By Sarah Rodman
April 06, 2019 at 01:45 PM EDT
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Songwriting is the lifeblood of country music and Friday night at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, ahead of this Sunday’s 54th ACM Awards, some of Nashville’s most successful tunesmiths gathered to share the stories behind some of the genre’s most popular songs.

Hosted by the Academy of Country Music, the ACM Stories, Songs & Stars event featured eight award winning songwriters who, between them, have nearly 150 number one hits and have helped shape the sound of contemporary country music for the last 20 years. (All five of this year’s ACM nominees for Songwriter of the Year were on hand.)

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(L-R: Laird, Copperman, McGill, McKenna)

The first round featured the quartet of Lori McKenna, Luke Laird, Ross Copperman and Chase McGill trading songs as disparate as McKenna’s tearjerking life lesson anthem “Humble & Kind,” a no. 1 hit for Tim McGraw, to Laird’s nostalgic sing along ditty “American Kids,” a chart-topper for Kenny Chesney.

Special guests dropped by both sets to pitch in with the vocal duties. Little Big Town stayed for two numbers, slaying the McKenna co-penned “Girl Crush” and the devastating McGill co-write “When Someone Stops Loving You.” Up and coming vocal group King Calaway showed off their deep harmonies on the Copperman song “World For Two.” And Jake Owen emerged to sing his hit “Down to the Honkytonk,” co-written by Laird.

Laird joked that things might be a little awkward because the songwriters weren’t used to being on stage– save McKenna who is also a solo performing artist–  but noted that, unlike the artists they write for, “We also have the freedom to eat more carbs.”

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The second round was equally lively and moving with the always voluble Shane McAnally serving as an emcee of sorts for his group, which included Josh Osborne, Ashley Gorley and veteran Rhett Akins.

Akins kicked things off with the throwback crowd pleaser “That Ain’t My Truck,” his own no. 3 hit from 1995. McAnally joked that he was nervous singing the gorgeous ballad “Space Cowboy” from Kacey Musgraves’ critically acclaimed, Grammy-winning and ACM-nominated album Golden Hour but acquitted himself beautifully, imbuing the song with both melancholy and whimsy.

Special guests for round two included Brantley Gilbert joining Akins for “What Happens in a Small Town,” Chase Rice helping out with Gorley’s “Eyes on You,” Midland lending their mischievous charm to the Laurel Canyon-meets-George Strait gem “Burn Out” with Osborne and McAnally’s “Make It Sweet” getting the full band treatment from Old Dominion.

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(L-R: McAnally, Osborne,, Gorley, Akins)

Throughout the night the songwriters, many of whom have written together, chimed in on backing vocals, shared tales from the writing room– including a memory from McGill of hearing the buzz of fellow songwriter Hillary Lindsey’s breast pump on the demo for “When Someone Stops Loving You”–  and good-naturedly ribbed each other with McAnally being a frequent target.

At the end of the rounds, surprise guest Thomas Rhett, son of Akins, emerged to perform his latest hit “Look What God Gave Her” with his dad.

The night came to an end with a passing of the torch as the 2018 ACM Songwriter of the Year winner Akins awarded the 2019 prize to McAnally.

Portions of the event proceeds went to ACM Lifting Lives, the charitable arm of the Academy of Country Music.The 54th ACM Awards, hosted by Reba McEntire, air Sunday April 7 on CBS at 8 p.m.

ACM Stories, Songs & Stars setlist

“Humble & Kind,” Lori McKenna

“Break Up in the End,” Chase McGill

“John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16,” Ross Copperman

“American Kids,” Luke Laird

“Girl Crush,” Lori McKenna featuring Little Big Town

“When Someone Stops Loving You,” Chase McGill featuring Little Big Town

“World for Two,” Ross Copperman featuring King Calaway

“Down to the Honkytonk,” Luke Laird featuring Jake Owen

“That Ain’t My Truck,” Rhett Akins

“Body Like a Back Road,” Josh Osborne

“I Lived It,” Ashley Gorley

“Space Cowboy,” Shane McAnally

“What Happens in a Small Town,” Rhett Akins featuring Brantley Gilbert

“Eyes on You,” Ashley Gorley featuring Chase Rice

“Burn Out,” Josh Osborne featuring Midland

“Make it Sweet,” Shane McAnally featuring Old Dominion

“Look What God Gave Her,” Rhett Akins featuring Thomas Rhett

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