On Monday, November 1, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame held its annual induction gala in the heart of Music City, honoring 10 legendary songwriters who have made immeasurably rich impacts on the history of popular song. Combining the classes of 2020 and 2021 into a single ceremony (due to the pandemic preventing one from happening last year), the 2021 gala honored: Kent Blazy, Brett James, Steve Earle, Bobbie Gentry, Spooner Oldham, Rhett Akins, Buddy Cannon, Amy Grant, John Scott Sherrill, and Toby Keith.
Tisha Yearwood kicked off the night with a stunning rendition of Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 smash hit, “Ode to Billie Joe,” complete with a faithful recreation of Jimmie Haskell’s original string part. Capturing the home-spun grit and Southern gothic-ness of her writing, the tribute was a poignant illustration of the trailblazing Gentry accomplished when she became a mover-and-shaker in the male-dominated scene of ‘60s Nashville. Yet, ever-elusive, Gentry made no appearance at the ceremony, nor any comment about the honor—she’s been “off the grid” since 1982.
After Gentry, John Scott Sherrill was honored by his friend and collaborator, John Anderson, who performed the No. 1 hit they co-wrote together: “Wild and Blue.” First settling down in Nashville back in 1975 when his car broke down en route to California, Sherrill embedded himself in the songwriting community and wrote for everyone from Shenandoah to Brooks & Dunn, Josh Turner, Patty Loveless, Mick Jagger, and more.
“It’s almost unbelievable… I wasn’t expecting this at all,” Sherrill told American Songwriter ahead of the ceremony. “I’ve been nominated in the past, but it never came to fruition. This year, they called me up and said ‘Are you sitting down?’ I said, ‘Well, I can be!’ So, it’s a real honor.”
Then, after a slight delay due to Music City’s signature traffic, Thomas Rhett took the stage to honor his father, Rhett Akins, with a performance of “That Ain’t My Truck.” Highlighting the multi-generational legacy of his genre-blending—yet, quintessentially country—writing sensibilities, Akins reflected on his journey to American Songwriter.
“This feels really good—it feels like the crowning achievement of all the years I spent in the bedroom with my guitar, sitting on my bed, moving the needle back to try to figure out, ‘What’d he play right there?’” he said. “All of my heroes are in this Hall of Fame, and they’re the reasons I moved to Nashville. I love Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Dean Dillon—everybody who is in this club has influenced me so much. I’ve spent my life trying to be worthy of their presence, I guess. It feels weird that after all these years of doing it, I’m still here.”
Continuing, Akins noted how happy it makes him to watch the success of his son unfold. “I trained him unknowingly—I never pushed him to be a singer,” he began. “But I did, every day in the car on the way to and from school, make him listen to certain bands. On Monday, we’d listen to Paul McCartney; on Tuesday, we’d listen to Merle Haggard; on Wednesday we’d listen to Run-D.M.C.; Thursday we’d listen to Bill Monroe, and so on. I made him listen to artists I thought were the best, no matter the genre. Hopefully, those rides back and forth from school helped him because today, you never know what Thomas Rhett is going to put out next. It might be something dog country or something poppy or something like Otis Redding. I really think those car rides sunk into his brain and that’s why he’s so diverse.”
Following Akins was one of the highlights of the evening: a stripped-back performance of “Jesus Take The Wheel” by Carrie Underwood to honor one of its writers, Brett James.
“I feel overjoyed and in awe—in awe of the people who are in this Hall of Fame already,” James told American Songwriter. “Now, I get to say that I’m in a club with Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, and people like that! I don’t know how that happened, but I’m glad it’s here.”
In addition to writing No. 1 hits for Martina McBride, Kenny Chesney, Rodney Atkins, Jason Aldean, and more, James was also a pioneer in the Latin-country crossover world thanks to his contribution to Paulina Rubio’s 2002 hit, “Todo Mi Amor.”
“I think it’s amazing,” James said, reflecting on the explosion of Latin music’s influence on American styles in recent years. “I love Latin music. ‘Todo Mi Amor’ came about in a flukey way where we wrote in English but translated it to Spanish because, at the time, she was one of the biggest artists in Mexico and, probably, the world. She ended up putting out a version in English and a version in Spanish, and it was such a cool time—I remember walking down the beach in Spain and I got to hear my song in Spanish on the radio. That’s what’s great about those songs: you can hear them all over the world. It’s pretty darn cool.”
Then, the night figuratively traveled from the colorful hubs of Latin music to another legendary spring of songs: Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Organist and decorated R&B writer, Spooner Oldham was honored by Americana icon, Jason Isbell, who played a solo-acoustic version of a song made famous by James & Bobby Purify: “I’m Your Puppet.”
