Artists, songwriters and members of the Music City publishing community gathered at the Ryman Auditorium on Wednesday night (April 5) for the eighth annual AIMP Nashville Country Awards.
Staged by the Association for Independent Music Publishers (AIMP), songwriters and publishers are awarded in select categories. Voted on by AIMP Nashville members, winners were chosen for Rising Songwriter of the Year, Rising Artist-Writer of the Year, Artist-Writer of the Year, Song Champion of the Year, Publisher’s Pick of the Year, Song of the Year, Songwriter of the Year and Publisher of the Year. An award was also given to the Most Streamed Song of the Year.
Hitmakers Bob DiPiero and Craig Wiseman were the night’s jovial hosts. DiPiero joked that they were “the best in [their] price range,” and Wiseman shared that the annual AIMP Awards felt like “old school Nashville.”
DiPiero and Wiseman let us know that the balcony was filled with MTSU and Belmont students interested in entering the music business. When Ryan Beaverwon the night’s first honor for Rising Songwriter of the Year, he spoke to the students after thanking his supporters. “Get your hearts ready,” he shared. “You’re going to need all of it.”
As part of a beloved tradition at the AIMP Awards, artists appeared throughout the evening to sing some of the nominated tunes for Song of the Year—except, no artist sang their own song. Tenille Arts enlisted songwriter/producer Alex Klineto help her sing the Maren Morris-recorded “Circles Around This Town.” Jordan Davis took on Sam Hunt‘s romantic “23,” while Ernest grinned his way through Morgan Wallen‘s “You Proof,” which he co-wrote. Corey Kent crushed Jon Pardi‘s “Last Night Lonely,” and caused a stir with his cover of Taylor Swift‘s “All Too Well (Taylor’s Verison).”
A highlight of the night came when Hardy gave a smoldering rendition of the Chris Stapleton-recorded “You Should Probably Leave.” Fittingly so, the tune ended up winning Stapleton, Ashley Gorley and Chris DuBois the Song of the Year honor—and Gorley made mention of Hardy’s performance when they accepted.
Gorley also revealed that he, Stapleton and DuBois wrote “You Should Probably Leave” in 2011. “Don’t give up on songs,” he said.
Round Hill Music was named the 2023 Publisher of the Year. The company’s Sr. VP/GM, Mike Whelan, accepted the honor alongside Sr. Director of A&R Bob Squance and Director of A&R Lindsay Will. “Independent music publishers really are the lifeblood of our town,” Whelan shared. “God bless America and God bless country music!”
Hardy won both the Artist-Writer and Songwriter of the Year honor for the night. “I’m completely blown away,” he said. “This past year has been the best year of my life for a lot of reasons. I love you guys all very dearly.”
Ernest was presented with the Rising Artist-Writer of the Year title. He was taken by surprise that Hardy didn’t win—though he wasn’t nominated. “I didn’t think I’d be winning this as long as Michael Hardy was here,” he joked. “But I guess he already rose.”
The AIMP Publisher Pick of the Year ended in a tie. To present the winners, hosts DiPiero and Wiseman invited more artists to perform the winning songs. Ashley Cooke and Jackson Dean did a beautiful job with winner “Don’t Think Jesus” (written by Mark Holman, Jessi Alexander and Chase McGill and recorded by Wallen), and Pillbox Patti and Meg McRee charmed the audience with “Reverse Cowgirl” (written by Jared Scott, Joe Fox and Zack Dyer and recorded by Jon Pardi). The Most Streamed Song of the Year was “Wasted On You,” written by Wallen, Ernest, Josh Thompson and Charlie Handsome.
Warner Music Nashville Co-Chair & Co-President Cris Lacy was heralded when she won the Song Champion of the Year award. She humbly accepted the plaque, calling out her fellow nominees who she felt deserved it. Lacy comes from independent publishing, having spent time at Tom Collins Publishing, FAME Publishing and Island Bound before her transition to the record label side of the business.
“Anything I’ve ever done in this town has been on the back of a great song or great songwriters,” Lacy shared. “The independent publishing spirit has taught all of us.”
Speaking of spirit, a highlight of the evening came when Music Row veteran Jody Williams was presented with the 2023 AIMP Nashville Spirit Award. Prior to his acceptance, Liz Rose introduced a video montage of kind words about Williams. Featured in the video were Williams wife and kids, Kerry O’Neil, Pat Higdon, Rusty Gaston, Beth Laird, Nina Fisher and more. They all spoke about Williams’ guidance, accessibility, calm demeanor and his utmost love and respect for songwriters.
When Williams took the podium, he thanked the AIMP board, his team and writers at Jody Williams Songs, his family and the community for their support. He also made sure to recognize young indie publishers that he’s been impressed with since transitioning from BMI back into publishing, naming Courtney Allen, Jacee Badeaux, Jake Gear, Lee Krabel, Sam Sarno, Jefferson Brown,Michelle Attardi, Kayla Adkins, Shaina Botwin, Blake Duncan, JD Groover, Kate Shirley and Alex Tamashunas.
“I’m so proud to know and work with all of you. In my estimation, the future of independent publishing is in great hands with you guys,” he said.
Williams also spoke about the cyclical nature of country music, waxing and waning from a pop-country sound to a more traditional sound. He charged the publishers in the room, and the MTSU and Belmont students in the balcony, to take writers to the Country Music Hall of Fame to study the greats who made traditional-sounding country music.
“I’d like to suggest during this re-defining era we’re in, to spend more time studying the greats from the last traditional era,” he said to whoop and holler. “Guys and girls like Jeffrey Steele, Liz Rose, Craig Wiseman, Bob DiPiero and Tracy Byrd, to name a few. As you know, these writers continue to have hits. It is at least partially due to the time they’ve spent studying the great writers who preceded them.
“Independent publishers are the primary group responsible for mentoring and ushering in the writers and artists who will define the next era of country music,” Williams said in closing. “That’s an honor and a real responsibility.”