The late J.T. Corenflos chosen as ACM's Guitar Player of the Year

Tribune-Star file photo/Austen LeakeHonored again: J.T. Corenflos plays guitar at the Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra's 2019 Christmas concert in Tilson Auditorium. The Academy of Country Music has chosen the late Corenflos as Guitar Player of the Year for 2020, an honor that will be posthumously presented Aug. 25 in Nashville. Corenflos, a Terre Haute native, died Oct. 24 at age 56.

J.T. Corenflos kept playing his guitars in Nashville recording sessions into late September of last year.

He put health problems aside, determined to continue adding his catchy lead guitar licks that made recording artists' songs special. Sadly, the lung disease the Terre Haute native had coped with for years soon claimed his life on Oct. 24 in Nashville, Tenn. He was 56 years old.

"He had just recorded with Charley Pride and a lot of others," said Annabeth Robinson, Corenflos' longtime girlfriend, said of his sessions through August and September 2020. Pride, a country music legend himself, also passed away shortly after those recording sessions, in December.

Corenflos' final year of musicianship left an impression.

The Academy of Country Music has awarded Corenflos the Guitar Player of the Year for 2020. The ACM Honors Awards were released this month, but will be formally presented on Aug. 25 in the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Those special awards include categories not included in the televised ACM Awards show in April, including those for the industry's outstanding studio musicians. The ACM board of directors selects the winners of the Honors Awards.

"We're just completely thrilled that he's being recognized this way for his body of work," Robinson said by phone Tuesday from Nashville.

Corenflos won the Guitar Player of the Year in a field that included four other nominees — Derek Wells, Ilya Toshinskiy, Jedd Hughes and Kris Donegan.

It's the second ACM Guitar Player of the Year award for Corenflos, who also won it for his work in 2012. He also was nominated for the award 12 other times — 2015, 2014 and every year from 2002 to 2011. Past winners of the top guitarist award include icons such as Brent Mason, Chet Atkins, James Burton and Roy Clark.

In his acceptance speech after winning his first ACM nine years ago, Corenflos recalled his first Nashville performance with Grand Ole Opry great Jean Shepard in 1982 and being "scared to death." Corenflos was 18 years old at the time and had just moved from his hometown of Terre Haute to Music City. "And tonight I win my first ACM, and I'm scared to death," Corenflos quipped at the awards program in 2013.

Through a 38-year career in Nashville, Corenflos became one of the recording industry's most sought-after session guitarists. He performed on nearly 75 singles that reached No. 1 on the Billboard Country Music charts. His contributions graced hit songs and albums by country singers such as Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Luke Bryan, Martina McBride, George Strait, Carrie Underwood, George Jones, Toby Keith, Rascal Flatts and others. Rockers including Bob Seger, the Doobie Brothers and Sheryl Crow also benefited from Corenflos' studio virtuosity.

Two of his final public performances came at the Terre Haute Symphony Orchestra's 2019 Christmas concert in Tilson Auditorium, and then at Corenflos’ induction into the Wabash Valley Musicians Hall of Fame on March 8, 2020, at the Zorah Shrine.

Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Robinson said she and Corenflos spent most of those months secluded in their beach-side Florida home.

"We would just sit on the back deck overlooking the ocean, and we wrote three songs," she recalled. Later, Corenflos recorded the songs in his home studio, backed by his son, Jacob, and fellow session musicians and singers. Robinson hopes to get those recordings released to the public.

His 2020 sessions were limited, but when he did play, Corenflos' ailments didn't affect his guitar abilities.

"He was still at his top skill level, even at the end," Robinson said. "He'd want to take a nap afterward, but he was still getting calls and performing."

Upon Corenflos' passing last fall, Luke Bryan praised the guitarist's many years of creativity, skill and courage.

"He was a soft-spoken genius that let his fingers do the talking," Bryan wrote in an October social media post. "He has played on countless records of mine, and many times turned a good song into something unique and special. And at the end of the day, he made big, old hit records.

"For most of the time I knew J.T., he was battling health problems related to the hand he was dealt," Bryan continued. "Talk about a fighter. Some days, he could barely pick his guitar up. But when he played, he played like it was his last time, and for everyone in the room it was a beautiful thing to watch."

Robinson said she, Jacob, J.T.'s Terre Haute family members and more friends and relatives plan to attend the ACM ceremony on Aug. 25 at the Ryman.

"We're very excited they're going to honor him," she said, "and I know he's looking down from heaven on us, and smiling."

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.