Propelled by five recent hits, Jeffrey Steele walked away with the songwriter of the year trophy Tuesday night (Nov. 6) at BMI's annual country awards ceremony held at the performance rights organization's Nashville headquarters.
One of Steele's songs -- "What Hurts The Most" -- also copped the BMI Robert J. Burton song of the year prize. For the sixth consecutive year, Sony/ATV was pegged as the top publisher. Its imprint was on 17 of the 50 songs honored.
The highlight and closing feature of the evening was the conferring of the BMI Icon award on Willie Nelson. Brightening the tribute were performances by Keith Urban, Kris Kristofferson and Emmylou Harris, Josh Turner and Toby Keith.
Carrie Underwood, Jessica Simpson and Urban's wife, Nicole Kidman, were among the dozens of stars attending the event. Others included Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Big Kenny, Jason Aldean, Jason Michael Carroll, Taylor Swift, Sheryl Crow, Joe Walsh of the Eagles, Dwight Yoakam, Sara Evans, Michelle Branch, Little Big Town's Kimberly Roads and Karen Fairchild, Suzy Bogguss, Tracy Lawrence, Eddy Raven, Paul Overstreet, Andy Griggs, Craig Morgan, Steve Cropper, Keith Anderson, Eric Church, Rodney Atkins, Trent Tomlinson, Jennifer Hanson, Heidi Newfield, Sarah Buxton and Danielle Peck.
In the crowd as well were Country Music Hall of Fame members Bill Anderson, Harold Bradley, Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires, Randy Owen of Alabama, Vince Gill, Jo Walker Meador, Kristofferson and Nelson.
The event began with cocktails in the capacious lobby. An hour later, the guests moved upstairs for a leisurely dinner, punctuated by incessant table-hopping. Then came the presentations. Two BMI executives -- president and CEO Del Bryant and Nashville vice president of writer-publisher relations Jody Williams, shared the hosting duties.
Three Ring Circle -- an instrumental trio made up of bassist Dave Pomeroy, Dobro player Rob Ickes and fiddler-mandolinist Andy Leftwich -- provided an impressive genre-blending program of dinner music.
Williams welcomed the assembled songwriters and music publishers by noting, "Tonight, against tremendous odds, you've ended up here in the seat of honor."
Bryant conveyed best wishes to the guests from his BMI predecessor, Frances Preston. He explained that she was unable to attend because of a recent knee replacement. Calling Nelson "our favorite red-headed stranger," Bryant recognized two of Nelson's associates in the crowd -- his longtime drummer, Paul English, and Johnny Bush, the man who wrote the song that has become Nelson's show opener, "Whiskey River."
Most of the presentations were quick on-and-off affairs, but there were occasional departures from the script. When Steele, Bart Allmand and Shane Minor came up to accept their awards for "Brand New Girlfriend," Williams said, "Steve Holy wanted me to tell you guys 'thank you' for making him cool again." (Until he scored with "Girlfriend," Holy had not had a hit since "Good Morning Beautiful" in 2001.)
The crowd applauded loudly rather than politely when Taylor Swift was called forward to accept her first BMI award. It was for co-writing "Tim McGraw." Although he had no connection to the song other than being its inspiration, McGraw came onstage and stood beside her while she accepted.
McBride won her first BMI certificate for co-writing "Anyway." When Williams asked her how the win felt, she could only muster up, "Awesome." A few minutes later, as McGraw was handed his first BMI honor and asked the same question, he responded, "Awkward."
At one break in the presentations, the song "A Satisfied Mind" poured out of the loudspeakers, and the crowd almost immediately recognized it as the late Porter Wagoner's signature hit. "He was one of our most enduring and colorful artists," Bryant said. He asked the crowd to stand and applaud in the singer's honor. (Wagoner died Oct. 28.)
After the final awards were handed out, the tribute to Nelson began. It started with a video in which other artists commented on Nelson's style and significance. Waylon Jennings called him a "free spirit." Lyle Lovett said, "His songs are so easy to understand." Ray Charles pronounced him "so natural, so pure."
Alluding to his guitar playing, Kristofferson marveled, "He's able to express his imagination through his fingertips -- like Michelangelo." U2's Bono said that when he was growing up and looking at America, he couldn't decide if he wanted to be a cowboy or an Indian. "Then I saw Willie Nelson," he said, "and he was both."
Bryant read a letter from Eric Clapton that said, in part, "I've been listening to his works all my life [and hear] a continuous undercurrent of yearning and romance. ... To my humble ear, he sings directly from the soul."
Bryant spoke of Nelson's support of American farmers via Farm Aid, his efforts to find and promote a viable fuel substitute for oil and his "disdain" for the war in Iraq.
Kristofferson came to the stage for the first of two appearances on Nelson's behalf. "He's a profound, original songwriter in a class with Stephen Foster," he asserted. "His voice and his guitar are a part of his body and soul. ... Like Muhammad Ali and Johnny Cash, he's become more than the art form that made him famous. ... I'm still in awe of his artistry. ... I love you, Willie. I always have, I always will."
Bringing an acoustic guitar to the stage, Urban bowed in Nelson's direction and serenaded him with a distinctively soulful version of "Always on My Mind." Josh Turner came up next. "I never dreamed I'd have Kris Kristofferson and Keith Urban as my opening acts," he joked.
