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"He came to town with a guitar and $46," Bryant recalled, before referencing some of Tom T.'s most famous tunes. "He writes about what he observes and he has brought us a cast of unforgettable characters in his songs, including Clayton Delaney, Ravishing Ruby and the mother from Harper Valley."
Among those seated with Tom T. and his wife, Dixie, was Grand Ole Opry star Jimmy C. Newman, who was the first person to record one of Tom T.'s songs, "D.J. for a Day."
"Tom and Dixie met at a BMI awards dinner in 1965, and they've been married for 45 years," Bryant noted.
In his acceptance speech, the newest BMI Icon explained that the dinner in 1965 and this evening were the two best days of his life. "The last time I was at one of these things, someone later wrote that I thanked everyone but my dogs," he said with a mischievous grin. "Tonight I want to correct that oversight."
Prior to receiving his award, Tom was honored in song by a group of singers who acknowledged his influence in their careers as well as his influence on countless other songwriters.
"He told us a lot of things to inspire us," said Seth Avett of the Avett Brothers. "And when we would ask him what he did to get here or do that, he would reply, 'Don't worry about what I did; just do what you need to do'." The duo performed "That's How I Got To Memphis," which became a hit for Bobby Bare.
Bluegrass duo Dailey & Vincent serenaded Tom T. with "Can You Hear Me Now," while Justin Townes Earle sang "Homecoming." Justin exuberantly praised the tunesmith, saying, "You are one of the greatest songwriters to walk the face of the earth. You are one of my heroes."
Country Music Hall of Fame member Charlie McCoy and the BMI Icon band performed a medley of Tom T. Hall hits, including "I Love," "The Year That Clayton Delaney Died," "Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine," and "Harper Valley P.T.A." Toby Keith and Scotty Emerick joined them, offering "Ravishing Ruby" and "I Like Beer" before launching into "Faster Horses (The Cowboy and the Poet)."
"You are an icon," Toby told the songwriter. "You have influenced everyone in this whole damn room."
The evening was all about songwriters, and BMI also handed out awards for 50 songs to 72 songwriters. Twenty-one of those writers were receiving a BMI award for the first time, including Hunter Hayes for "Storm Warning," Chris Young for "You," and Sonya Isaacs for "I'm Gonna Love You Through It," recorded by Martina McBride. Also picking up awards were Kenny Chesney for "Reality," Luke Bryan for "I Don't Want This Night to End," Miranda Lambert for "Baggage Claim" and Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood of Lady Antebellum for "We Owned The Night."
Tom T. commented on up-and-coming talent, saying, "I'm not one to criticize the new guys. I love them, but I have three complaints ... they are all too talented, too good-looking and have too much money!"
He also offered a piece of advice to the gathering of songwriters, publishers and music-industry VIP's. "I never hired anyone to work for me, they always worked with me," he said.
The top awards of the evening went to Luke Laird and Dallas Davidson, who tied for the honor of Songwriters of the Year. Dallas took home the same honor last year. Luke also wrote the Song of the Year, the Rodney Atkins hit, "Take a Back Road," written with Rhett Akins. Rodney was there to congratulate Luke on his accomplishment.
"That's one of those rare songs that came along," Rodney told The Boot. "I got a work tape from Rhett and it was the wackiest little demo they did, with Luke beat-boxing and playing that guitar lick on acoustic guitar. Whether I was taking my son to Little League or driving to my folks' house in Cookeville, I kept wanting to hit 'play' when it was over. It lifted me up, whether I was in traffic or on a back road."
BMI's publisher of the year was Sony/ATV. Other celebrities in attendance were Eric Church, Martina McBride, George Strait, the Eli Young Band, Kix Brooks, and Lamont Dozier, from the songwriter team of Holland–Dozier–Holland, who were responsible for much of the Motown sound as both songwriters and producers. Several members from the cast of the ABC series "Nashville" were also in the audience, including Eric Close, Clare Bowen and Sam Palladio.