When the Country Music Association made the decision that network tv time was too valuable a commodity to devote to the Country Music Hall of Fame Inductees, something had to be done. After all, the men and women being inducted into the Hall are the foundation of the genre, architects of the sound and innovators in what is largely considered to be America’s most listened to format of music. Rather than accept being taken off the CMA Awards as a demotion, Elizabeth Thiels, Kyle Young and the staff of the Hall decided to create their own event. A reception and intimate evening of music to celebrate the accomplishment of those “coming in.”
And so it was after the standard welcoming remarks that a lanky Ronnie Dunn strode onstage clad in designer black, two mason jars filled with Popcorn Sutton ‘shine in his hands. He was there on a mission: to kick of iconic piano player Hargus “Pig” Robbins induction with a little jet fuel. With a quick joke, he told the band to kick it off, and Medallion Band leader John Hobbs brought all the flourish to George Jones’ first #1 “White Lightning” that Robbins had originally used to ignite the thumping tale of a couple moonshiners up in the hills. With a voice like electricity, Dunn’s ground-pawing performance shook the rafters, eliciting whoops and laughter from the normally sedate industry crowd. That is the point of music: transformation. To take people, even dignified industry leaders, and turn them into something else. Honky tonk denizens, torch singer hostages, prayed up faithful and coming of agers learning what life and love is all about.
For Robbins, who went blind from a knife accident and resulting sympathetic blindness in his other eye, his piano playing has marked careers from Patsy Cline and Charlie Rich to Neil Young and Shania Twain. Instinctual, yet melodic, the teen who’d attended the Nashville School for the Blind had found his way to Music Row as a self-taught player, and it wasn’t long until he was Nashville’s first call piano man.
During Robbins’ induction, Gordon Mote, a soulful churchy player who is also blind, accompanied Crystal Gayle on the omnipresent multiple format #1 “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” a tugging bit of cocktail jazz that found Loretta Lynn’s sister in rich voice and all her sensual elegance. With her signature ebony hair sweeping the floor, it was an ache and invitation threaded by just the right amount of notes which said what the lyric couldn’t.
Gene Watson, a Texas bodyshop worker with equally unwavering pipes, sang the deceptively cautionary “14 Karat Mind,” which had the classic country fans in the green room waiting to go on singing along with every sweeping beat. Joined on piano by his producer Dirt Johnson, who was also the night’s first truly overwhelmed speaker, the palpable impact of someone like Robbins’ – a musician who sculpted a sound, but went largely unknown – is the greatest case for why the Hall of Fame is so important.
After Charlie McCoy did the honors and Robbins accepted his medal, the music man moved to the piano where he and Ronnie Milsap trolled Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Door” for all its erotic sizzle. Like each of the songs in his segment – and as the evening’s commentary reinforced, Robbins’ piano playing often elevated the songs, the artists, the records. Those few notes that tease you into “Closed Doors” suggest there’s something quixotic going on here, and as the song confesses the truth about that quiet little thing by his side, the fury is unleashed in ways that defy conversation.
For Connie Smith, the epitome of what a classic country singer should be, her induction mined the truth of who she was as an artist, a woman and a mother. With a pure voice, a song sense of music and a dignity that made her sparkle, Smith’s moment in the sun – sitting alongside husband/classic hillbilly icon Marty Stuart – a testament to what country music can and should be.
Whether it was the bluegrass/country Whites, lead singer/guitarist sister Sharon and singer/bassist Cheryl and their smoking piano playing father Buck, scorching “If It This Ain’t Love (Just Leave It Alone)” or classic traditionalist Lee Ann Womack’s velvety “You Got Me Right Where You Want Me,” the soul of the music filled the room. Country music, in its purest form, is long on emotions, rhythms and an attitude, be it suspended heartbreak or sassy admonition.
Smith, being a woman who was always looking ahead, had also requested Fort Worth, Texas’ Quebe Sisters, three young women who all play Texas-style fiddle and sing in three part big band harmony. Harkening back to a time when country was Western, they and their upright bassist Drew Phelps and guitarist/former teacher Joey McKenzie swung Smith’s signature “Once A Day” as the inductee looked on beaming.
When Merle Haggard stood at the dais to induct the woman who was still making quality music half a century later, he talked about her latest record. But he also talked about a plane flight they shared to Nashville where the petite blond asked about the fiddler on Haggard’s Bob Wills tribute record.
““Johnny Gimble,’ I told her,” Haggard explained, demonstrating Smith’s musical attention to detail and lasting power. “And she told me, ‘Well, I’ve gotta get him.’ And she did… on her next session.”
