When the music begins at the BMI Country Awards this November 5, the performing rights organization will carry on the grandest tradition in the Nashville music community with the 50th annual edition of its awards show. More than 800 writers, publishers, artists and executives will gather to salute the past year’s most performed songs and to mark another record-breaking year for the industry. Committed to protecting and praising the creators of music, BMI was the first organization to honor country songwriters and publishers with their own awards. The BMI Country Award represents the highest achievement in songwriting; the list of winners through the years reads like a capsule history of country music.
Since its early days, recognizing talent that would become legendary in country music, the BMI Country Awards have welcomed the greatest names in the field, from fast-rising stars to Country Music Hall of Fame members. Dolly Parton, Dwight Yoakam, Shania Twain, Clint Black, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Conway Twitty, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Vince Gill, Billy Ray Cyrus, Faith Hill & Tim McGraw, Alabama, Travis Tritt, Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Minnie Pearl, Kitty Wells, Brooks & Dunn, Barbara Mandrell, Jim Reeves, Toby Keith, the Carter Family, Roy Orbison, Marty Robbins, Eddie Rabbitt, Felice & Boudleaux Bryant are just a few of the thousands who have starred at the glittering celebrations.
BMI arranged its first country awards presentation in 1953, recognizing 22 songs in the burgeoning “Country and Western” market during ceremonies at Nashville’s War Memorial Auditorium. From 1953 through 1957, the BMI awards were included in WSM’s National Country Music DJ Festival & Grand Ole Opry Birthday Celebration. During these five years many now-classics were heralded as part of BMI’s rich repertoire: “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Bye Bye Love,” “Satisfied” and “Great Balls Of Fire.”
Fearing that the hoopla of the DJ convention was overshadowing the contribution of the songwriters, Frances Preston, then Nashville’s Southern representative, suggested shining the spotlight on the songs themselves. In 1958, shortly after BMI’s Nashville office was established, songwriters and publishers were honored at a 7:30 a.m. breakfast at the historic Maxwell House Hotel downtown. (The honored songs were performed by a band consisting of Owen and Harold Bradley, Chet Atkins, Hank Garland, Bob Moore and Buddy Harman.) Some of those who received Citations Of Achievement that morning and further proclaimed BMI’s pre-eminence in the field were Mel Tillis, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Don Everly, Ferlin Husky, George Jones, Harlan Howard, Don Gibson, Webb Pierce, A. P. & Helen Carter, Roger Miller and Wilma Lee Cooper.
The program in which songs and songwriters were the honorees was an immediate hit; in 1959 the event was transformed into a black-tie dinner at the elegant Belle Meade Country Club, where it was held for 17 years. By the mid-1970s, the number of award songs had tripled and the guest list was topping 700 – the party had definitely outgrown BMCC. In 1976 BMI created a unique venue to showcase one of the city’s most glamorous and exciting evenings, raising a tent on BMI’s Music Row property. Twelve awards shows were staged in the tented back lot on 16th Avenue South before the available rental tents could no longer accommodate the event; the 1988 ceremonies were moved to the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.
The Country Awards returned to the BMI lot in 1989, where the black-&-grey striped “Big Top” debuted – a 150’ x 90’ main awards tent rising a dramatic 35 feet, flanked by a reception and a kitchen/service tent. The Big Top hosted the awards until 1994, when construction of a six-story addition on the parking site forced a temporary move indoors to the Municipal Auditorium (where the tent was pitched inside the arena!).
In 1995, with construction completed, the BMI Country Awards came home to Music Row. The top floor of the parking garage (which boasts a spectacular view of the Nashville skyline) is transformed into a dazzling ballroom and stage in little more than a week. The event, hosted by President & CEO Frances W. Preston and Nashville Vice President C. Paul Corbin, begins with a cocktail reception in the main lobby, then dinner and the awards presentation on the sixth level. Capping the program of 50 songs will be the announcement of the three top honors: the Robert J. Burton Award for Most Performed Country Song of the Year, Songwriter of the Year and Publisher of the Year.
Among the distinguished talents who have been crowned BMI Country Songwriter of the Year are Harlan Howard, Don Gibson, Bill Anderson, Roger Miller, John D. Loudermilk, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, Dennis Morgan, Paul Overstreet, Vince Gill, Shania Twain, Tom Shapiro, Toby Keith, Dixie Chick Martie Maguire, Ronnie Dunn, Bobby Braddock and eight-time victor Billy Sherrill.