Chris Willman
November 07, 2007 AT 12:00 PM EST

The BMI Country Awards were held Tuesday night in Nashville, honoring the writers of the most played radio hits from the past year. And as the very first one was handed out, I was thinking: Thank God that we live in a society where the creation of a song called “Get Drunk and Be Somebody” does not go unrewarded with gold medallions. (No offense to Toby Keith and his frequent cowriter Scotty Emerick, who really have come up with many terrific songs over the years. But I liked their “Get Drunk and Be Somebody” even better back in 1967, when it was by Merle Haggard and it was called “Drink Up and Be Somebody.”) Many dozens more awards were handed out, about half of them, seemingly, to songwriter Jeffrey Steele, who wrote BMI’s song of the year, “What Hurts the Most,” the undeniable power ballad that made a lot of haters realize that they could suddenly, if only momentarily, stand Rascal Flatts.

But the evening was really all about the Willie. His buddy Haggard got the treatment last year, and this time it was Willie Nelson’s turn to get BMI’s Icon award for lifetime achievement. The tribute involved a handful of stars, starting with Keith Urban, who told how watching Willie’s sets inspired him to add a lot of covers to his own, and then proved it by singing an acoustic “Always on My Mind” (as hard-to-forget Nicole Kidman looked on from their dinner table). After lowering expectations by admitting he’d missed rehearsal, Josh Turner nailed “Crazy” in a key probably slightly lower than it’d ever been sung before. Emmylou Harris and Kris Kristofferson, who seemed perplexed to realize they’d known each other for decades but never sung together before, harmonized on “Till I Gain Control Again,” which Harris used to sing with the night’s honoree back when she was his regular opening act. Toby Keith (pictured at left) dragged Willie (right) up on stage to play guitar while he sang “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.” (We wondered if Jess Simpson would jump up to sing something, too — they’re working together, you know, on her country album, supposedly — but no.)

And then it was Willie’s turn to sing, but all he did was an a cappella rendition of a new number he’d been inspired to write while on tour with Haggard and Ray Price, a tune that went a little something like this:

We’re dying as fast as we can
We’re drinking and smoking and horsing around
We got women waiting for us all over town
With insurance policies held tight in their hand
We hate to throw a monkey wrench in their plans
We’re dying as fast as we can

Then everyone slowly made their way out of the deceptively sumptuous BMI ballroom, which was actually floor P4 of the performing rights organization’s parking garage, tricked out. In a party/reception area downstairs, a band of legendary Nashville musicians led by 81-year-old guitarist Harold Bradley performed while oblivious younger stars filed out. An hour later, right around the time the last major luminary had left, Nelson reappeared and decided to get up with the band, playing a 20-minute set for the two or three hundred lesser functionaries who’d stuck around — affording everyone a closeup look not just at his beatific visage but his trusty, seriously vandalized acoustic guitar, the most beat-up thing that ever missed banishment to a landfill. Mind you, history buffs, this was Willie Nelson singing “Crazy” with Harold Bradley, the guy who actually played on Patsy Cline’s version of “Crazy” back in 1962. We do hate to gloat when we hoi polloi get to witness magical moments that celebrities are too impatient to stick around for. But there are times when you can thank your lucky stars you didn’t have a limo waiting.

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