Now when too many records seem machined at the arena rock seconds bin, to see a “girl singer”-- when they didn’t get nearly the respect -- insist on that kind of quality is the reason Smith’s music has endured. Never the biggest star, she was always considered – as her introduction indicated – “a singer’s singer” and someone who didn’t pull light when it came to the music.
After getting her medal and stepping out to hug Stewart, who she said “has taught me so much,” she returned to the stage and with her great big voice and took the entire room to church. With a smile befitting the newest member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, she took on the rolling Southern gospel of “When I Need Jesus (He’s Always There)” with true delight.
What lies beneath the surface – whether it’s the notion of why start something that makes no sense or the helplessness of knowing the other person has all the cards, country music has always been an adult kind of entertainment. Or music for young people who’re living lives that are far beyond their years. While today’s youthquake has lost some of the temerity of real life, the night’s final inductee may bridge the gap between the ideals of what was and the reality of a increasingly younger reaching country music business. Ironically, for all the showmanship, so much of what grounded Garth Brooks’ explosion was his infailing respect for those who came before.
Nothing could echo those truths as powerfully as George Strait, wearing his Hall of Fame medal, striding onstage in his starched Wranglers, crisp white shirt, sport coat, white hat and acoustic guitar and leaning into Brooks’ breakthrough “Much Too Young To Feel This Damn Old,” a reality check for the rodeo life that felt – when it first appeared – like a lost song from Strait’s own cannon. A loping song about the perils of the life, the price paid in terms of broken bones and busted relationships, “Much To Young” spoke to the new country fans coming in as well as the people who’d love Strait’s classic kind of country.
For James Taylor, who followed with Trisha Yearwood, Vickie Hampton and Robbie Bailey on vocals, it was more about the undertow of the singer/songwriter that had imprinted Brooks’ hits from “The Dance” to “The River,” both songs of poetic reach beyond the literal and emotional scopes that exist beyond a single truth or moment. It was the latter Taylor, sitting on a stool “like I used to when I first started playing,” brought his cozy caramel voice to, stretching the time just a little and making the song even more about perseverance and deliverance of self than even Brooks’ original. It was a gentle reading, but profound in the way Taylor found the wisdom and acceptance in the ballad.
It is the folds and overlaps where songs ring truest. The final tribute performer was in some ways an unlikely arena rocker from Detroit, one not prone to the theatrics and production tricks Brooks is known for, and yet, an artist from the same bedrock.
Bob Seger’s “Night Moves,” a reflective song about coming of age with that one special girl in the back of a car as the lightning flashed and the thunder rolled, is as close to kin to Brooks’ multiple week #1 “That Summer” as songs from other times, other genres; can be. Yet Seger brought a youthful exuberance to Brooks’ midtempo song about learning about carnal reckoning in the arms of a much older woman on a farm where he’d gone to work and she needed the help, even as his dusty voice acknowledged how every other woman, every other wheat field since made him think of that widow who so needed to find the release that only comes from that carnal connection.
Brooks, who’d wept openly during the first two singers, now cheered the performance. If when he came to Nashville, he came to win, the Hall of Fame is something young comers can’t truly understand. For him, the emotion moved to triumph – and that was evident watching him watch the stage. His comments, delivered with flawless timing, also reflected his sense of history, dignity and the moment.
He talked of growing up hard in a family where “My Mom said ‘You can fly’ and my Dad immediately followed with ‘And it’s gonna take a lot of work,” where James Taylor’s music was the only thing that stopped the fighting, Bob Seger’s songs captured an Okie kid's imagination and hearing George Strait’s “Unwound” gave him the sense of what he wanted to be when he grew up.
Strait, who inducted Brooks, recognized the fact that Brooks changed everything, right down to “flying,” but also acknowledged the quality of the songs and his career. For Brooks, who thanked his family, his team of business people, God, the fans and his three daughters, it was a prism of great clarity for people watching the man who set and broke every record in music – not just country – at the close of the 20th century.
With the genre on another threshold, is Brooks’ impact the beginning of the end? Or merely the pivot point for the new world order? Stadiums shows. Rock guitars. Flying cars. High intensity performances. Songs from other genres – but rarely songs that have the staying power of the handful performed at the 211-seat Ford Theatre this night.
Is the future of country music abandoning its roots completely? Or is it recognizing the value of the past, figuring out how to make the foundation for a future of better music, songs that will endure and truths told for the people whose American dream is fading away. After all, if one thing stands out about Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Waylon Jenings, Tammy Wynnette, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, they sang for the people, the ones who worked and lived and made it happen by the strength of their back. It was never 2-dimensional reductions of a Hallmark reality that defines music that lasts – and that’s why these artists are in the Hall of Fame.