Garth Brooks cried, but he wasn’t the only man in the room who shed tears.
Garth claimed Leadership Music’s sixth annual Dale Franklin Award, given for outstanding leadership in Nashville’s music community, during a five-hour dinner Sunday at the Nashville Renaissance Hotel. But he was hardly the only honoree; he shared the evening with producer Allen Reynolds and Country Music Hall of Famer Jim Foglesong, who signed Garth to his first recording contract during his tenure at Capitol Records.
The word "integrity" found its way into numerous speeches and bundles of video tributes as guest after guest paid homage to the honesty of the honorees and their commitment to their music. The lineup was strong: Steve Wariner threw a scatted guitar solo into "Longneck Bottle," the neo-swing hit he wrote and sang on with Garth; while Martina McBride was perfectly suited to cover the drama of "The Thunder Rolls."
Crystal Gayle delivered the hypnotic melancholy of "Ready For The Times To Get Better," a 1978 hit Allen wrote and produced, and Hal Ketchum turned "Five O’Clock World" — a song Allen wrote when he was managing a Memphis bank in the 1960s — into a gorgeously understated ballad. The ever-unpredictable songwriter-engineer-producer "Cowboy" Jack Clement, age 78, read a lengthy speech, shuffled the paper, then started again from the top before singing Allen’s "Dreaming My Dreams" while two people stood behind him in case he should lose his balance.
Grand Ole Opry star John Conlee, signed to ABC/Dot when Jim Foglesong presided over that label in the mid 1970s, earned a boisterous standing ovation for his commanding read of "Rose Colored Glasses." Kathy Mattea sang "I Believe In You," a 1980 single by another of Jim’s signees, Don Williams. And Lee Greenwood, also signed by Jim, chipped in a smoky version of his first hit, "It Turns Me Inside Out."
It was 20 years ago that Garth, under the guidance of Allen and Jim, began the ride that catapulted him to superstardom, and it was that commonality that brought them together as award winners. They all made a point of deflecting some of the attention, thanking the songwriters, musicians, artists and managers who played a role in their careers. Garth specifically introduced the seven session players and three backing vocalists who contributed to his recordings, enumerating specific instances in which they bolstered his confidence as an artist or brought a signature lick to a song. He even brought up engineer Mark Miller, who had the task of assembling take after take of performances and helping to shape the sound.
"I really thought tonight was gonna suck," Garth confessed, "and this was really cool."
Emmylou Harris, George Strait, Barbara Mandrell, Charlie Daniels, blues musician Keb’ Mo’, Hall of Fame member Jo Walker-Meador, Dierks Bentley, Donna Fargo, Dickey Lee, Dolly Parton, the Oak Ridge Boys, Huey Lewis, Sawyer Brown's Mark Miller and "Gone Country" songwriter Bob McDill were among those who paid homage in person or via video. Mel Tillis and Bucky Covington were also spotted in the crowd.
In addition to enumerating their thanks, the Leadership Award winners took the opportunity to motivate the audience to take on its own share of mentoring. Jim, who’s taught music-business courses at Vanderbilt University since his retirement, cited academic studies and music-therapy programs that underscore the role music can play in improving math scores among students and in building character.
"The world needs music," he said. "We have a great responsibility as music leaders. This is something to be really proud of — to have a career in music."
Allen challenged the decision makers in the room to avoid the temptation to record songs simply because they had financial ties to the copyright.
"We can never afford to be lazy, or careless, or corrupt or greedy in the selection of songs," he said. "Songs are everything."
Garth finished the evening with four songs from the early part of his career — "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)," "We Shall Be Free," "Friends In Low Places" and "The Dance" — then brought Jim and Allen back out for an acoustic read of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? track "I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow."
That highlight was missed by those who left early, though the bulk of them at least saw Trisha Yearwood’s moving performance for her husband. Trisha sang a grippingly powerful version of "To Make You Feel My Love," backed only by Mark Casstevens’ acoustic guitar and Rob Hajacos’ fiddle, while Garth stood at attention in the center of the room.
"He’s cried more tonight?" she told the crowd.
"I love you," she told him, "and I’m very proud of you."
"The last nine years of my life," he said to her later, "have been the best nine years of my life. I love you."
Awards, sentiment, music, money and integrity. Those things don’t always come together at the same time among leaders in the music industry — or in many other professional sectors. But they were all there in spirit on Sunday night. Along with some tears.