What better way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) than with 50 years of songs?
Wait a minute. That would take all night long and more. To solve this dilemma, the organization mixed live performances with videotaped reminiscences at its anniversary show staged at the Ryman on Wednesday night (Sept. 20).
Amazingly, all 50 NSAI Song of the Year winners were saluted. The sold-out show lasted three hours, but there was so much entertainment in it that my butt never got sore sitting on those pews.
The party people were out in full force, including such top music creators as Bob DiPiero, Kathy Mattea, Gary Burr, Matraca Berg, Pat Alger, Bob Regan, Steve Diamond, Gary Baker, Frank J. Myers, Tom Shapiro, Casey Anderson, Steve Bogard, Wayland Holyfield, Johnny Scoggins and Don Von Tress, plus most of the folks who were in the tribute videos.
Without introduction, Dallas Frazier kicked the celebration off with a stunning rendition of “There Goes My Everything” (NSAI’s 1967 Song of the Year). At 78, he still can hit every one of those notes with finesse, feeling and phrasing.
“Songs and songwriters are what we’re all about,” said the NSAI’s current president Lee Thomas Miller. “Tonight, we’re going to walk you through history, one song at a time.” He wasn’t kidding. That’s exactly what transpired.
Kris Kristofferson strolled out on stage and received a standing ovation before he ever sang a note. He has three Song of the Year honors from the NSAI – “For the Good Times” (1970), “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down” (1971) and “Why Me” (with Marijohn Wilkin, 1973).
Singing solo with his guitar, he brought down the house with “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down.” His second standing ovation was accompanied with cheers, whistles and shouts. Kris, by the way, is one of the founders of the NSAI and was also the first artist to sign up to sing at the golden-anniversary celebration.
On video were Jimmy Carter (“Honey,” 1968, by Bobby Russell), James Dean Hicks “Okie From Muskogee,” 1969, by Merle Haggard & Roy Edward Burris), Bart Herbison (“Country Bumpkin,” 1974, by Don Wayne) and Peter Cooper (“Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine,” 1972, by Tom T. Hall).
Justin Peters ably sang the 1975 winner “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.” He is the son of its co-writer Ben Peters (with Vivian Keith).
Video’d Bob McDill (“Amanda,” 1976), Hal Bynum (“Lucille,” 1977, written with Roger Bowling) and Randy Goodrum (“You Needed Me,” 1978) ensued.
Live performances resumed with Bobby Braddock & Curly Putman’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (1980). Rising to the considerable challenge was Craig Campbell, who sang it at the piano superbly. Multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplan was a big boost on steel guitar. This house-band utility player also contributed to others on fiddle, guitar, concertina and more.
Eric Paslay took on “Always on My Mind” (1982’s NSAI winner, by Johnny Christopher, Mark James & Wayne Carson). T.G. Sheppard (“She Believes in Me,” 1979, Steve Gibb) and Walt Aldridge (“Holding Her and Loving You,” 1983, written with Tommy Brasfield) were the next celebrants on screen.
“You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma” (1981, by Larry Collins & Sandy Pinkard, plus the Byrants) was sung by its originators, Shelly West and the always-superb David Frizzell. This drew another S.O.
On screen, Kenny O’Dell (“Mama He’s Crazy,” 1984) and Bob McDill (“Baby’s Got Her Blue Jeans On,” 1985) entertained with anecdotes. Paul Overstreet masterfully performed “On the Other Hand” (1986, written with Don Schlitz) with Colin Linden on slide guitar.
Next was a lovely rendition of “Somewhere in My Broken Heart” by Billy Dean & Richard Leigh (1991). Overstreet returned with an audience sing-along on “Forever and Ever, Amen” (1987, written with Don Schlitz).
Max T. Barnes (“Chiseled in Stone,” 1988, by Vern Gosdin & Max D. Barnes) and Don Henry & Jon Vezner (“Where’ve You Been,” 1990) offered video nostalgia. This interlude was followed by standing ovations for Garth Brooks & Kent Blazy (“If Tomorrow Never Comes,” 1989).
