“Songwriters and sidemen are my favorite people,” Lee Ann Womack said on the red carpet before going into Monday night’s ASCAP Country Awards in Nashville. A sideman-honoring ceremony would have to wait for another day, but Womack was at least half in her element at the Monday gathering, where songwriters were not just being feted themselves but honoring her with the Golden Note lifetime achievement trophy.
Womack, one of the most beloved figures in Nashville before and since her “I Hope You Dance” crossover success, occasionally writes her own tunes, but mostly she goes old-school in relying on the songcraft of other pros. She even used her acceptance speech in the Renaissance Hotel ballroom to plug herself to song pluggers.
“I’m kind of a lonely person, and I love lonely songwriters,” she told the crowd. “So if you’re that person that’s sitting at home late at night by yourself writing songs, chances are I’ll probably like what you do. So just drop some songs off at (husband) Frank (Liddell)’s office — especially if you have real country songs, because obviously I love real country stuff.”
Womack did not perform but received a three-song salute, following an introduction by Carly Pearce. Buddy Miller opened with “Don’t Tell Me,” Alison Krauss followed with a mesmerizing version of her 1998 smash “A Little Past Little Rock,” and Chris Stapleton brought down the house with the devastating “Either Way,” which Womack recorded for her 2008 album “Call Me Crazy,” nine years before Stapleton recorded his own Grammy-winning version.
“A lot of people don’t know this but Lee Ann has the distinction of being the very first person taking me out on the road anywhere and sticking me out on the stage in front of people, like a professional thing,” Stapleton told the audience. “Not only did she do that, but she walked out on stage and introduced me, and at the time I didn’t know that was the weirdest thing in the world for the headliner to do. It was awesome, and I’ll never forget it.”
Added Stapleton, “There was a time when I maybe had one too many cocktails and my opinions about things and how they were and should be would flow out of my mouth quicker than they should. Well, Lee Ann caught me saying things — maybe I was running somebody down about something, or just sitting back being an armchair quarterback — and she said, ‘Well, why don’t you shut up and do something about it?’ That’s stuck with me all these years, and that’s tough love from Lee Ann Womack, and that’s what you want to get every time.”
On the red carpet, the Brothers Osborne were among those almost literally singing her praises. “On our first record, ‘Pawn Shop,’ we have a song called ‘Love Me Back,’ and the first person we thought of we wanted to sing on it was Lee Ann,” said guitarist John Osborne. “It was a dream come true. She came in and crushed it. She sang it perfectly in one take. We actually had her sing it five or six more times just so we could watch her sing. It was incredible — it was a free performance for us! But we’ve been such fans for a long time. ‘Never Again, Again’ is the most country song on the planet. The way that she delivers country music is second to none, and she’s always stayed true to herself. There’s no person in this town you could respect more for that than her.”
In the non-lifetime awards handed out by ASCAP, Ashley Gorley was named songwriter of the year. This is a regular thing for Gorley — whose six awarded songs this year included Thomas Rhett’s “Marry Me.” Success hasn’t made him any less competitive or motivated, as he pointed out in his speech how he’d just been chatting up an artist about a song: “I was just in the bathroom with him and while he was doing his business, I was asking him about a hold.”
Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road” was awarded song of the year, and performed on stage by Hunt and co-writers Zach Crowell and Josh Osborne. They started out with a jokey version of the song in the style of Sting before reverting back to its true form, albeit, they noted, a half-step up from the record.
The Kane Brown/Lauren Alaina hit duet “What Ifs” was performed as a solo number by a surprise cover artist, Trace Adkins. At the close of his performance, Adkins exhorted, “I just want to take this opportunity to say, I’m making a new record, so save me the good shit.”
The fact that songwriting is a tough business for the vast majority not lucky enough to be winning ASCAP Awards came up for allusion during Womack’s speech. “I love to be around songwriters,” she reiterated, “and thank God, because Frank brings ‘em home constantly. I’ve met some of my favorite people and best friends through those writers that he’s brought through our door who have slept on our couch and have lived in our house sometimes for months and months… and months.”