Known for his contributions to records by Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and more, Oldham is an amazing example of a musician whose entire sense of artistry comes down to one thing: making the best song possible.
“To me, the best I can do is help the artist with the song, make it sound good,” he told American Songwriter. “If the artist sounds good, then we all sound good. It comes down to teamwork, really. It just works better that way. I’ve been blessed with all these opportunities. I guess I had some God-given talent too—I didn’t have much schooling, so it definitely wasn’t that! I think the love of music was really the biggest part of it. It’s just what I do.”
Another true lover of music was honored when Kenny Chesney took the stage to perform Buddy Cannon’s hit originally written for Vern Gosdin: “Set ‘Em Up Joe.”
With a speech from “Whispering” Bill Anderson, Cannon was celebrated for his steadfast commitment to his art and the community in Nashville. Having written for everyone from George Strait to Willie Nelson, Billy Ray Cyrus, and more, he became a true staple of the scene, even giving a helping hand to then-up-and-coming artists like Vince Gill and Toby Keith. For his part, Cannon devoted a good amount of his speech to the man who helped launch his career: Mel Tillis. “I wish he could be here tonight,” Cannon said on stage with tears in his eyes.
Moments later, the room was greeted by Vince Gill, who stepped out onto the stage, realized his guitar wasn’t going through the sound system properly, and said: “In the immortal words of Buddy Cannon: ‘Shit!’” Yet, Gill wasn’t paying tribute to Cannon (at least not directly)—instead, once the sound got on, he delivered a goose-bump-inducing performance of “Breath of Heaven,” written by his wife, Amy Grant.
“It’s funny—when you do something, it’s just what you do,” Grant told American Songwriter before the ceremony. “You don’t think about the cumulative body of work. So, this is something I’m really grateful for. Especially after returning from COVID… audiences are so sensitized, and I’m feeling grateful for the songs I’ve written and the ability to bring them to people right now. A lot of them feel like the message is healing, and it feels so timely. The ability to connect us to each other, life, and every possible emotion is powerful, and that’s what songwriting allows.”
Following Gill’s tribute to Grant, another icon of country music, Emmylou Harris, took the stage to perform Steve Earle’s moving tune, “Pilgrim.” Noting his uncanny ability to speak to the human condition and all its consequential joys and sorrows, Harris’ golden voice illuminated the room with a sense of sublime beauty.
“It’s a little like, well… if you’re not careful, it can turn into something like being a civil war reenactor,” Earle told American Songwriter, speaking about the growth of the “Americana” genre in recent decades. “I do what I do, I understand who my audience is—it’s people who listen to a certain kind of music that isn’t in the pop mainstream anymore. When I came up, it was. But I’m okay with that—I don’t get to decide what’s country music or not anymore, and I’m totally okay with that.”
Continuing, Earle noted the distinction between his community of writers and the group of folks who came before: “What I am is a post-Bob Dylan songwriter,” he explained. “I wasn’t the first one in town—Kris [Kristofferson] was. Things changed. Post-Dylan songwriting is when the literary bar is really high. I intentionally try to create songs that are literature. That’s what I do, that’s what I teach.”
Following Earle’s honor was Toby Keith, who took the stage for a moving speech after Mac McAnally introduced him and Ronnie Dunn delivered a riling performance of his hit, “Should’ve Been A Cowboy” (which became the most-played country song of the 1990s).
Humbled and articulate, Keith told the story of how he first got into music as a child, staying with his bar-owning grandmother during the summer and trying to sneak into her place to hear the bands play. From there, he explained how he had tried to break into the Nashville scene but was told his writing wasn’t strong enough yet… of course, the first song on that rejected demo tape was “Should’ve Been A Cowboy,” so history was on Keith’s side.
History was also on the side of the evening’s final inductee, Kent Blazy when he gave a chance to a then-unknown Garth Brooks back in the 1980s. The future-country megastar came into Blazy’s studio one day with a song idea that dozens of other writers had passed on—by the end of the day, the two had written their first No. 1 hit, “If Tomorrow Never Comes.” Honoring Blazy, Brooks performed a beautiful, solo acoustic version of the tune.
“If I only sang the parts of this song I wrote, it would sound like this,” Brooks said before playing the chords to the song without singing a single word, illustrating how easily the melody and lyrics flowed out of Blazy once the two got on a roll.
“I keep pinching myself—I’m beyond excited,” Blazy told American Songwriter. Reflecting on the joy of songwriting, he continued: “Jack Clement nailed it a long time ago: ‘If we’re not having fun, we’re not doing our jobs.’”
After Blazy’s speech, the evening concluded, wrapping the celebrations for the class of 2020 and the class of 2021 in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. To learn more about the Hall and previous inductees, click HERE.
Photos courtesy of Alliance Media Relations