Luminaries from Nashville’s country music industry celebrated more than a dozen honorees as part of the 16th annual Academy of Country Music Honors, which airs Monday evening (Sept. 18) at 8 p.m. ET on Fox (and streams the following day on Hulu).
The evening celebrated not only many of country music’s hitmaking artists, but many throughout the music business who have made an indelible mark on the industry, and pushed the genre forward in many ways — including songwriters, musicians and industry executives.
Four-time ACM Award winner Carly Pearce returned as host for a third consecutive year. Reigning ACM new female artist of the year Hailey Whitters offered up a jovial, sassy rendering of her hit “Everything She Ain’t” and honored many of the studio winners during the evening.
Early in the evening, Breland was honored with the inaugural ACM Lift Every Voice Award, the newest ACM Honors accolade. Keith Urban, who called Breland “a superb songwriter and the real deal…he’s got a great heart,” joined Breland for a rendition of “Throw It Back.”
Breland offered perhaps one of the most insightful, stirring acceptance speeches of the evening.
“I just want to say winning this award is truly the highest honor that I’ve received in my career,” he said, going on to name several influential Black musicians such as Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, who taught Hank Williams, as well as the railroad workers who influenced Jimmie Rodgers and the Grand Ole Opry’s first Black country star, DeFord Bailey. Breland also recognized Mickey Guyton, Darius Rucker and The War and Treaty for their music and their work in progressing diversity within country music.
A trio of superb singer-songwriters — Clint Black, Mary Chapin Carpenter (two members of country music’s illustrious “Class of ‘89”) and the late K.T. Oslin — were each honored with the ACM Poet’s Award.
Black said, “This only happens because so many people come together and get behind a guy or girl and make things happen for them.”
One songwriter honored another as Brandy Clark performed a heart-tugging, tender rendition of the late Oslin’s “’80s Ladies.” Meanwhile, acclaimed journalist/author Robert K. Oermann gave a touching acceptance speech honoring his dear friend Oslin, who died in 2020.
Pearce joined songwriter Emily Shackelton to perform Pearce’s “What He Didn’t Do,” to honor their co-writer on the song, this year’s ACM songwriter of the year recipient Ashley Gorley.
Meanwhile, HARDY was feted with the ACM artist-songwriter of the year honor.
The crowd began cheering as Bailey Zimmerman took the stage to sing HARDY’s “Signed Sober You.” Zimmerman told HARDY, “You’ve been an inspiration because you’ve always been you and done things your way. You’ve taught us we can do what we want and still be successful.” Dennis Matkosky, co-founder of Relative Music Group (HARDY was named partner in the company a couple of years ago), presented HARDY with the artist-songwriter of the year honor.
Longtime music industry members were also honored for their career contributions to the genre. Two country radio titans, Bill Mayne and Charlie Cook, were each honored with the ACM service award. Cook serves as vp of country music, programming operations manager for Cumulus Nashville’s five-station cluster, and program director for WSM-FM and WKDF-FM. Throughout his career, Mayne worked at both record labels and in radio; he also held the executive director role at Country Radio Broadcasters from 2011 until his retirement in 2019.
Chris Janson presented Cook with his honor, saying, “Without country radio I wouldn’t be standing here…thank you for believing in me,” before performing his hit “Good Vibes.”
Country Thunder Festival executive producer Troy Vollhoffer was named the recipient of the ACM Lifting Lives Award, given to an artist, duo/group or industry professional who has devoted themselves to improving lives through the power of music. Vollhoffer’s Premier Global Production company has been one of the foremost staging and lighting companies for decades. Meanwhile, Vollhoffer has served on the board of ACM Lifting Lives, rising to officer positions including vice president, president and ultimately chair of the board in 2022. He has also served on advisory boards for the T.J. Martell Foundation and Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital.
Storme Warren honored the late Charlie Daniels with the ACM spirit award, while Billy Ray Cyrus, Firerose and Travis Denning celebrated the legendary singer-songwriter-guitarist-fiddler in song with a rendition of Daniels’ “Long Haired Country Boy.” A recipient of the 1997 ACM Pioneer Award, Daniels was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016 and died in 2020.
Tim McGraw and now-retired Universal Music Group Nashville chairman/CEO Mike Dungan were the recipients of this year’s ACM Icon Award, which honors an artist, duo/group or industry leader who has advanced the popularity of the genre through their contributions in various sectors of the industry.
During his decades in the industry, Dungan has championed artists including Brooks & Dunn, Pam Tillis, Brad Paisley, Brothers Osborne, Stapleton, Carrie Underwood, Luke Bryan, Kacey Musgraves, Jordan Davis and Parker McCollum.
“He took so many artists under his wing,” Davis told Dungan from the stage. “What you’ve done in country music will last a lifetime and this genre is better because you are part of it.” Davis was then joined by contemporary Christian music hitmaker (and now UMG Nashville-aligned artist) Anne Wilson for a rendition of Davis’ No. 1 hit “Buy Dirt” (the original featured Luke Bryan). Meanwhile, Priscilla Block offered up what she called “the song that brought us together in the first place,” her breakthrough hit “Just About Over You.”
McGraw earned his first ACM honors back in 1994, picking up top new male vocalist and album of the year (for Not a Moment Too Soon). In 1997, he earned single, song, vocal event and video of the year honors for his enduring duet with his wife Faith Hill, “It’s Your Love.” Those are just a few of the 21 ACM Awards honor McGraw has picked up during his nearly four-decade career.
Brett Young honored McGraw with an especially soulful rendering of “Don’t Take the Girl,” while Nelly performed his genre-blending McGraw collaboration from 2004, “Over and Over,” noting that he and McGraw recorded the song not because either necessarily was in need of a hit, but out of pure respect for each other’s artistry.
“He believed in what I was trying to do; it’s an honor to call him a friend,” Nelly said, stepping down from the stage to hug McGraw, who was seated front row in the Ryman Auditorium, alongside Hill and their children.
Country Music Hall of Famer Randy Travis honored Kane Brown with the ACM international award, while Lee Brice performed Brown’s recent No. 1 hit “Like I Love Country Music.” Brown recently notched his 10th No. 1 Country Airplay hit with “Bury Me in Georgia” and has crisscrossed the globe on his international Drunk or Dreaming tour, visiting Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the U.K. and Europe.
“Country music let me into the family and now I get to travel the world and be different, which is what I’ve always wanted to be and what I always have been,” Brown said in accepting his honor.
Closing out the evening was a celebration for ACM Triple Crown winner Chris Stapleton. The ACM Triple Crown honor is given to artists who have previously earned ACM new male or female artist of the year, ACM male or female artist of the year and ACM entertainer of the year trophies during their career. The ACM triple crown honor has been awarded to only eight other artists, including Kenny Chesney, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, Merle Haggard and Barbara Mandrell.
“Every now and then someone comes through who levels the walls and moves things forward,” said singer-songwriter-musician and country music historian Marty Stuart, in honoring Stapleton with the ACM triple crown honor.
Husband-and-wife duo The War and Treaty brought the audience to its collective feet with their otherworldly, showstopping offering of Stapleton’s “Cold,” their unparalleled voices melting over the song’s soulful angst.
Stapleton was humble in accepting his ACM Triple Crown honor, thanking his family and his team and saying, “I was just out here playing songs, seeing if something could happen. Still kind of feel that way sometimes…I’m so grateful…It’s a wonderful and rare thing to get to do something you love so much.”
No doubt, many in the room that evening would agree with Stapleton’s simple, heartfelt sentiment.