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Country Music Hall, Nashville Songwriters Hall Put the Focus Back On Songs
Clint Lagerberg, Hillary Lindsey and Steven Lee Olsen perform during the 2017 Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame Awards at Music City Center on Oct. 23, 2017 in Nashville, Tenn
When the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame scheduled their 2017 induction ceremonies on back-to-back nights, Oct. 22-23, they paid direct homage to the power of a song.
Country Hall inductee Alan Jackson was cited Oct. 22 for -capturing the essence of cultural heartbreak when he wrote "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)." The late Jerry Reed, during his induction segment, had his humorous, energetic "When You're Hot, You're Hot" reprised by Ray Stevens. And the wisdom of new Country Hall member Don Schlitz's "The Gambler" -- a signature song he wrote for 2013 addition Kenny Rogers -- was explored in reverent detail.
The Oct. 23 Songwriters Hall recipients made similar, career-changing marks. The late Vern Gosdin left a Country Music Association song of the year winner with his grieving classic "Chiseled in Stone." Jim McBride co-wrote Jackson's nostalgic, propulsive "Chattahoochee." Walt Aldridge gave Ronnie Milsap a major crossover hit with the blue-eyed soul-tinged "(There's) No Gettin' Over Me." Dewayne Blackwell, recognized in absentia, created a Garth Brooks concert show-stopper with "Friends in Low Places." And Tim Nichols gave Tim McGraw a life-affirming standard with "Live Like You Were Dying."
Over the weekend, the personal nature of the artist/fan connection was underscored in country news. The Band Perry's bassist, Reid Perry, posted Instagram notes about an emergency appendectomy, while Dan + Shay's Shay Mooney made headlines by getting married. But the world at large wouldn't care about the intimate details of its music stars were it not for the emotional connection that the songs create between the artist and the fan base.
"Songwriting has always been the most important part of my career," said Jackson on the Country Hall red carpet. "I've never felt like I was much of a singer. I mean, I can sing, but there's a lot of people that are a lot better, so I've always felt like that's one reason I've been able to hang on all these years. For some reason, I got blessed with the ability to write a little bit and write stuff that appealed to people that have been my fans."
"We have the slogan 'It all begins with a song,'" added singer-songwriter Bill Anderson. "That's the basis of it all. There's no career without the songs."
The reverence for the power of a song was evident. At the Country Hall's proceedings, surprise performer George Strait visibly focused on every syllable as he interpreted Jackson's sweeping ballad "Remember When." R&B artist Aloe Blacc and Vince Gill found the folky core of "The Gambler," and Mary Chapin Carpenter offered a respectful revision of Schlitz's "When You Say Nothing at All." Meanwhile, Jamey Johnson re-created the redneck energy of Reed's "East Bound and Down," with Brent Mason painstakingly mimicking the original guitar solo almost note for note.
At the Songwriters Hall event, a video of Gosdin's heart-wrenching take on "Chiseled" showcased the sensitivity and loneliness embedded in the lyric. Bluegrass act the Lonesome River Band delivered the mystery in McBride's former Waylon Jennings hit "Rose in Paradise." Lee Ann Womack found the self-delusion in Nichols' Keith Whitley single "I'm Over You." And James LeBlanc captured the danger in the Aldridge composition "Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde.".
"I keep thinking they're going to say, 'Wait a minute, wrong guy,' " Aldridge told Billboard. "But I'm completely honored. This club is one I never thought I'd be invited into."
The 2017 Songwriters Hall class inducts a body into an institution that already includes such significant contributors as Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Woody Guthrie.
The Nashville Songwriters Association International, celebrating its 50th anniversary, also extended its winners circle on Oct. 23 by honoring the top writers and compositions of 2017. Ashley Gorley ("Dirt on My Boots," "Guy With a Girl") repeated as NSAI songwriter of the year, Luke Bryan took songwriter-artist of the year, and the Steven Lee Olsen/Hillary Lindsey/Clint Lagerberg title "Blue Ain't Your Color" walked off with song of the year, following its release as a single by Keith Urban.
Schlitz visibly demonstrated the power of songs with his Country Hall acceptance speech. He asked his co-writers in the audience to stand and subsequently encouraged any artist who had recorded his songs, any programmer who had played them or anyone who ever interacted with them as a fan to stand. By the close of it, nearly every person in the crowd had stood, acknowledging how the songs power an entire industry, not just the people who write them.
"We all do this for each other," said Schlitz. "This is an unbroken circle."
Connie Smith led the closing of the Country Hall ceremony with "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" while joining Strait to physically support a frail Loretta Lynn, who inducted Jackson in her first public appearance since suffering a stroke in May. Lynn's own signature song, "Coal Miner's Daughter," accomplished the same thing as many other songs recognized during two nights of Hall of Fame inductions -- it found a way to elevate an individual and her family above its surface economic status, creating a bond between artist and listener.
Country Music Hall of Fame CEO Kyle Young was talking about Jackson, but he could have referred to Lynn or Schlitz or Bryan or Nichols when he summarized Jackson's ability to forge a relationship with listeners and make a difference in their lives.
"He tells us his stories," said Young, "in ways that might enhance our own stories."