Kenny Chesney takes top honor at BMI Country Awards
When Kenny Chesney receives the Pinnacle Award in front of millions during ABC's Nov. 2 telecast of the Country Music Association Awards, the moment will recognize his ability to consistently pack stadiums and his standing as a four-time winner of the CMA's entertainer of the year.
But the focus on Nov. 1 was on Chesney's history as a songwriter when BMI honored him with the President's Award during the performing rights organization's 64th annual Country Awards on Nashville's Music Row.
"Me on stage wouldn't be possible without my creative spirit and without my creative heart," Chesney told several thousand – including fellow artists Cole Swindell, Bill Anderson, Randy Travis and Florida Georgia Line – during the black-tie event.
"God put a song in my heart years ago and made me want to write songs. Without that, there wouldn't be anything else."
See photos of Kenny Chesney through the years:
While Chesney's career accomplishments as a writer and song collector received their due, numerous writers' recent achievements made up the bulk of the evening. "Die A Happy Man" -- penned by Thomas Rhett with Joe London and Sean Douglas -- reigned as the most-played country song of the year. Ross Copperman took songwriter of the year after composing seven of BMI's 50 most-played titles of 2015, including Luke Bryan's "Strip It Down," Billy Currington's "Don't It" and Keith Urban's "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16."
"It's hard to comprehend," Copperman said of his hit list on the red carpet. "In 10 years when I'm sitting, smoking a cigar, maybe I'll understand what a big deal this is. But right now, I'm so in it, I'm thinking about the next five songs. It's hard for me to soak it in."
One of the new breed of "track guys" in Nashville, who use laptops and drum machines to create the underlying chords and foundational beats in their work, Copperman has also been known to write in a more traditional fashion, hammering out the song on guitar. That adaptability has aided his rise.
"I've written songs that are bone country with him, straight-to-the-core country songs," said Brett Eldredge, who co-wrote two of Copperman's award-winners, "Lose My Mind" and "Drunk On Your Love." "Then I called him up one day and said, 'I've got this Christmas song that I've written a verse and a chorus and all the melody, but the piano part...;' He studied jazz, so I show up, and he says, 'I've already got it all figured out.' He's playing like a classic jazz musician, so he can do anything. He's just a freak of nature. He is even more of a better person."
Copperman is also a Sony/ATV writer, making him a significant part of a record-setting year for the company. Sony/ATV has an ownership stake in 22 of the 50 most-played titles, which helped it become publisher of the year for a record 15th straight year, dating back to 2002, when Nashville president/CEO Troy Tomlinson joined the firm.
Sony/ATV's pile of winners included such titles as "Young & Crazy," "I Love This Life," "Kick The Dust Up," "Burning House" and "Wild Child," the latter co-written by Chesney.
Congressman Doug Collins (R-Ga.) received a BMI Champion Award for his efforts at improving the songwriting community's compensation in the digital age. It's a goal that coincides with BMI's efforts in Washington.
"We'll continue doing what we do," BMI president and CEO Mike O'Neill pledged, "which is to fight to protect the rights of all of you in this room so that you can keep writing songs, and the profession of songwriting will go on, and it won't become a hobby."
The breadth of the ceremony's honored songs was notable. "Die A Happy Man" and "Strip It Down" are tipped with soul, "Burning House" has an adventurous quality and unusual time signature, and "Ain't Worth The Whiskey" and "Diamond Rings And Old Barstools" use a core country tone. That eclectic range is an asset for the genre.
"I love the fact that country can embrace a lot of different styles, as it should be," said John Oates, of the pop duo Hall & Oates. "A good song's a good song. That's kind of the litmus test [for a song], if it can take a different kind of production."
The Chesney segment underscored that range. Urban reimagined the nostalgic "I Go Back" as a guitar/vocal piece that evolved into a classic rock-tinged effort. Songwriter Dean Dillon ("Tennessee Whiskey," "Ocean Front Property") milked all the fragility in the lyrics of Chesney's ballad "The Tin Man." And Eric Church turned "Anything But Me" into a dramatically building work.
Chesney wrote two of those three songs, and his ability to identify quality material was key in recording the other. It reflects what Chesney's career -- and the entire country industry -- is built on.
"Being a songwriter," he said, "is one of the biggest gifts in the world."