The annual Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) songwriter awards honored nearly 40 writers Tuesday evening (Sept. 20) during a four-hour extravaganza staged at the Ryman Auditorium.
Major awards were given to Matthew West (Songwriter/Artist of the Year), Garth Brooks (Kris Kristofferson Lifetime Achievement Award), Ashley Gorley (Songwriter of the Year) and the double-brother team consisting of Jacob & Jordan Davis with Josh & Matt Jenkins (Song of the Year). Gorley was also crowned the organization’s Songwriter of the Decade.
At the end of the night, it became clear that the sold-out crowd was there to see Taylor Swift win Songwriter/Artist of the Decade. The superstar was greeted by a shrieking standing ovation and repeated shouts during her speech. Then, the Swifties sang along with every word of her Grammy-nominated, 10-minute opus “All Too Well.”
The show was hosted by the NSAI’s Bart Herbison, Jennifer Turnbow, Lindsay Glover and board president Steve Bogard. The event began with West and CCM artist Anne Wilson performing “Me on Your Mind” (West/Wilson/Jeff Pardo). West’s win was only the second time in the NSAI’s 33-year awarding history that the honor has gone to a Christian-music artist.
“It is an understatement to say how humbled I am before this audience of songwriters,” he said. “Who am I that God has blessed me so much?”
The celebration of Gorley’s songwriting began with Parmalee doing “Take My Name” (Gorley/Matt Thomas/David Fanning/Ben Johnson) and Hardy singing “Give Heaven Some Hell” (Gorley/Hardy/Johnson/Hunter Phelps). Then Bogard presented the President’s Keystone Award to Sony Music Publishing’s Jon Platt. The executive gave $500,00 to aid the songwriting community during the pandemic. In his honor, Little Big Town performed the touching “Rich Man,” penned by the group’s Jimi Westbrook.
One of the NSAI’s annual traditions is to salute the “10 Songs I Wish I’d Written,” as voted on by its songwriter members. Songwriters Matt McGinn, Jenn Schott and Nathan Spicer sang their co-written “7500 OBO” (recorded by Tim McGraw) as the first of these 10 tunes. Nashville pop artist Gayle rocked out on her hit “ABCDEFU,” co-written by her with Sara Davis and Dave Pittenger. Sam Hunt sang “23” along with his co-writers Chris LaCorte and Josh Osborne (collaborator Shane McAnally was absent).
Alana Springsteen sang the Chris Stapleton hit “You Should Probably Leave” (Stapleton/Gorley/Chris DuBois). The delightfully goofy phenom “Fancy Like” was sung by its writers Walker Hayes, Shane Stevens, Josh Jenkins and Cameron “Cambo” Bartolini (who broke out a kazoo). The Kenny Chesney hit “Knowing You” was performed by its creators, Brett James, Kat Higgins and Adam James.
Trisha Yearwood took the stage to present hubby Garth with his Lifetime Achievement award. “This is really fitting, because it honors what he cherishes most, the songwriter,” she said. “No one will ever deserve this honor more….a poet, a good man, a song’s best friend and my best friend, Garth Brooks.”
Pat Alger sang their co-written “The Thunder Rolls.” Kent Blazy did “Ain’t Goin’ Down,” which he and Brooks co-wrote with Kim Williams. Tony Arata sang his own “The Dance.” Luke Combs performed “The Beaches of Cheyenne” (Brooks/Bryan Kennedy/Dan Roberts).
“Songwriters—there are no bigger dreamers on the planet,” said Brooks in accepting his honor. “There is nobody more important to music than the songwriter.” Turning to Yearwood, he added, “You are the greatest award I ever got to hold.”
The 10-songs countdown continued with the Morgan Wallen hit “Sand In My Boots” (Gorley/Hardy/Osborne), performed by Larry Fleet. Each of these performances was accompanied by a video interview with its writers explaining how the song came to be. “Half of My Hometown” was sung by Kelsea Ballerini, Nicolle Galyon and Jimmy Robbins, who wrote the song with McAnally and Ross Copperman. The sister duo Tigirlily did “Never Wanted to Be That Girl” (McAnally/Ashley McBryde/Carly Pearce). Co-writers Matt Rogers and Ben Stennis sang their Cody Johnson hit “’Til You Can’t.”
There was a tie in the voting, so the 11th song of the “10 Songs I Wish I’d Written” was “Things a Man Oughta Know.” It was performed by Jonathan Singleton, who co-wrote it with Lainey Wilson and Jason Nix. The NSAI’s Song of the Year was “Buy Dirt,” sung by Jordan Davis, Jacob Davis, Josh Jenkins and Matt Jenkins. “This song has been a life changer for me,” said Jordan Davis, who recorded it with Luke Bryan.
The NSAI’s previous Songwriter of the Decade was Craig Wiseman (2000-2009). “I am here tonight to pass the torch,” he said, citing the fact that Ashley Gorley has written 63 No. 1 hits. Thomas Rhett sang “What’s Your Country Song” (Rhett/Gorley/Jesse Frasure/Rhett Akins/Parker Welling). Then Johnson, Phelps and Wyatt McCubbin sang a five-song medley of Gorley’s hits. Babyface crooned Rhett’s hit “Unforgettable” (Gorley/Rhett/Frasure/McAnally) and gave a well-deserved shout-out to the house band featuring lead guitarist Colin Linden.
“What a strange dream,” marveled Gorley. “I don’t know what’s going on. I’m blown away. You all make me feel special. A wild ride it’s been.
“Ten years is a long time,” added the Songwriter of the Decade honoree. “But it’s not as long as 11 years, which is how long I was in Nashville before I had a hit on the radio. And I’m grateful for those years, because it teaches you how hard it is.
“Being a part of a community with people like me, you feel like you’re part of a family…. It’s a huge deal to have somebody believe in you. I am very, very honored. You really, really made me feel loved tonight.”
Pandemonium broke out when Swift was introduced as the Songwriter/Artist of the Decade. “For me, tonight is brimming with camaraderie,” she began. “This is an award that celebrates my family, my co-writers, my team and my fiercest friends. When it comes to songwriting and my life, they are one and the same.”
Swift recalled her teen years on Music Row, learning to write, and thanked the Nashville songwriting community for its generosity toward her 15 years ago. She described her categorization of her songs as “quill lyrics,” “fountain-pen lyrics” and “glitter-gel pen lyrics,” and cited mega-hit examples of each writing style.
“I love doing this,” Swift added. “Writing songs is a calling. I’d still be doing it if I’d never been recognized for it.”
With just her acoustic guitar for accompaniment, she moved to the center-stage mic and delivered “All Too Well” (Swift/Liz Rose). The audience stood and enthusiastically sang/shouted the song with/to her to climax the marathon night of music.
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