Joe Ely and Robert Earl Keen at the Texas Heritage Songwriters Association Hall of Fame show at ACL Live, Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016. Photo by Ted Parker Jr.

By John T. Davis
Special to the American-Statesman

To paraphrase the late, great Roger Miller, writing a good song is like taking candy from a gorilla.

That elusive art has been pursued by many over the course of making music in Texas, but mastered by a relative few. The Texas Heritage Songwriters’ Association was founded to honor and celebrate native songwriters, and Sunday’s 10th-anniversary Hall of Fame show at ACL Live was true to that mission. This year’s quartet of honorees were Joe Ely, Roy Orbison, Will Jennings and J.D. Souther.

Jennings wrote or co-wrote hits for everyone from B.B. King to Barry Manilow, but his biggest payday came from writing the lyrics to the Oscar-winning “My Heart Will Go On” from “Titanic.” Amarillo native Souther cut his songwriting teeth sharing digs with the late Glenn Frey and Jackson Browne and filling out the catalogs of the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and George Strait.

Of the night’s inductees, Ely has stayed closest to his Lone Star roots, evoking the mystery, allure and characters of his native West Texas with every line he writes. And Orbison, the lone posthumous honoree in this class, possessed such a jaw-dropping set of pipes that one forgets he was a terrific composer, as songs like “In Dreams,” “Oh, Pretty Woman” and “Only the Lonely” attest.

The evening got off to a slow start. There was a certain amount of boilerplate to be covered, as with most award shows; no disrespect to BMI’s Jody Williams, who was presented with the Darrell K Royal Texas Music Legend Award. Keyboardist Johnny Nicholas and his house band vamped a couple of bluesy numbers and host Red Steagall evoked the virtues of Texas. The presentation of Souther’s award did not include any performances of his songs, and Souther himself was not present.

Things got cranking when Rodney Crowell paid homage to an ailing Jennings, who also was not present. “His spirit is always rising, and if you’re lucky enough to hang with him, yours will rise, too,” Crowell said before lighting into a pair of tunes co-written with Jennings, “Many A Long & Lonesome Highway” and “Please Remember Me.” The latter was a duet with up-and-coming Houston vocalist Mignon Grabois, who earlier had performed a knockout version of “My Heart Will Go On.” And in a nice bit of surprise casting, Rita Coolidge, who has recorded her share of Jennings’ songs, delivered a Southern, slow-smoked take on “Take It Home.”

Orbison’s tribute came via the one vocalist who could possibly give the Wink, Texas, native a run for his money — Mavericks frontman Raul Malo. Though he doesn’t have Orbison’s otherworldly falsetto, Malo’s booming, resonant baritone was a fine fit for “Blue Bayou” and the late-career hit “You Got It.” When the insistent, martial drum lick of “Oh, Pretty Woman” kicked in, the crowd was yelling, and by the time Malo finished rattling the rafters with a solo rendition of Orbison’s epic “Crying,” they were on their feet.

Raul Malo paying tribute to Roy Orbison at Sunday's TX Heritage Songwriters' Assn Hall of Fame show at @acllivepic.twitter.com/L6ZwOoQcFG

— Peter Blackstock (@Blackstock360) February 22, 2016

Ely, the evening’s last honoree, went the opposite route at first, telling a dusty Panhandle tale of survival, “All That You Need,” with just himself and a slide guitar player onstage. But after the low-key “Streets of Sin,” the audience got another surprise as Ely’s Flatlanders bandmates Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore joined him and the house band onstage for a bouncy, Dixieland-flavored take on “Right Where I Belong.” Robert Earl Keen followed to join Ely on Keen’s outlaw anthem, “The Road Goes On Forever,” which both men have recorded to great effect.

The evening ended with Ely paying homage to one of his own songwriting inspirations with a pair of Buddy Holly hits, “Well…All Right” and “Oh Boy.” In his day, Holly wrapped up blues, country, rock and pop into one only-in-Texas package. Mixing those and other elements in unique combination is what Texas songwriting has always been about.