A tribute to Randy Travis provided the emotional highlight at the ASCAP Country Awards in Nashville, where the singer was being feted with a special award, as were Hillary Lindsey and Brothers Osborne.
Among the competitive awards, Ashley Gorley set a record among Nashville tunesmiths by winning songwriter of the year for a historic seventh time — including the last six years in a row — while Steven Battey picked up ASCAP’s song of the year award for cowriting the Luke Combs smash “One Number Away.”
Performance highlights were scarred throughout the three-hour dinner at Nashville’s Renaissance Hotel, with Garth Brooks, Carrie Underwood, Dan + Shay, Dierks Bentley and Little Big Town all making appearances to sing material by the honored writers.
Foremost among highlights was a two-gun salute to Travis that had Underwood’s tender performance of the ballad “Promises” immediately followed by Brooks making “Forever and Ever, Amen” sound like it was a selection from his own catalog.
“I was lucky enough to get to say this at your Hall of Fame induction and I’ll say it again tonight,” Brooks told Travis. “I was a kid of 18, hanging onto George Strait. He got a little help from Ricky Skaggs. Then this thing called the ‘Urban Cowboy’ (phenomenon) came out and country music started going a little bit more pop. And I swear to you, it is 100 percent my belief, this man saved country music singlehandedly, and brought it back to traditional country music. I’ve gotta tell you, I would not be standing here if it were not for Randy Travis.”
Travis walked the red carpet before the show, shaking hands and communicating thanks with his eyes but leaving the speaking to his wife, Mary. Told by Variety before the ceremony that nearly every artist walking the red carpet mentioned his name as the thing to most look forward to about Monday’s dinner, she said, “That makes us feel good. We didn’t know that. I know it does Randy, right?” He nodded assent. “Really? That makes me want to cry. With what we’ve been through and the medical challenges that we’ve had since the stroke six and a half years ago, we just feel so blessed to be here in person to experience this.”
Travis was receiving the Founders Award, while Lindsey (the co-writer of everything from Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel” to Lady Gaga’s “Shallow”) picked up the Global Impact Award, and Brothers Osborne got the Vanguard Award. The siblings had some fun on stage with the latter.
“When we were told that we were being honored with the Vanguard Award, two things came to mind,” said guitarist John Osborne. “First was: Holy shit, it’s amazing that we would be given this gift. And the second thing that came to mind was: What does the word vanguard mean? The third thing that came to mind was, how do the hell do we get the songwriting award with such a poor vocabulary? But here I am…” The audience responded with sustained laughter. “I had to Google the word. What apparently it means is it’s the foremost group of an army or a naval fleet. So that clearly does not apply to us in any way! But I think what it’s trying to say is people who are pushing ahead in their field. I will say for us, it’s not really intentional; we’re not really setting out to do anything. We’re just being ourselves… New writers in the room, you will get it too. Just keep f—ing going.”
Singer TJ Osborne waxed a bit more vulnerable in his part of the brothers’ acceptance speech. “Ever since I was a little boy, I had a hard time believing in myself,” he admitted. “Even after achieving everything, I still have a hard time believing in myself. I still question myself — what I guess most people would call Imposter Syndrome… That being said, with this bad boy in my house,” he added, holding his trophy aloft, “there’ll be just a little bit more of feeling like an imposter when I see this thing.”
Brothers Osborne were presented their award by actors Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen. “We’re their straight men tonight,” Danson explained on the red carpet. Steenburgen said the couple’s now-close friendship with the brothers started through her songwriting collaboration with John Osborne’s wife, independent country artist Lucie Silvas, John Osborne’s wife. “One night Lucie, John and I wrote a song that we’re actually turning into a little animated film for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day that is coming up. It’s a love song to the planet, which Lucie, John and TJ will sing, called ‘Earth, You Fickle Thing You.’ … When they come to L.A, they often stay with us and we have a great time. They’ve just become a big part of our life.”
Added Steenburgen, “I haven’t told them this yet, but on the flight on the way down, here the flight attendant came up to me to ask why I was going to Nashville. She was in Las Vegas for all three of those concerts (at the tragic Route 91 Festival) and was there when the shooter unfortunately gunned down so many people. She said, ‘One of the ways I’ve been healing from it is that I made a playlist of my favorite music of the (artists who played those) three days, including so much Brothers Osborne, and that’s what’s gotten me through it.'”
Old Dominion’s Matthew Ramsey and Trevor Rosen were named ASCAP Country Music Songwriter-Artists of the Year. Ramsey, who with his partner has co-written hits for many other artists as well as his own band, joined Brothers Osborne in playing the humility card. “We wrote a lot of bad songs,” he insisted. “We still do. I’m gonna tell you the words of one of those songs. This song was a song we wrote called ‘Caveman.’ It’s a song that compared what we do as human beings to being a caveman.” He recited from memory some of the lyrics, to Rosen’s obvious embarrassment: “Drink beer, kill deer, find club, get girl, start fire, roll stone, back home… Bedrock till we drop, wake up, do again, like a caveman.” … “I want to thank every songwriter we’ve ever had for, for some reason, getting in the same room with us, when we could write something like that, to come up with the magic that happens every once in a while.”
“I’m making sure they can’t take this away,” said Rosen, clutching his trophy, after Ramsey recited the “Caveman” lyrics. (Note to Old Dominion: Don’t abandon that one so readily — it at least it was more conceptually ambitious than most of the songs that do win airplay awards.)
Little Big Town sang what has become a signature song for the quartet, “Girl Crush,” in co-writer Hillary Lindsey’s honor. Karen Fairchild joked that, now that Jennifer Aniston has joined Instagram, that left Lindsey and Ashley Gorley as the last two people in show business to assiduously avoid having a social media presence. “I started a Hillary Instagram tonight,” Fairchild said, “and it’s called If I Were Hillary Lindsey. And it says ‘fan account, unauthorized, by Karen Faitchild.’ So if you want to follow… until she kills me, and it will probably be deleted…”
As of Tuesday morning, the account was still up here, although Lindsey did say, “Karen and I will be speaking later.” Lindsey was moved by a tribute video that preceded her acceptance speech, saying, “I thought I was worried about food in my teeth coming up here, but after that, I was worried about snot and mascara.”
After accepting songwriter of the year for the seventh time, Gorley performed “Living” with the man who made it into a hit, Bentley. “‘Living’ is a special song to us,” he said. “It’s really one of the rare ones that we actually do try to live by in our own lives.” He described writing it with Bentley, Ross Copperman and Jon Nite after a sunrise hike outside Telluride — and mentioned that he’d just returned the previous night from hiking in Moab, Utah, perhaps in search of more personal and/or country airplay-topping inspiration.
The evening began with Dan + Shay singing their massive “Tequila” with co-writer Jordan Reynolds and ended with a rendition of the song of the year, Combs’ “One Number Away,” by co-writer Steven Battey, a hitmaker in the pop field (with songs recorded by Madonna and Justin Bieber) who is enjoying his first foray into country in a big way.