Goddess Trisha Yearwood took the performance and song levels to a new high with Hugh Prestwood’s “The Song Remembers When” (1993). Everyone got up and danced as Billy Ray Cyrus and tambourine-smacking, boogie-dancing backup vocalist Bekka Bramlett ignited the house with “Achy Breaky Heart” (1992, Don Von Tress) mashed up with “Tulsa Time.”
With dynamite harmonizing, All-4-One brought a terrific r&b element to the show with “I Can Love You Like That” (1995, Jennifer Kimball/Maribeth Derry/Steve Diamond) and “I Swear” (1994, Frank J. Myers/Gary Baker). They were also rewarded with a standing ovation.
From roughly 1990 on, we were thoroughly into the era of co-writing and multiple co-writing. Clint Black (1997, “Something That We Do,” written with Skip Ewing), Allen Shamblin & Steve Seskin (1998, “Don’t Laugh at Me”) and Steve Wariner & Billy Kirsch (also 1998 [it was a tie] “Holes in the Floor of Heaven”) testified on video. So did Tia Sillers (2000 & 2001, “I Hope You Dance,” written with Mark D. Sanders), Phillip White & D. Vincent Williams (2002, “I’m Movin’ On”), Doug Johnson (2003, “Three Wooden Crosses,” written with Kim Williams) and Jeff Hanna/Marcus Hummon/Bobby Boyd (2007, “Bless the Broken Road”).
Music City native Deana Carter charmed the crowd by saluting Nashville’s sense of community. She sailed through “Strawberry Wine” (1996, Matraca Berg/Gary Harrison). Marv Green, Aimee Mayo & Chris Lindsey did “Amazed” (1999). Hillary Lindsey & Gordie Sampson earned a standing ovation for “Jesus Take the Wheel” (2006, written with Brett James).
On video, Tim Nichols & Craig Wiseman recalled writing “Live Like You Were Dying” (2004), as did Don Sampson & Wynn Varble about their summer song (2009, “Waitin’ on a Woman”).
During this “home stretch,” Miller got a standing ovation by saying, “The technology that delivers the songs is not, nor has it ever been, more valuable than the songs, themselves.” He gave the NSAI President’s Award to Bart Herbison.
Commanding Trace Adkins sang “You’re Gonna Miss This” with Miller on mandolin (2008, co-written by Miller and Ashley Gorley). Alternating video tributes came via Tom Douglas & Allen Shamblin (2010, “The House That Built Me”) and Paul Worley (2011, “If I Die Young” written by Kimberly Perry).
Perry’s salute predicted that the eve’s end would be dominated by female songwriters. Lee Brice was ill and struggling to sing, so super Jessi Alexander came to his rescue. She co-wrote his “I Drive Your Truck” (2013, with Connie Harrington & Jimmy Yeary). Dolly Parton appeared on video to speak of “I Will Always Love You” (2012), as did Nicole Galyon/Natalie Hemby/Miranda Lambert (2014, “Automatic”) and Liz Rose/Hillary Lindsey/Lori McKenna (2015, “Girl Crush”).
McKenna broke into tears as she reached the end of “Humble and Kind “ (2016), which was so sweet and touching. Then Hillary Lindsey equaled Kristofferson’s three-time NSAI win as “Blue Ain’t Your Color” was announced as the organization’s 2017 Song of the Year. “If you want to know what heaven feels like, it feels like right now,” said her co-writer Clint Lagerberg.
The finale was Hillary, Clint and co-writer Steven Lee Olsen doing a fantastic trio vocal arrangement of their song with snappy electric-guitar solos by Clint.
If you’re still reading this, you might think we were numb as we reached the three-hour mark. Au contraire. Just ask Barry Coburn, Vernell Hackett, Dennis Lord, John Ozier, Lisa Sutton, Rick Diamond, Ralph Murphy, Aaron Hartley, Eric T. Parker, the NMPA’s David Israelite, Amy Kurland, Erika Wollam Nichols, Eddie Stubbs, Sherrill Blackmon, Tom Long, Del Bryant, Pat Rogers or Brandi Simms.
Songwriter-supportive Congress people included Marsha Blackburn, Doug Collins, Diane Black and Chuck Fleischmann.