For 50 years, Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) has been a voice to songwriters. An organization created by songwriters for songwriters, NSAI works hard to serve the songwriting community in Nashville and beyond.
On Wednesday evening (Sept. 20), NSAI celebrated 50 years of existence with the help of country legends Kris Kristofferson, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Trace Adkins and many more during a three-hour concert at Ryman Auditorium. The night honored each of NSAI’s Song of the Year winners since the organization’s inception in 1967 with performances by the songwriter and artist as well as shared videos of several songwriters telling the stories behind their hits.
“It’s a special night,” NSAI Executive Director Bart Herbison told Sounds Like Nashville before the show. “We’ve been working on the show for 14 months. Every year the songwriters vote on our Song of the Year and we’re celebrating all 50 of them tonight.”
One of NSAI’s founding members is Kristofferson, who received a standing ovation for his solo performance of NSAI’s 1971 Song of the Year “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” which he penned. Until 2017, Kristofferson was the only songwriter honored three times for writing NSAI’s Song of the Year.
This year’s Song of the Year recipient was Keith Urban’s “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” written by Hillary Lindsey, Steven Lee Olsen and Clint Lagerberg. Lindsey now ties Kristofferson’s previous record with three wins including 2015’s “Girl Crush” recorded by Little Big Town and 2006’s “Jesus, Take the Wheel” recorded by Carrie Underwood.
A special celebration at the Ryman, NSAI President Lee Thomas Miller explained that the evening has a beautiful mixture of legend artists and current stars who are humbled and honored to sing the iconic songs. Perhaps a little nervous, too. Eric Paslay performed a striking rendition of the 1982 Song of the Year “Always On My Mind,” recorded by Willie Nelson and written by Johnny Christopher, Mark James and Wayne Carson, and decided to restart the song mid-performance. “Hold up, hold up. I’m in the Ryman Auditorium and I just screwed that song up,” Paslay confessed several lines into the first verse. “This is a beautiful song and I can’t believe I’m getting to sing it.”
“Every moment in the Ryman is magical,” Miller told Sounds Like Nashville. “You do things here and if there are mistakes they magically heal at the Ryman. It’s a magical thing. It’s as good as it gets for me. I’m a country music nerd. I love everything about it, its history and the people.”
Miller himself performed a song he wrote alongside Trace Adkins. The 2008 NSAI Song of the Year was “You’re Gonna Miss This,” which Adkins recorded, and confessed that he had no intention of ever releasing as a single.
“We were doing the Greatest Hits album and I was in the studio with Frank Rogers and I told Frank that I needed a song that I could sing at my daughter’s wedding,” Adkins recalled. “He said, ‘I got the song. Lee Miller wrote this.’ We cut it so I had a soundtrack I could sing at my daughter’s wedding. That’s the only reason I cut it. Then we put it on the Greatest Hits record and they said they’re going to release it as a single and I said, ‘No. It’s so sappy. Nobody will play that.’ It was a two week No. 1. Thank you, Lee!”
Another highlight included Craig Campbell performing the powerful “He Stopped Loving Her Today” on piano. A song often referred to as the greatest country song of all time, it was recorded by George Jones and written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman. Garth Brooks was also in attendance to perform his 1989 hit “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” which he co-wrote with Kent Blazy.
“He came in and said, ‘I have this idea for this song and I ran it by 45 writers and nobody likes it,” Blazy recalled with a laugh. “When he told me the idea, I liked it because it was about telling people that you love how you feel about them when they’re alive.”
Trisha Yearwood would follow with 1993’s “The Song Remembers When,” which she referred to as her favorite song she ever recorded. Moments later Billy Ray Cyrus had the venue on its feet for his energetic hit “Achy Breaky Heart,” which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
Another memorable moment came in the form of All-4-One’s stirring mash-up of “I Swear” and “I Can Love You Like That,” both hits for the R&B group and John Michael Montgomery. The band joked of how they were initially hesitant to cut a country song but the overwhelming response from radio for “I Swear” had them realize it was the right decision. Later, they’d go on to record “I Can Love You Like That,” convinced that no one would ever ask again why they’re doing country songs until they learned Montgomery had also recorded the song with plans to release it as a single at the same time.
As the evening came to a close, the impact NSAI has had on the songwriting community was evident. An organization that fights for songwriters’ rites in the age of streaming, Miller left the audience with a lasting message.
“Songs have value. Songs do not write themselves. Songs change people’s lives. Songs drive and define culture. We will not stop until the federal government helps us. The technology that delivers the songs is not, nor will it ever be, more valuable than the songs itself,” he asserted.