HITS Daily Double
Music City

BMI's Mason Hunter, BMI's Clay Bradley, Troubadour Billy F Gibbons, BMI's Mike O’ Neill, BMI's Mike Steinberg
(PC Erika Goldring for BMI)

While Billy F Gibbons isn’t your classic traveling songteller, he is every bit the troubadour. Like John Prine, John Hiatt, Robert Earl Keen and Lucinda Williams, all prior recipients of BMI’s Troubadour Award, the bearded Texan has spread the gospel of the blues, funky roots, dirt roads and other sanctified Southern bits of culture.

Needless to say, it was a rocking night for the 2023 BMI presentation as the opening portal to Americana Week in Nashville. Guests—including wife Gilligan Gibbons and her mother, Country Music Hall of Famer Kix Brooks, Carlene Carter, Molly Tuttle, Oliver Anthony, producers Dave Cobb and Jon Randall, Rock & Roll Hall of Famer John Oates and executives ranging from the iconic Bob Merlis, Del Bryant and Fiona Whelan-Prine to Jed Hilley, BMI President & CEO Mike O’Neill and Executive Vice President, Chief Revenue & Creative Officer Mike Steinberg—were treated to mingling before a seated dinner in BMI’s lobby and a triple segment of performances that expanded Gibbons’ ZZ Top legacy across gender, genre and the moment.

Hosted by BMI VP of Creative Nashville Clay Bradley with help from AVP Creative Mason Hunter, they set up video segments that included Jimmie Vaughan reminiscing about his early days with Gibbons and historian/producer Bill Bentley, Gruhn Guitars owner George Gruhn and iconic players Tom Bukovac, Van Wilks and Guthrie Trapp witnessing to his talent, vision, style and groundbreaking approach to pop culture. Context is everything, and these men brought it.

So did Alligator Records’ Grammy-winning prodigy Kingfish, who eased into a wickedly funky “Waitin’ for the Bus” with a scalding tone and a decidedly lowdown swagger. The first of many standing ovations for the 24-year-old Mississippian who’s earned praise from Bootsy Collins, Michelle Obama and Buddy Guy.

Taking the stage next, Keith Urban offered an apt “Holy shit!” to much laughter and whooping. Embracing Gibbons’ creativity, he quoted Leonardo da Vinci: “He turns not back who is bound to a star.” Rather than guitar pyrotechnics, Urban turned in a yearning reading of “Rough Boy,” tangling with Bukovac on some slower runs that twisted around one another.

On a saltier, friskier note, country/punk/alt queen Elle King kicked into overdrive with a vampy performance of “Legs.” Grinding, hip-shaking and growling with a shameless enjoyment of the song’s raw carnality, the kitten-with-a-whip brazenness delighted the evening’s recipient.

Chris Isaak, Lucinda Williams, Billy F Gibbons, Robert Earl Keen, Elle King
(PC Erika Goldring for BMI)

Only Chris Isaak in a black, old-school Western suit covered in blinding rhinestones could match King’s verve. “Sharp Dressed Man” was the obvious choice, but for this night, he brought a surf rock noir delivery that prompted howls from the crowd. With pound-down drums and Farfisa pads, it was Sex Wax carny perfection. Beyond Eddie Trunk’s reminiscences of Eliminator’s ubiquity as a kid working in a record store, as well as at an AOR radio station out of high school, there was Bradley’s moment to remind everyone “BMI has paid out more money than any other PRO has collected over the last year thanks to our leadership.”

Bradley also pledged fealty to Gibbons’ ability to light up puberty for a Southern boy coming into his own, tilted Huck Finn grin on his face. Clearly a moment of personal delight, Bradley brought inaugural Troubadour Keen to the stage.

Suddenly, a true Lone Star songwriter-troubadour in the Jerry Jeff Walker/Ray Wylie Hubbard tradition confronted the vast Top catalog. Undaunted by the velocity or an airline losing his guitar, he strapped on an acoustic, let the drums rattle and brought his best “La Grange.” Proof that Gibbons’ work absolutely transcends, this red dirt kind of poet more than inhabited the song, he gave it dirtbag gravitas.

Gibbons, with a sparkle beret, a medal dangling from his chest pocket, ascended the stage after a congratulatory video played that included Eric Clapton offering, “Traveling musician I think is what it means, and you certainly are one.”

“It’s— about—the song,” he began, recognizing the role those iconic hell-raising songs played in this award. “It’s about the song.”

Recognizing the Grand Ole Opry, missing the Nashville reasonable real estate window, conversations with Townes Van Zandt about the origins of creativity, a very proper (but hip) grandmother-in-law from La Grange, Georgia, and going out to former BMI Nashville honcho Jerry Bradley’s house, an old school man whose handshake meant you had a deal, only to find out he’d bought the executive’s house, Gibbons was charming, disarming and hilarious. While always a citizen of Texas, music and the world, clearly Nashville has become part of who he is.

With copies of his Rock + Roll Gearhead for everyone on their way out, leave it to Gibbons to give everyone a present on the night he was being celebrated. Plugged in, turned on—and up, 2023’s Troubadour Award was a whole other level of intensity and fun.