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The event kicked off with Luke Bryan presenting Industry awards to specific performance venues, talent buyers and promoters. "At some point, everybody I'm announcing, I have played in their bar or they've written a check to me," Luke tells The Boot. "So, it's nice to see them get recognized for their hard work."
Lee Ann's producer-husband Frank Liddell presented honors to the musicians, Audio Engineer and Producer of the Year recipients, which included guitarist Brent Mason, fiddler Stuart Duncan, steel player Paul Franklin, keyboardist Michael Rojas, multi-instrumentalist Randy Scruggs, bassist Michael Rhodes, drummer Shannon Forrest, producer Dann Huff and engineer Justin Niebank. Afterward, the group of session players and live musicians performed a scorching rendition of Earl Scruggs' 'Passin' Thru.'
As Kix Brooks presented the Jim Reeves International Award to Keith Urban, he recalled seeing the guitar slinger at a Music City dive bar. During the ceremony, Kix said, "He's a rock star, but he is heart-and-soul country music." Prior to the show, Keith told The Boot, "It's a bit surreal, and it's a huge honor. I know for me, growing up in Australia, I listened to country music and my dad's record collection was all country. Johnny Cash was the first concert I saw when I was about five, and then I saw Tom T. Hall after that. Since then, in Australia, I've seen Charley Pride and Dolly Parton, and there's been so many other artists. It seems that in the last decade, it slowed down; people weren't touring internationally as much through the '90s. I'm really happy to see that come back again. I mean, Tim McGraw's in Australia right now. Brooks & Dunn have been down there a couple of times as well as Miranda Lambert and Dierks Bentley. Alan Jackson's looking to go next year for the first time. And of course, internationally, Taylor Swift's touring everywhere that has an outlet. It's just great. It's absolutely great."
During Keith's segment, a video presentation included a taped message from pal Brad Paisley, who told the crowd he was proud of Keith's contribution in taking country music to the masses, ended with "Let's get together and pick!"
The Mae Boren Axton award recipient Rod Essig, who is Vice President of the Nashville office for Creative Artists Agency, has been an ACM board member for 19 years, with stints as both President and Chairman of the board. Rod loves working with the organization, "I think the biggest thing of what the ACMs offer me is I get to work with my friends, and we have a lot of fun doing it." Martina McBride performed 'In My Daughter's Eyes,' while Buxton-Hughes delivered 'Big Blue Sky' in honor of their friend and agent. Rod also addresses the rumors that the ACM Awards may move from Las Vegas, Nev. to Dallas, Texas next year. "There's a lot of conversation," he admits. "We are looking at Dallas for the next year's ACMs, but the biggest problem with Dallas is the cost of doing a show in the stadium." We will most likely hear the final decision in the coming months.
There were two Poets Awards given out to a pair of distinguished songwriters: the late Cindy Walker and the imitable Don Schlitz. Lee Ann came back out to perform Walker's hit, 'You Don't Know Me,' while newcomers the Secret Sisters took on 'Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream).' Kenny Rogers paid tribute to a pair of award recipients last night -- he performed the Schlitz-penned 'The Gambler' and Mel Tillis' 'Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town.' Randy Travis performed Don's hits 'On the Other Hand' and 'Forever and Ever, Amen,' while Mary Chapin Carpenter pulled the songwriter up on stage to sing 'He Thinks He'll Keep Her.'
The late Marty Robbins posthumously received one of two Cliffie Stone Pioneer Awards. Marty Stuart and a handful of his Fabulous Superlatives performed the 1960 Top 5 hit, 'Big Iron,' while Larry and Steve Gatlin, along with Marty's son Ronny Robbins, covered the iconic, 'El Paso,' which hit No. 1 in 1959.
John Rich sang a classic Mel Tillis tune, and the invitation to honor the legendary performer as one of the recipients of the Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award was quite overwhelming for the singer-songwriter. "I can tell you I got a phone call a few weeks ago, and I thought it must've been a joke, because it was such an unbelievable opportunity coming through that phone line -- the ACM folks asking me, 'Hey, Mel Tillis wants to know if you'll sing 'I'm Just a Coca-Cola Cowboy' at the Ryman and he's going to be in the audience,'" John told The Boot. "'I don't know what I've got going that day, but it's canceled now. I'll be there.' What a huge honor it is for me. I grew up just like everybody, watching him in the movies, laughing at him on 'Hee Haw.' When you come to know he's written ... just a list of songs that have more gravity than most things that anybody'll ever write, he's got a list of them, and now he's become a friend of mine. This is just a huge night for him, and me being able to be a little part of it is exciting. It's a huge deal to me."
Being honored at Monday night's soiree, Mel Tillis told The Boot, "It means, I guess, that I've arrived! [laughs]" Mel also arrives in stores today (September 21) with his first comedy album, 'You Ain't Gonna Believe This.'
A video tribute to Mel included comments from NFL legend Terry Bradshaw and movie star Burt Reynolds, with whom he worked on the 'Smokey and the Bandit' films. The film, 'Crazy Heart,' featuring Oscar-winning actor Jeff Bridges, received the Tex Ritter Award for bringing country music to the big screen.
Other stars who joined in the festivities included Eddie Montgomery, who was this year's Humanitarian Award winner (along with partner Troy Gentry of Montgomery Gentry), and newcomer Josh Thompson.