.
Lady Antebellum presented the Gene Weed Milestone Award to Kelsea Ballerini for scoring No. 1 records with her first three singles.
“When I moved to Nashville, I was 15,” Ballerini recalled. “I didn’t know how to start. I watched music videos. I looked at the end for the names of the songwriters.
“Thank you, Nashville, for being so nice to me. And thank you, ACMs.” Ballerini sang her new hit “Legends,” plus a medley of her milestone makers “Love Me Like You Mean It,” “Dibs” and “Peter Pan.”
Chris Janson presented a second Poet’s Award to the late Shel Silverstein (1930-1999). “He ignited my creativity, like he’s done for so many writers,” said Janson.
He flew through Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue” in double time, then rocked “The Cover of Rolling Stone” with boundless stage energy and hot harmonica work. Janson drew a standing ovation, one of many that evening.
Susan Nadler accepted on behalf of her old friend: “His presence is still so strong, I dream about him once a month,” she said. “Shel was an original and an originator. And I wish we had more like him today.”
Paisley noted that we usually honor Parton for her songs. “Tonight, it’s her heart we’re celebrating. If you’re ever in need, there’s no better friend than Dolly Parton. She knows how to speak to people in their happiest day or in their darkest moment.”
Paisley sang “My Tennessee Mountain Home” in her honor. Parton was given the Gary Haber Lifting Lives Award for her Imagination Library literacy program and for coming to the aid of people in the wake of the East Tennessee wildfires this year.
“I’m blessed to be in a position to help inspire kids and to help victims of the fire to see a better and a brighter day,” said Parton. “The best way you can help us now is to come back to the Smokies. We’re open for business.”
The digital version of her debut children’s album, I Believe In You, comes out this week. Proceeds will go to the Dollywood Foundation.
Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini co-hosted a non-ACM segment, “XQ Super School Live.” Hume Fogg High School students were brought in to be the audience for Hunter Hayes as he sang “The Best In You” to and for them. This performance will become part of a special which will air, commercial free, on all of the networks Sept. 8.
Back to the ACM’s business at hand, Cassadee Pope presented the Tex Ritter Award to the CMT-TV series Nashville. The show’s stars Charles Esten and Clare Bowen sang its soundtrack song “Sanctuary.”
Executive producer Steve Buchanan accepted, saying, “Keeping this show real and honest has always been our goal. We do this because we love music and we love this city.”
A Glen Campbell Tribute segment was introduced by Morris singing “Galveston.” A video of last year’s ACM Honors show followed, featuring Blake Shelton (“Southern Nights”), Dierks Bentley (“Gentle On My Mind”), Keith Urban (“Wichita Lineman”) and Toby Keith (“By the Time I Get to Phoenix”).
Bobby Bones presented a Mae Boren Axton Award to Bob Kingsley, who is the ACM’s longest serving board member. He first joined the board in 1967. Thomas Rhett sang “Die a Happy Man” and “Craving You” for the honoree.
“To receive this award gives me a chance to express my love and appreciation for the people who’ve contributed to the ACM down through the years,” said Kingsley.
Ross Copperman presented the Songwriter of the Year award to Lori McKenna, who penned this year’s so memorable “Humble and Kind.” Little Big Town (for whom she co-wrote “Girl Crush”) sang a soulful rendition of their current “When Someone Stops Loving You,” which she also co-wrote.
“It’s such an honor to be part of this,” said McKenna. “The thing about songwriters is, we don’t define ourselves by gender or race or anything else. We just call ourselves songwriters. Thank you to Nashville for accepting me as a Bostonian who writes country songs.”
Jason Aldean presented the Cliffie Stone Icon Award to George Strait. To salute the superstar, Chris Stapleton offered “When Did You Stop Loving Me” and Alan Jackson sang “Marina Del Ray” and “The Fireman.”
“When I first started out on the road, I thought I had maybe five years to sing my songs,” reflected Strait. “Well, now it’s been 30 years, and I still love it. I’ve been with the same record company my whole career. I signed with them in 1980, and I’ve been here longer than any of ‘em.”
He drew wild applause when he sang “Here for a Good Time” as the evening’s finale. The ACM Honors show will air as a CBS special on Sept. 12.
Brett Young hosted the pre-telecast honors. During the Studio Recording Awards, Glenn Worf (bass) and Jay Joyce (producer) were absent. Accepting were Dan Dugmore (steel/specialty instrument), Dave Cohen (keyboard), Miles McPherson (drums), Tom Bukovac (guitar), Chuck Ainlay (engineer) and Danny Rader (guitar).
During the Industry Awards, Sally Williams (Ryman Auditorium), David Kells (Bridgestone Arena), Lenore Kinder (talent buyer), Ed Warm (promoter, Joe’s Live) and Chas Smith (The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas) were all attending winners. The also awarded Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Tortuga Music Festival and Foxwoods Resort & Casion had no representative present.
The house band and sound included Steve Hinson, Frank Liddell, Jeff King, Nick Buda, Charles Judge, Chip Matthews, Tim Marks and Carl Miner. The capacity Ryman audience included both fans and music-industry professionals. Videos of earlier ACM telecasts were screened during the brief set changes.