Taylor Swift was annointed queen in Nashville this week—not by the CMA Awards, which mysteriously undernominated her, but at the BMI Awards, where she broke several records. Not only was Swift the youngest person, at 20, to be named Songwriter of the Year, but she also become the first BMI writer to have the Country Song of the Year for three years in a row, with "You Belong With Me" following "Love Story" and "Teardrops on My Guitar" in that line of succession.
If anything, Swift might inspire some other hit Nashville songwriters to ditch BMI and have their songs licensed through a different performing rights organization. Because all the songs from her newly released Speak Now album will be eligible next year, or the year after, which makes her pretty much a shoo-in for Songwriter of the Year in 2011 and 2012, too. So if you're another songwriter with a competitive streak hoping for the top prize any time soon, you just might be wanting to take your chances at the ASCAP Awards instead.
But maybe the likes of Lady Antebellum and Miranda Lambert aren't quite that competitive. They came away with their share of "most-played songs" certificates at the banquet, too. (BMI doesn't rank the other awards it gives out each year, making it an effective 49-way tie for second place.)
If Swift was the queen of the BMIs, 74-year-old Billy Sherrill was the king. He was honored with BMI's annual Icon award, following in the footsteps of Kris Kristofferson, who got it last year, and Willie Nelson, who picked it up the year before. Although lesser known than some of the performer-writers who've preceded him as BMI Icons, Sherrill has arguably had an equal impact of the development of country, having produced and sometimes co-written the greatest records of George Jones and Tammy Wynette and many others. He developed the "countrypolitan" sound that added pop instrumentation to country records in the '60s and '70s and widened their appeal beyond the merely regional—an impact that BMI's chiefs argued opened the door to the stylistic and audience crossover that exists today.
Although no one quite said as much, the clear implication was that we might not have a Taylor Swift today if we hadn't had a Billy Sherrill back when. Maybe that's why, at the conclusion of her acceptance speech, Swift came over to the lip of the stage and waved at Sherrill for a good 10-15 seconds. Or, maybe she's really just that gracious.
The untelevised BMI Awards are more about dinner and certificates than live performances, but an exception is always made when it comes to the main honoree. In a tour de force you could only wish was on your DVR for posterity, four of country's biggest stars serenaded Sherrill: Ronnie Dunn sang "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" (originally produced and cowritten by Sherrill for Charlie Rich). Martina McBride—whose album of country standards, Timeless, is not incidentally the greatest of her career—nailed the octave-spanning theatrics of the mercy-sex anthem "Til I Can Make It On My Own." George Strait had a calmer take, naturally, on "My Elusive Dreams," before Faith Hill brought the belting back with—of course—"Stand by Your Man."
Sherrill, who was also inducted into the Country Hall of Fame this year, and who appears somewhat frail, was visibly moved, even if he had a hard time finding many words for his acceptance speech.
Also demonstrably emotional: Swift, and not just because of the armful of trophies and plaques. (Her other awarded songs, besides "You Belong With Me," which she shared with Liz Rose, were "Fifteen," "White Horse," and her co-write with and for Kelly Pickler, "Best Days of Your Life.")
"Yesterday I sang at the funeral of one of my best friends, and he was 21," she remarked, suddenly solemn. "And I used to play my songs for him first. So I would like to thank Jeff Lang... and as always, all the creative minds in this room who inspire me every day."
Also picking up multiple certificates were the guys from Lady Antebellum—although "Need You Now" was the only song from their current album to be eligible, because followup singles have all come out after the March 31, 2010 cutoff date. But "Do I," recorded by Luke Bryan and written with Lady A's Dave Hayward and Charles Kelley, also made the cut.
I talked with Lady Antebellum before the dinner, and the trio inevitably had the following night's CMA Awards on their mind at least as much as the BMIs.
"We're really honored for those nominations for 'Need You Now'," said Hayward, "being a song that we wrote that was the one that totally flipped our world upside down. Last year we debuted it on the CMAs, playing it live, so to come back this year and have a couple nominations for that song is really, really cool."
What about their higher-profile nomination for Entertainer of the Year?
"Honestly, we feel like we haven't earned it," Hillary Scott told me. "We have a lot more to prove before I feel like we'll be deserving of that award. But what I do love about that category this year is that it is kind of turning over a new leaf with newer, younger acts that have really made a name for themselves in the past few years"—meaning themselves, Lambert, and the Zac Brown Band, first-time nominees in that category, all. "But then you still have the great Brad Paisley and Keith Urban in there, and in my opinion, one of those will take it home. We toured with Keith up in Canada for three weeks, and it was one of the most inspiring experiences we ever had. So I hope that he takes it home."
Sheryl Crow posed with Urban on the red carpet, so you might have figured that she would be casting her vote for him as Entertainer of the Year, too, or else going for some girl power in the category. Instead, possibly because Urban's already won it once, she picked a different favorite, for reasons both respectful and personal.
"I'd like to see Brad Paisley win entertainer," she told me. "He's never won. And, he's the dad of my son's best friend. So I'd like to see Huck's dad win."