Looking out at Nelson seated in the audience, Turner said his wife had once asked him if there were any stars he hadn't met but still wanted to, and he had told her Faith Hill and Willie Nelson. "Well," he continued, "I've met Faith Hill. I have yet to meet Sir Willie. So after I stumble my way through his song, I'd love to have my picture [taken] with you." Then the deep-voiced singer rumbled through a crowd-pleasing rendition of "Crazy."
"Willie, all those years I opened [shows] for you were so special to me," said Emmylou Harris when she and Kristofferson took their turn at the microphone. For the people who came to hear and see Nelson, Harris observed, "It was like going to church."
Harris announced that she and Kristofferson were going to sing the song that she and Nelson had sung every night when they toured together. The song was "'Til I Gain Control Again." Although it paired one of the sweetest voices with one of the roughest, the performance was dazzlingly effective. The crowd interrupted it time and again with applause.
Toby Keith capped off the tributes by asking Nelson to join him on stage and accompany him with "that famous guitar with a hole in it." After citing examples of Nelson's life-long musical influence on him, Keith delivered a powerful, near operatic version of "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground."
Grinning beatifically, Nelson accepted the silver cup that goes with the Icon designation. Evidently associating the award with aging, he recalled being on the road with Ray Price and Merle Haggard on the Last of the Breed tour and overhearing a conversation that led him to write a song. Its title, he said, was "We're Dying as Fast as We Can." He sang a few of lines from the song, thanked those who had said nice things about him and walked off stage, leaving his Icon cup behind. Fortunately, Bryant was there to call his attention to the oversight.
Afterward, the crowd returned to the lobby for coffee, liqueurs, liquor and a staggering array of fancy desserts.
BMI Country Awards 2007
Songwriter of the Year: Jeffrey Steele
Song of the Year: "What Hurts the Most" Writer: Jeffrey Steele
Publisher of the Year: Sony/ATV Music Publishing Nashville
BMI's Most-Performed Songs of 2007
Writer: Jason Michael Carroll
Writers: Big Kenny, Rodney Clawson
Writers: Martina McBride, Brad Warren, Brett Warren
"Brand New Girlfriend"
Writers: Bart Allmand, Shane Minor, Jeffrey Steele
"Bring It on Home"
Writer: Wayne Kirkpatrick
Writer: Jamey Johnson
"Don't Forget to Remember Me"
Writer: Morgane Hayes
"Every Mile a Memory"
Writers: Brett Beavers, Steve Bogard
"Every Time I Hear Your Name"
Writer: Jeffrey Steele
"Feels Just Like It Should"
Writer: Pat Green
"Get Drunk and Be Somebody"
Writers: Scotty Emerick, Toby Keith
"Give It Away"
Writers: Bill Anderson, Jamey Johnson
"How 'Bout You"
Writers: Brett Beavers, Eric Church
"I Got You"
Writers: Craig Morgan, Phil O'Donnell
"I'll Wait for You" Writers: Harley Allen, Bill Anderson
"It Just Comes Natural"
Writers: Jim Collins, Marv Green
Writer: Miranda Lambert
"Ladies Love Country Boys"
Writers: Jamey Johnson, George Teren
"Leave the Pieces"
Writer: Jennifer Hanson
"Life Ain't Always Beautiful"
Writer: Tommy Lee James
"Little Bit of Life"
Writer: Danny Wells
"A Little Too Late"
Writers: Dean Dillon, Scotty Emerick, Toby Keith
"The Lucky One"
Writers: Jay Joyce, Brad Warren, Brett Warren
"Me and My Gang"
Writers: Jeffrey Steele, Jon Stone
"Mountains" Writers: Larry Boone, Richie McDonald, Paul Nelson
"My Little Girl"
Writers: Tom Douglas, Tim McGraw
"My, Oh My"
Writers: Michelle Branch, Jessica Harp, Wayne Kirkpatrick, Josh Leo
Writer: Jeffrey Steele
"Nobody Gonna Tell Me What to Do"
Writer: Tim Nichols
"Once in a Lifetime"
Writer: Keith Urban
"One Wing in the Fire"
Writers: Bobby Pinson, Trent Tomlinson
"The Seashores of Old Mexico"
Writer: Merle Haggard
"Settle for a Slowdown"
Writers: Brett Beavers, Tony Martin
Writer: Wil Nance
Writer: Sarah Buxton
Steve McEwan (PRS)
"Sunshine and Summertime"
Writers: Rodney Clawson, Kylie Sackley (APRA)
Writer: Taylor Swift
Writers: Kristian Bush, Bobby Pinson
Writers: Rodney Atkins, Steve Dean
"What Hurts the Most"
Writer: Jeffrey Steele
"When the Stars Go Blue"
Writer: Ryan Adams
"Wherever You Are"
Writer: Steve Bogard
Writers: Rodney Clawson, Vicky McGehee
"Why, Why, Why"
Writers: Tony Martin, Mark Nesler
Writer: Lee Thomas Miller
"Would You Go With Me"
Writers: Shawn Camp, John Scott Sherrill
Writers: Casey Beathard, Kendell Marvel, Jake Owen
"You Save Me"
Writer: Troy Verges
"You'll Always Be My Baby"
Writers: Sara Evans, Tony Martin, Tom Shapiro