George Strait, Alan Jackson and Chris Stapleton capped the 11th annual ACM Honors at Ryman Auditorium Wednesday night with a handful of hits that spanned decades and hearkened back to a time when light-hearted twang and storytelling were hallmarks in country music.
The night was one of reverence to the genre’s greats with Brad Paisley paying homage to Dolly Parton, Maren Morris to Glen Campbell and Hillary Scott, Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman singing for Reba McEntire.
At-home viewers can catch the star-packed show Sept. 15 on CBS, but the sold-out crowd got to experience the night of show-stopping performances and heart-warming speeches live.
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McEntire was visibly moved when she took the stage to accept her Mae Boren Axton Award. McEntire and Axton, both from Oklahoma, were close friends. Before the show McEntire said she called Axton Mama Mae. From the stage, McEntire’s voice was thick with emotion when she remembered her friend.
Axton, who died in 1997, gave McEntire a teddy bear dressed as an angel. Recently, McEntire touched the bear’s wing and it said, “Hi, I’m your guardian angel.”
“Mae has always been my guardian angel,” McEntire said from the stage. “I miss her so much. I’m so glad I’m getting this award with her name on it because I love her with all of my heart.”
Kelsea Ballerini provided another of the night’s tear-jerking moments. Ballerini was given the Gene Weed Milestone Award. She started crying as she recalled how she moved to Nashville with her mom as a teen and watched music videos on CMT while she tried to figure out how to break into the country music business.
“I would wait til the end and look for the songwriter (credits) and Googled the songwriters,” Ballerini said. “It wasn’t long until I decided I wanted to be (popular songwriter) Hillary Lindsey. The fact that I just got to sing a song I wrote with her (Legends) on stage at the Ryman is an award in itself.”
Toby Keith sang a medley of his own hits upon accepting the Poet’s Award, and Chris Janson brought down the house with a rocking, charismatic tribute to Shel Silverstein who was posthumously awarded the Poet’s Award. Janson covered two of Silverstein’s favorite songs: Johnny Cash’s A Boy Named Sue and Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show’s The Cover of ‘Rolling Stone. Janson got two standing ovations.
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In contrast to Janson’s raucous performances, Paisley took the stage with just his acoustic guitar to sing a tender version of Parton’s My Tennessee Mountain Home before presenting her with the Gary Haber Lifting Lives Award.
“If you’re ever in need, there’s no better friend than Dolly Parton,” Paisley said as a video referenced her Imagination Library that has given away 100 million books to children. When Parton’s native Sevier County was crippled by wildfires in November of 2016, Parton stepped in with a televised fundraiser and gave thousands of dollars to each victim who lost their primary place of residence in the fire.
“I never dreamed our program would grow into something so large,” Parton said of her Imagination Library before plugging her new children’s album I Believe in You that will be in stores Sept. 29. She also urged people to return to her hometown: “The best way you can help us now is to come back to the Smokies. We’re in business!”
The ACM Honors were designed to pay recognition to the Academy of Country Music’s off-camera and specialty award winners who weren’t given television time during the ACM Awards telecast in the spring.
“Us as artists work with so many people that a lot of people will never know their names,” said Thomas Rhett before the show. Rhett performed later as part of radio great Bob Kingsley’s presentation of the Mae Boren Axton Award. “Tonight it’s really nice for those people to get their moment to shine because they don’t really get televised on the actual ACM Awards. Without those people, people like me wouldn’t exist. I think it’s important people know that.”
Steve Buchanan, co-executive producer of television’s Nashville, accepted the Tex Ritter Film Award on behalf of the show.
“We do this because we love music and we love this city,” he said of himself and fellow co-executive producer Callie Khouri.
Little Big Town performed their new Lori McKenna-penned single When Someone Stops Loving You for the songwriter who was presented with her ACM trophy for Songwriter of the Year. McKenna also wrote Little Big Town’s Girl Crush and Tim McGraw’s Humble and Kind.
When she accepted, McKenna dropped the quote of the night, saying: “The thing about songwriters is we don’t define ourselves by gender or race or anything else. We just call ourselves songwriters.”
Strait was given the Cliffie Stone Icon Award. Stapleton covered Strait’s When Did You Stop Loving Me and Jackson got a standing ovation for his montage of Strait’s Marina Del Rey and The Fireman. He added a tagline from Murder on Music Row, his duet with Strait, at the end.
“When I first set out on the road, I thought I maybe had five good years to sing my songs for you folks,” Strait said. “It’s been over 30 (years) now and I still love it as much as I ever did. My feet don’t feel like they’re touching the ground right now, and I still feel like that every time I walk out on stage. Heck, I’m still going strong. I feel like I’m in my prime.”
Strait closed the show with Here for a Good Time.