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‘It brought me to tears’: Kenny Chesney reacts to tributes from Eric Church and Keith Urban

Kenny Chesney, center, is flanked by Michael O’Neill, president and chief executive of BMI, left, and Jody Williams, vice president, writer/publisher relations at BMI, at the 64th BMI Country Awards in Nashville on Tuesday.
Kenny Chesney, center, is flanked by Michael O’Neill, president and chief executive of BMI, left, and Jody Williams, vice president, writer/publisher relations at BMI, at the 64th BMI Country Awards in Nashville on Tuesday.
(John Shearer/Getty Images for BMI)

Many came to sing Kenny Chesney’s praises Tuesday night as he received the President’s Award at the 64th BMI Country Awards.

Three artists came to sing his songs.

Minutes after the tributes concluded, the country superstar was overcome with emotion at the kind words of his peers and collaborators — not to mention the heartfelt performances by friends Keith Urban, Eric Church and frequent co-writer Dean Dillon.

“Hearing those guys sing my songs back to me was one of the highlights of my life,” Chesney told The Times.

Seated beside his proud mom, the 48-year-old beamed as he marveled at the silver platter commemorating the honor, which recognizes “songwriters who have distinctly and profoundly influenced the entertainment industry.”

“All those guys mean so much to me,” Chesney said of the trio of performers. “And in their own right they are amazing songwriters and yet they’re up here tonight singing songs I wrote. It was very emotional. It was hard to wrap my head around it. I felt the gravity of the moment a lot.”

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The eastern Tennessee native— who has had 29 No. 1 hits, sold 30 million albums and is known for his energetic stadium shows — was particularly touched to be recognized for his songcraft.

“This is where it started for me in this business,” he said. “It was all about my creative spirit.”

Keith Urban performs onstage at the 64th BMI Country Awards in Nashville on Tuesday.
Keith Urban performs onstage at the 64th BMI Country Awards in Nashville on Tuesday.
(John Shearer/Getty Images for BMI )

Urban began the musical tributes with a tender reading of Chesney’s most performed single, “I Go Back.” After running through the nostalgia-soaked tune on acoustic guitar, Urban was joined by a small backing band and proceeded to burn the room up with a fiery electric guitar solo. He also spoke warmly of Chesney’s friendship through difficult times.

Dillon, who has written hundreds of country songs, including many of George Strait’s hits, performed Chesney’s first single, the romantic lament “The Tin Man.” Dillon recalled being asked to write with Chesney when he was just starting out. As a fellow eastern Tennessee native, Dillon was happy to meet him, but said, “My next question was, ‘I wonder what kind of songwriter he is?’ This song was all I needed to hear.”

Chesney said of Dillon’s performance, “It brought me to tears, I couldn’t hold it back. My mother was the first person to hear that song, and to have her sitting beside me tonight, that meant a lot to me.”

Dean Dillon onstage at the BMI Country Awards o Tuesday in Nashville.
Dean Dillon onstage at the BMI Country Awards o Tuesday in Nashville.
(John Shearer/Getty Images for BMI )

Church concluded the night’s tributes with a gritty, heartfelt take of “Anything But Mine,” another wistful love song. In his remarks before his performance, Church made sure to remind those assembled that, this award notwithstanding, Chesney is far from done, noting the release of Chesney’s latest album, “Cosmic Hallelujah,” last Friday.

The album spawned Chesney’s current single and latest No. 1 hit, “Setting the World on Fire,” a duet with Pink. “What he’s done is great. What he’s doing is better,” said Church.

“Eric sent me a text this morning with a picture of my album cover and said… ‘I think this is you taking your life and your artistry to the next level and doing something that you didn’t have to do,’ ” Chesney said. “And coming from Eric ... Church that is really great, because I respect Eric as much or more than anyone in the format right now. And he did not have to get up in front of the industry and say those words.”

“I do feel like it’s a page turning,” Chesney said of the honor. “And it’s a good page.”

In addition to the President’s Award, honors were handed out to the top 50 songs of the year as well as to songwriter (Ross Copperman), publisher (Sony/ATV Music Publishing Nashville) and song of the year (“Die a Happy Man” by Thomas Rhett.)

Chesney, who has also won eight entertainer of the year awards — four from the Academy of Country Music and four from the Country Music Assn. (CMA) — will add to his trophy case again shortly. He is slated to receive the Pinnacle Award — given only to two other artists previously — at Wednesday’s 50th CMA Awards on ABC.

Eric Church onstage at the BMI Country Awards at BMI on Tuesday in Nashville.
Eric Church onstage at the BMI Country Awards at BMI on Tuesday in Nashville.
(John Shearer/Getty Images for BMI )

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