The last of the PRO awards ceremonies took place last night (Nov. 7) at BMI’s Nashville headquarters on Music Row.
Hosted by BMI’s President & CEO Mike O’Neill and Nashville’s VP of Creative Clay Bradley, the 71st annual BMI Country Awards celebrated the top songwriters and music publishers behind this past year’s 50 most-performed songs in country music, with special awards being given out to the Country Songwriter, Song and Publisher of the Year. The awards also honored the unparalleled career of BMI Icon Award recipient Matraca Berg.
After plenty of schmoozing had been done by the songwriters, artists and industry members in attendance, a dinner of steak, potatoes and sautéed vegetables was served. We were all seated at immaculate tables with beautiful flowers and candlelight, but no one stayed in their seat for long. It was an evening of communion for the hundreds in attendance.
During the ceremony, BMI saluted the songwriters and publishers of the 50 most-performed country songs of the previous year. Calling up the writers and industry champions behind each hit, audience members cheered them on as they hugged and took photos on stage.
With both of them co-writing four of BMI’s most-performed songs, Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen tied for the coveted BMI Songwriter of the Year award. Combs co-wrote his three consecutive No. 1 singles “Doin’ This,” “Going, Going, Gone” and “The Kind of Love We Make” as well as Zac Brown Band’s “Out in the Middle.” Wallen co-wrote Keith Urban’s “Brown Eyes Baby,” Corey Kent’s No. 1 hit “Wild as Her” as well as his record-breaking songs “Thought You Should Know” and “You Proof.”
“I moved to town in 2014 and people ask me all the time, ‘When did you know that you made it?’ The answer is when I could pay my rent and have food in the fridge doing music,” Combs said. “To be up here now in a room with people I’ve looked up to for 15 years is unbelievable.”
Wallen shared, “Since the moment I heard ‘Old Rugged Cross’ at my parents’ church when I was about three years old, I knew music was going to part of my life somehow.” He added, “[Music] has been there for me through some really dark places. God, music and my family have meant the entire world to me.”
In one of the night’s most memorable moments, the two country superstars gave acoustic performances of each other’s songs, with Combs performing “Thought You Should Know” and Wallen covering “Going, Going, Gone.”
Wallen’s “You Proof” was named 2023 BMI Country Song of the Year. Written by Wallen, Ernest and Charlie Handsome, the tune was BMI’s most-performed country song of the year. It became the first radio single in country music history to spend 10 weeks at the top spot on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.
Warner Chappell was named BMI’s 2023 Country Publisher of the Year. The powerhouse published 25 of the 50 most-performed songs of the year, including mega-hits like Tyler Hubbard’s “5 Foot 9,” Maren Morris’ “Circles Around This Town,” Thomas Rhett’s “Slow Down Summer,” Zach Bryan’s “Something In The Orange” and Bailey Zimmerman’s “Rock and A Hard Place.”
Throughout the night, BMI turned its attention to its 2023 Icon Award recipient Berg, who joined the ranks of other Icon Award recipients Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams, Jr., Toby Keith and others.
In between awards, video tributes would appear on screen, with words about Berg being shared by Dean Dillon, Pat Higdon, Chris Farren, Deana Carter, Patty Loveless, Aimee Mayo, Bobby Braddock and Trisha Yearwood.
Almost all who spoke about Berg talked about her innate gift of song, as she garnered her first hit when she was only 18 with “Faking Love.” Respect was also piled on the trailblazer for helping to smash the glass ceiling for female songwriters. Berg was the first woman to have five No. 1 hits in a single calendar year.
When the camera would turn on Berg as she was being honored, she was captured beaming up to the stage, often bringing her gloved hands to her face in humbling joy. The author behind such hits as “Strawberry Wine,” “Wild Angels,” “XXX’s and OOO’s” and “I’m That Kind of Girl” soaked up the love in the room.
Berg was also treated to some awesome performances celebrating her work. Lainey Wilson took on the titanic “Strawberry Wine,” and Ashley McBryde brought the party for “Wrong Side of Memphis.” Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter closed out the tribute as they reunited for a powerhouse duet of their triple-Platinum “You and Tequila.”
When she spoke, Berg thanked BMI, her publishers and co-writers. “All I ever wanted to be was a songwriter,” she said when she tearfully accepted her Icon Award. Cheers and standing ovations abounded for the songwriter, perfectly exemplying the mood of the night.
With all three 2023 PRO awards in the books, the 57th CMA Awards will take place tonight (Nov. 8) at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.
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