Thirteen years after getting a call from Vince Gill that changed her life, Ashley Monroe paid him back, starting off the musical tribute ...
"When I was 15 years old, Vince called me on the phone and asked if I wanted to get together to write with him," Monroe told PEOPLE moments after bringing Gill and hundreds of others to their feet with her plaintive rendition of his mournful classic "Whenever You Come Around."
"He invited me to meet him for breakfast the next day so we could talk first. I was so nervous and excited but when I hung up, I realized I had forgotten to tell him I didn't have a driver's license yet," she recalled. "I had to call him the next morning and ask him to pick me up. He did. And now he's producing my records!"
Keith Urban led the all-star house band and also remembered the first time he met Gill: "He was playing a private show at the Hard Rock Cafe with Don Henley. I wasn't invited but managed to sneak in and afterward got a photo with him. He was probably wondering 'Who the hell is this pushy kid?' but he was so kind to me. All these years later I get to do All 4 the Hall with him and now I get to play for him tonight.
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"Vince is a singer's singer, a guitar player's guitar player, a songwriter's songwriter," Urban continued. "As far as I can tell by Amy [Gill's wife], he is a husband's husband too. I don't want to marry you, but I'm honored to sing and play for you."
Urban performed an acoustic version of "I Still Believe In You" before handing the microphone to Michael McDonald, who lowered the key and pumped in some soul for his powerful interpretation of Gill's "When I Call Your Name."
Clasping the award in both hands, Gill thanked the performers – slipping in a dig to country radio for not playing Monroe's music – and tearfully recognized his wife and his daughter Jenny, who recently "made me a grandpa for the first time." He closed by asking all the young writers in the room to "remember the old guys who haven't written in a while. Call them up and write with them. You'll both learn a lot."
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Rhett Atkins was named BMI's songwriter of the year, sharing credits on seven of the most-performed songs of the past year, including "Parking Lot Party" which he wrote with his son Thomas Rhett, and "It Goes Like This" which Rhett took to the No. 1 spot on the country charts.
Rhett is nominated for CMA new artist of the year at Wednesday night's CMA Awards, which air live on ABC at 8 p.m. ET.