An open letter to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
To the executive director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum:
Recently, it has been brought to my attention that your museum is seeking $75 million in donations in an attempt to expand the size of your facilities, adding an 800-seat theater and a new educational center among other things.
Unfortunately, I will not be able to donate to this cause, because I do not believe that your museum is an accurate barometer of country music greatness and thus expanding the scope of the building will only lead to more room for omissions, inaccuracies, and a Music Row version of history.
However, in the best interest of your planned educational center, I am taking this opportunity to educate you regarding some artists you seem to have little knowledge or awareness of.
Let’s start with Johnny Horton. In a career that lasted barely ten years, Mr. Horton was able to fuse a unique mixture of country and rockabilly, as heard in classics such as “Honky Tonk Man.” He racked up numerous hits in his lifetime, won a Grammy, and his Greatest Hits album continues to be a perennial bestseller over 50 years after his death. More importantly, every bar band worth their salt has been able to play “The Battle of New Orleans” since Mr. Horton released it in 1959.
While we’re looking at the ’50s, let’s check out another artist from that era. Jerry Lee Lewis released a cover of Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms” in 1956 as his debut single and, though best known as one of rock and roll’s original bad boys, always retained a bit of country in his sound. In the ’60s and ’70s he would go on to became one of Billboard‘s 50 best-selling country artists of all time with 27 singles reaching the top 10 of the magazine’s country charts. Even more importantly, he easily ranks with George Jones as one of the top pure country singers of his generation.
Moving on to the ’60s, let’s have a look at another great honky-tonk singer. Refusing to give in to the Nashville sound that was prevalent at the time, Ohio native Johnny Paycheck co-founded Little Darlin’ Records in the mid-’60s and used the label as an outlet for some of the best music of that or any era. Following this independent period, he signed with one of Nashville’s top labels and continued to put out great music: “She’s All I Got” in ’71. “Take This Job and Shove It” in ’77, the same year the ACM gave him a Career Achievement Award. Even the usually brain-dead Grand Ole Opry inducted him as a member. But everything that he did do pales in comparison to what he may have done. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, Paycheck (then Donny Young) was a bass player and harmony vocalist for George Jones and there is a debate going on to this day as to whether Paycheck learned everything he knew from Jones or if Paycheck’s influence led to the signature vocal stylings heard in Jones’ classic period of the ’60s and ’70s.
Regardless of which side of the debate is correct, Paycheck is well worth checking out, but the same cannot be said for much of the country music of the ’60s. With the Nashville sound and countrypolitan eras, Nashville’s major labels were seemingly in a contest to see who could sell out the most. Luckily some unlikely candidates were there to save country music from oblivion. Artists such as the Dillards, Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, the Byrds, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band left an undeniable mark on both rock and country by bridging the two together to create a new and unique sound and neither genre would ever really be the same when they got done.
Now let’s just look at a few songs. “A Boy Named Sue.” “One’s On the Way.” “The Taker.” “Put Another Log on the Fire.” The entire Lullabies, Legends and Lies record. I think inducting Shel Silverstein is pretty much a no-brainer, right?
In 1976, RCA released Wanted: The Outlaws, the first album in country music history to sell a million copies. Both Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson appeared on the album and both are members of Hall of Fame. However, seeing as how she was the only artist on the album to have a gold record prior to it’s release, it can be argued that Jessi Colter was the main selling point. Not to mention the fact that she wrote “Storms Never Last,” which has been covered by everybody from Waylon to Rosemary Clooney.
Also appearing on Wanted: The Outlaws was Tompall Glaser. As a member of the Glaser Brothers, Tompall worked with artists such as Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash and after that group’s breakup he opened Hillbilly Central, a recording studio which would go on to be the nucleus of the outlaw country movement, producing such albums as Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes.
Another artist from the ’70s worth looking into is David Allan Coe. In addition to writing hit songs for people like Tanya Tucker and the aforementioned Mr. Paycheck, Coe also released two of the best country albums of all time in the early ’70s: The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy and Once Upon a Rhyme. He had a ton of hits on the country charts throughout the decade and into the ’80s- including the iconic “You Never Even Called Me By My Name”- and was later one of the first to pair old school country with heavy metal when he and Pantera joined forces to create Rebel Meets Rebel.
In the early ’80s the outlaw movement ended and the slick, overproduced, urban cowboys began appearing on country radio. Waylon and Kris weren’t hitting the top of the charts anymore. Johnny Cash was dropped by Columbia Records. But there was one beacon of hope for true country music fans. From the period of 1979 to 1986, Hank Williams Jr. was making the best music that could be found in the country genre. No contest. Crafting his own style based on country and Southern rock, featuring humor, social commentary, and Southern pride, he racked up 39 top 10 hits, 24 gold or platinum albums, and was named a five-time Entertainer of the Year by both the ACM and the CMA. In particular, his 1979 album Whiskey-Bent and Hell-Bound was the blueprint for nearly every country album released by a male artist for the next 10 to 15 years.
Now let’s take a look at two artists who released their debut albums in 1986. The first, Steve Earle, was one of the major forerunners of the alt. country boom that was to follow in the ’90s and he also managed to have several hit albums and singles on mainstream Nashville charts. The other, Dwight Yoakam, was a legitimate Nashville success at least until pop country came out of hiding in the mid-’90s. Until then, he was for all intents and purposes a superstar delivering songs to the mainstream that were part Bakersfield sound, part rockabilly, and 100% country.
Lastly, let’s check out the one guy who could have stopped Garth and Shania and could have kept today’s young, independent artists from having to rebuild country music from the ground up. Even before releasing his debut album in 1984, Keith Whitley was already well on his way to being a bluegrass legend, having played with both Ralph Stanley and J.D. Crowe. With his solo career, he took a decidedly more honky tonk approach and with only four albums released before his death, he had already become the front-runner in the new traditionalist movement, which would ultimately fail without his promise and his talent.
I sincerely hope that you will check out all of these artists and possibly play them for your voters as well. Please understand also that I am not trying to criticize you. Everything I am saying is meant for your benefit, because in all honesty the artists don’t need your help. Without you, those who are living are still selling out shows nightly and releasing great new albums, while those I have mentioned who have passed on are still being hailed by today’s musicians as legends and influences. Without you, they are doing fine. Without them, you are meaningless.