Southern California may seem “a million miles from” Nashville, but Dwight Yoakam bridged the gap as he came east Tuesday night to be feted with a lifetime achievement honor at the BMI Country Awards. Singing in Yoakam’s honor were a trio of exceptionally well chosen cover artists: the Highwomen, the duo of Margo Price and Bob Weir, and a fellow California-rooted country star of recent renown, Jon Pardi.
Also receiving a lifetime achievement award, for the first time at the BMI Awards, was a song: “Rocky Top,” performed for the occasion… no, not by an entire Tennessee football stadium, as it so regularly is, but by Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder. The award was accepted by former BMI president Del Bryant on behalf of his late parents, legendary songwriters Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who, he recounted, wrote the enduring country-bluegrass standard in 10 minutes in the 1960s.
On the more contemporary front, Nicole Galyon and Ross Copperman settled for a rare tie as BMI Nashville’s songwriter of the year. Galyon is the first female winner since Taylor Swift in 2010. Among the songs that contributed to her vying for the trophy in 2019 was the Dan + Shay smash “Tequila,” which was named BMI’s country song of the year for picking up the most plays. “Tequila” was also a contributing factor in Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Group being named publisher of the year, again — but only a small one, as Warner-Tamerline claimed 24 of the year’s 50 most performed BMI songs.
Yoakam made note of the distance California country has felt and sometimes suffered from over the years, although it seemed to have worked out for him all right. “In some ways I always felt like a foster child,” he said in his acceptance speech, “being that I was from the west coast and I made my musical home out there. And Buck (Owens) and Merle (Haggard) and I used to talk about that, the distance between the two communities, literally. But like most foster children, we’re the ones that often need a home. And so I want to thank all those people that in Nashville helped me launch the career that I’ve had and allowed me to make the living that I’ve made, from those early, early years and on up till now.”
Yoakam thanked past and recent regimes at Warner Bros. in both L.A. and Nashville for taking him in, but saved special love for “my home here at BMI. Because as much as I’ve been a prodigal son, I always felt this was my performance rights home. As many times as we maybe threatened to leave, I didn’t mean it.” He turned around to look for Bryan in the crowd. “Del, I probably would have stayed no matter what the deal was!” he added, then joking: “But I’m not sure about the future, because things change!” Presumably more seriously, Yoakam spoke of his mantelpiece and said, “Every placard that I’ve received from BMI over the years is an award that I cherish right alongside any platinum award that I’ve gotten.”
Pardi, who has acknowledged paying tribute to Yoakam even with a song on his brand new album, played “Guitars, Cadillacs” for the occasion. Alt-country/traditionalist Price shared duties with the Grateful Dead’s Weir on a a similarly rocking “Fast as You.” Lusher harmonies than on Yoakam’s original rendering came to the fore as the Highwomen — comprised of Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris — took on “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere.” From the stage in the middle of the room, they turned around during instrumental breaks to watch the house band on a rear stage, which for this particular number had an honorary Highwoman, Jason Isbell, sitting in on guitar.
A couple of departures were also noted during the night, one sadder than the other. The late producer Busbee, most well known in Nashville for co-writing and producing Highwoman Morris’ solo albums, received brief memorial words from BMI president/CEO Mike O’Neill, who said, “Tonight we remember and lift up our friend,” before sharing that Busbee’s wife Jessie was in the house.
Comments drifted toward the lighter side as O’Neill paid tribute to Jody Williams, BMI Nashville’s vice president, creative, who’ll be leaving at the end of the year to rejoin the private sector, as it were, as a publisher. Williams was a frequent source of accolades on the red carpet for having brought a personal touch to the PRO’s relationship with so many Nashville artists, established and new.
“At the end of this year, Mr. Jody Williams will be leaving BMI,” O’Neill said, to groans, “I know, it sucks. Let’s be honest, it’s not like this is the first time he’s leaving BMI.” The knowing audience laughed. “He’s done it before. This is actually the third time he’ll be leaving BMI. I said, ‘Jody, let’s hit for the cycle, let’s make it a fourth.’ Clearly Jody Williams has made massive contributions to both BMI and the creative community, and we are all sorry to see him go. But I truly believe we’ll be seeing him up on this stage next year receiving a publisher award.”
Another topic of conversation was the weather, both outdoors and “indoors,” with the awards show taking place as usual in a gussied-up top level of the BMI parking lot. Most Novembers, the plastic tarp that surrounds the makeshift space is fine to keep out any chilly air, but not when the temperature has dipped to record lows in the 20s. O’Neill quipped that he’d gone to church on Sunday to pray that the sudden freeze would affect the previous night’s ASCAP Country Awards instead, but that went unanswered. “So we went out and we purchased blankets, and we put enough for every other person at the table. So that means tonight it’s gonna be a little bit like co-writing: You’re gonna have to share that blanket, and you might want a little more, but tonight just take what you need.”
Body heat sufficed in keeping the space warm for at least the first half of the dinner, but by the time Galyon took the stage to accept, she admitted that “my feet are frozen.” Yoakam seemed surprised a full house was greeting his own award late in the proceedings, thanking the crowd “for sticking it out in Arctic-like conditions up here tonight. I thought, well, the room will be empty by the time I have to get up!”
Much of the talk in the room and on the red carpet was also about the female-celebrating theme of Wednesday night’s impending CMA Awards telecast.
The Highwoman will participate in that celebration. Said Hemby before the BMI dinner got underway: “Honestly, it’s sort of like history in the making. It was just cool to look around and see all these amazing women in the same group. We were actually sitting in a room (during rehearsals) and it was Dolly (Parton), Reba, Tanya (Tucker), Jennifer Nettles, and then it was Crystal Gayle, Gretchen Wilson, Sara Evans, Martina McBride, Terri Clark — and the Highwomen. I looked at myself and thought, what in the hell am I doing here? But it was the coolest thing, because we ran down the music, and then at the very end, (executive producer) Robert Deaton got up and gave a speech and we all started clapping. And Tanya said, ‘I’m going to give you a standing ovulation for that one!'”