Miranda Lambert, Martina McBride and countless other country artists, musicians and music industry professionals were celebrated on Wednesday evening as part of the 13th annual ACM Honors. The ceremony, held at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, served as a celebration of the special honorees and off-camera category winners from the 54th Academy of Country Music Awards in April.
In addition to the scheduled performances by Lambert, Keith Urban, Chris Young, Chris Janson, Midland, Caylee Hammack, Maddie & Tae, Tenille Townes, Ashley McBryde and Lauren Alaina, Trisha Yearwood surprised the audience with a one-song set in honor of her friend, Gayle Holcomb, whom she presented the Gary Haber lifting lives award. Prefacing her soulful cover of Frank Sinatra’s “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” from her recent tribute album Let’s Be Frank, Yearwood admitted she wouldn’t have recorded the project if it weren’t for Holcomb’s urging.
“[Gayle] was one of my biggest encouragers [with] Let’s Be Frank,” she told the audience. “She has been one of my biggest cheerleaders for this project, so I’m going to do a song from that record and dedicate it to you. I’m so proud to know you.”
Ahead of the ceremony, Holcomb told Billboard that receiving the honor, named after her late friend Gary Haber, was “beyond words.” “The emotion was really heartfelt because Gary Haber was a dear friend of mine, and [he], along with five or six other people, helped found Lifting Lives … so just to know that Gary was a part of this and to receive this award in his name is beyond words,” she said.
Another standout performance was Urban and Lambert’s stirring rendition of “The House That Built Me.” Following their set, Lambert was presented with the Gene Weed milestone award in recognition for being the most awarded artist in the Academy of Country Music Awards’ history. Urban presented Lambert with the honor while praising his duet partner and recalling their early days on the road together when she served as his opener during her first major tour in 2005.
“She was out front every night we played, and I remember thinking, ‘I know that person really well, that’s a kindred spirit,’” he said. “To watch your journey go from that to making records that were always about you … you followed your muse wherever you went unapologetically. You stayed true to yourself, followed your path and here you are, accepting your award with the most ACM Awards of all time.”
Lambert then addressed the Ryman audience, admitting that she was humbled to be standing on the famed stage in front of her heroes. She then thanked longtime manager “momager” Marion Kraft, as well as the Nashville community for always accepting her.
“I mostly want to thank Nashville and the people who live here and move here because they love country music,” Lambert said. “I can’t believe that we get to do this; live here and follow our dreams and be part of this awesome community and family and I’ll never get over it … I just want to keep going and I’m so appreciative that y’all allow me to do this.”
Thank you @acmawards for an awesome night. I love the country music family and Nashville with all my heart. @keithurban thank you for singing with me and inspiring me for so many years. Forever a fan! And to my hot date thanks for joining me on this crazy cool journey! #acmhonors pic.twitter.com/07mHYg0geV
— Miranda Lambert (@mirandalambert) August 22, 2019
Several musicians were honored for the studio recording awards, two of whom played on Young’s records, including guitar player of the year Derek Wells and piano/keyboards player of the year Dave Cohen. Ahead of the ceremony, the singer spoke to Billboard and several other media outlets on the red carpet about the importance of celebrating the studio musicians in the country music industry.
“[The ACM Honors] is so encompassing of not just artists, but also everybody that does a lot of the behind-the-scenes work that people may not be at the forefront of their mind,” he explained. “It’s a chance to honor so many more people that make the industry really what it is.”
Urban reiterated Young’s sentiments on the carpet, saying he loves any opportunity to celebrate the people who don’t often receive the spotlight. “There’s so many people behind-the-scenes that make things happen that no one ever knows about. [It’s important] to know who these people are,” he added. “The fact that they do it at the Ryman is amazing. It’s the most magical venue I’ve ever played in. It’s like playing it inside an acoustic guitar.”
In addition to the awards, several artists performed a medley of each artist or songwriter’s hits being honored. Janson sang a spirited medley of “Honky Tonk Heroes” and “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal” in tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, who was honored with the poet’s award. The second time Janson has been asked to honor a songwriter in the category, he told Billboard it was “validating.”
“I take a great deal of pride in my songs and I take a great deal of pride in writing all of my own songs and writing my records and producing them myself and just being hands on with it all, but not getting too serious with it either,” he said. “That’s the beautiful part about Billy Joe Shaver: He didn’t really take it too serious. He just has great songs and that is what people love and that’s why I love them.”
Another powerful moment included Hammack and Alaina’s medley of “Broken Wing” and “Independence Day” in tribute to McBride, who received the Cliffie Stone icon award. Both powerhouse vocalists themselves, Hammack said it was a “full-circle moment” to cover “Broken Wing,” as it was that song that helped her financially when she first moved to Nashville and had a nightly gig at Tootsies Orchard Lounge on Broadway.
“That song honestly paid my rent. It is the reason why I’m here. To be able to sing it tonight in more of a reverence situation to honor her, this gives the song a completely different meaning and it makes it a lot more personal,” she told Billboard. “It’s really cool to think that a song I sang for years in a little tiny bar, where probably no one was listening, and now I get to sing it to a woman that sang it to me when I was young. My life is a series of full circles. This feels like a really happy circle.”
While Brooks & Dunn weren’t in attendance to accept their Cliffie Stone icon award, McBryde was on hand to pay tribute to the duo with a mesmerizing performance of “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone.” Trading verses with Chris Harris, the pair captivated the Mother Church of Country Music with their stunning harmonies on the poignant track.
In an interview with Billboard earlier in the week, Dunn admitted that he and Kix Brooks would not be who they are today without the team working around them.
“A lot of times, we’re the guys that run around in the spotlight and get all the attention and the people behind the scenes make things happen just as much and powerfully as we do, if not more so many times,” he explained. “To get this is real cool. Our crew guys put us in places that we couldn’t have pulled off by [ourselves]. So it’s honoring Cliffie and what it takes to make things happen.”