Music

Matraca Berg, Morgan Wallen, Luke Combs Top BMI Country Awards Winners

The CMA Awards may be rightfully billed as “Country Music’s Biggest Night,” but in terms of pure star power, the annual BMI Country Awards just might prove a close rival, as artists including Jelly Roll, Lainey Wilson, Ashley McBryde, Kenny Chesney, Luke Combs, Morgan Wallen, Keith Urban, Luke Bryan, The War and Treaty, Cole Swindell, Kane Brown, Ronnie Dunn, Tyler Hubbard, Bailey Zimmerman, Chris Young, Charles Kelley, Dustin Lynch and Priscilla Block were all in attendance on Tuesday evening (Nov. 7), as the awards ceremony was held at BMI’s Nashville office.

The evening began as BMI president/CEO Mike O’Neill addressed the elephant in the room — speculation over a potential private equity sale of BMI — by stating that no deal has been made.

“If we move in that direction, it will only be with a company that shares in our mission, which is to support your creative growth and grow our distribution. That is and will always be our number one priority. That will never change, no matter what happens,” O’Neill told the audience.

Additional BMI executives including BMI Nashville’s VP, Creative Clay Bradley and executive director, creative Shannon Sanders were on hand to honor BMI’s 50 most-performed country songs of the previous year, which included 27 first-time BMI Award winners.

Combs and Wallen shared the songwriter of the year accolade. Combs was honored for co-writing his own singles “Doin’ This,” “Going, Going, Gone,” “The Kind of Love We Make,” as well as Zac Brown Band’s “Out in the Middle.” Wallen co-wrote Keith Urban’s “Brown Eyes Baby,” Corey Kent’s “Wild as Her,” as well as his own “Thought You Should Know” and “You Proof.” Combs and Wallen surprised the audience by taking the stage together, and offered a twist on a typical performance by swapping songs, as Combs performed Wallen’s “Thought You Should Know” and Wallen returned the favor by performing Combs’s “Going, Going, Gone.”

Wallen’s “You Proof” was named the 2023 BMI country song of the year, published by Big Loud Mountain, Bo Wallace Publishing, Ern Dog Music, Songs of Universal, Inc., Sony/ATV Songs LLC and Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp. BMI’s most-performed Country song of the year was written by Wallen, Ernest Keith Smith and Charlie Handsome.

Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp. was named publisher of the year, for publishing 25 of the 50 most-performed songs of the year, including Hubbard’s “5 Foot 9,” Maren Morris’s “Circles Around This Town,” Thomas Rhett’s “Slow Down Summer,” Zach Bryan’s “Something in the Orange” and Zimmerman’s “Rock and a Hard Place.”

The awarding of the evening’s highest accolade provided some of the most heartfelt moments, as Matraca Berg was recognized with the BMI Icon Award. The BMI Icon Award has previously been awarded to songwriters including Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, James Brown, Brian Wilson, Carole King and Kris Kristofferson.

Berg’s BMI Icon Award is the latest in a career filled with prestigious honors, including the ACM Poet’s Award and induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Bradley called Berg “a trendsetter, a rulebreaker.”

Former BMI CEO Del Bryant signed Berg as a BMI affiliate at the beginning of her career; she earned her first No. 1 as a writer at just 18, when her collaboration with Bobby Braddock, “Faking Love,” became a No. 1 Billboard Country hit for T.G. Sheppard and Karen Brooks in 1983. Berg went on to be the go-to writer for numerous artists over the past four decades, a writer who can.

In 1996, she became the first woman to have five No. 1s in a single calendar year. Her ability to exquisitely detail the stories held closest to the heart, and deftly characterize an array of emotions, made Berg a go-to writer for many artists, but particularly many of the female artists whose music dominated country music in the 1990s. She is a writer and/or co-writer on hits recorded by Patty Loveless (“I’m That Kinda Girl,” “You Can Feel Bad”), Deana Carter (“Strawberry Wine,” “We Danced Anyway”), Reba McEntire (“The Last One to Know”), Martina McBride (“Wild Angels,” “Still Holding On”), Trisha Yearwood (“XXXs and OOOs (An American Girl),” “Wrong Side of Memphis,” “Everybody Knows,” “They Call It Falling”), The Chicks “(If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me”), Faith Hill (“You’re Still Here”) and more. Her songs have also garnered three best country song Grammy nominations, for the Kenny Chesney-Grace Potter duet “You and Tequila,” Carter’s “Strawberry Wine” and the Gretchen Wilson-recorded “I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today.” She also released seven of her own albums along the way.

Prior to Berg accepting her honor Tuesday evening, video tributes were shown from Loveless and Yearwood, as well as songwriters and publishers who played essential roles in Berg’s career, including Dean Dillon, Bobby Braddock, Aimee Mayo, Pat Higdon, and Chris Farren.

Two of the artists indelibly influenced by Berg’s work — Lainey Wilson and Ashley McBryde — performed in her honor, with Wilson performing the CMA song of the year-winning hit “Strawberry Wine,” and McBryde performing “Wrong Side of Memphis.”

McBryde recalled that as she was preparing to move to Nashville, a friend gifted her with a copy of Berg’s 1997 album Sunday Morning to Saturday Night. “Thank you for setting the bar,” McBryde said.

Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter performed their 2010 Grammy-nominated hit “You and Tequila,” a song that proved a full-circle career moment for Berg, as she co-wrote it with Carter.

Chesney recalled being in Malibu when he heard “You and Tequila” for the first time, saying, “I went, ‘Wow, this song is going to maybe bring a lot of people together’ — and it brought me and the wonderful Grace Potter together…thank you Matraca, I love you.”

Berg thanked several of her co-writers, including “Wild Angels” co-writer Harry Stinson, her “You Can Feel Bad” co-writer Tim Krekel, and her “Strawberry Wine,” “Wrong Side of Memphis” and “Wild Angels” co-writer Gary Harrison. “There would be no me standing up here with out him,” she said of Harrison. She also thanked Carter, saying, “‘You and Tequila,’ we just go on and on, don’t we?” She also thanked music publishing exec Higdon, another early champion. “We started working together, I think I was 22 years old. Boy, you saw something in me.”

“I’ve been a BMI writer since right out of high school. It means so much, this honor,” Berg told the packed audience. “All I ever wanted to be was a songwriter.”

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