The sky could not have been more blue, or the weather more agreeable, on Sunday afternoon, October 21, when Country Music notables began arriving at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Hundreds of spectators had gathered on the far side of Demonbreun Street, stretching the full block from Fifth to Sixth Avenue in Downtown Nashville and clustering near the drop-off point where WSM AM/Nashville radio personality Bill Cody heralded each celebrity’s red carpet appearance.
In tuxedos, gowns and Western attire, they had gathered to celebrate the inductions of three giants into CMA’s Country Music Hall of Fame, the highest honor bestowed in the Country Music world.
CMA announced this year’s inductees in March: Garth Brooks in the Modern Era category, Hargus “Pig” Robbins in the category for Recording and/or Touring Musician Active Prior to 1980 and Connie Smith in the Veterans Era vote. (Each was chosen through a nomination and voting process instituted in 1964 by CMA. Details on categories, history and all else related to the Hall are available on CMAworld.com/info/Hall-of-Fame.)
Smith was the first to arrive. Just before 4PM, she was escorted by husband Marty Stuart past cheering onlookers and welcomed by Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Director Kyle Young with an embrace and the words, “This is your house.” (Her band, the Sundowners, received a different greeting later on, as they strode up the carpet in black Western outfits. “You guys look like you’re doing the opening of Tombstone,” observed Cody, prompting laughter from the group as well as the assembled fans.)
Charlie McCoy beamed and repeatedly kissed his Hall of Fame member medallion as he and wife Pat made their way into the Museum. Merle Haggard bowed and doffed his hat in response to a rapturous reception. Bob Seger laughed and gave a thumb’s-up sign when one fan shouted, “Cut loose!” Ricky Skaggs delighted observers when he whipped out his phone and took their pictures.
This stage of the evening ended dramatically at 4:40 PM, when Brooks, with wife Trisha Yearwood, stepped out from their car. Heading directly toward their fans, they signed autographs, hugged and shook hands, and beamed into flashing cameras for a full five minutes before gently being guided to the stairs and into the pre-ceremony reception.
As always, this year’s Medallion Ceremony began with a welcome from Young as guests seated themselves in the intimate Ford Theater. Following tradition, the program opened with a gospel tune. This year’s selection was “All Prayed Up,” written by Vince Gill and performed by Gill on mandolin with Jeff White on guitar. Their buoyant harmonies, the infectious beat and the song’s inspirational message had the room clapping along all the way to the finish.
Young then introduced Steve Turner, Board Chairman of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Noting to the inductees that “the exalted rank you will receive tonight was created and bestowed by the Country Music Association,” Turner added his personal congratulations.
Steve Moore followed by saying, “Of all my duties as CEO of CMA, the one I enjoy the most is our announcement of the inductees each year. Their response is always heartfelt, sometimes emotional, often funny – and I am genuinely humbled seeing them enter the (Museum’s) rotunda, knowing their likenesses and career accomplishments will soon grace these hallowed walls.
“These three artists are more than just performers,” he concluded. “They are forces of nature.”
After a moment of silence to reflect on the deaths in 2012 of Hall of Fame legends Frances Preston, Earl Scruggs and Kitty Wells, Young began the program with an appreciation for Robbins. From the future pianist’s difficult early life, which included losing an eye in a knife accident at age 3 and subsequently becoming completely sightless, to his many triumphs as a key member of Nashville’s fabled A Team of studio musicians, this was a story of adversity and triumph. As with every Hall of Fame induction, live music augmented the narrative, beginning in this case with Ronnie Dunn.
To add spirit, so to speak, to his rendition of the George Jones hit “White Lightning,” on which Robbins had laid down the prominent piano part, Dunn entered with a Mason jar filled with a clear liquid. “I’m going to try to set a record by drinking this much moonshine in a three-minute song,” he said, turning to the band and adding, “Just like we practiced it!” After nailing that performance, Dunn exited to tumultuous applause, while offering a sip first to the band, then to the front row of distinguished guests and finally, with a shrug, to the room in general. (There were no takers.)
A series of guest keyboardists sat in with each number performed in tribute to Robbins. Where John Hobbs played on “White Lightning,” Gordon Mote echoed the original piano part on “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” sung perfectly by Crystal Gayle. Then Gene Watson nailed “Fourteen Carat Mind,” with Dirk Johnson intriguingly playing the Robbins fills with his left hand. Watson drew cheers by pointing out that Robbins played on every number three, two and one single he’d ever released.
Later, before singing “Behind Closed Doors” with Robbins on piano, Ronnie Milsap noted that the inductee played piano on all of his recordings “until I worked up the nerve” to do so himself. Looking back to an early session, Milsap recalled telling producer Tom Collins, “‘When you get the band together, make sure you have Pig Robbins.’ He said, ‘He’s not available until next week.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘then we don’t record until next week.’”
Charlie McCoy, before symbolically welcoming Robbins into the Hall by presentation of the Gold Medallion, reminisced at length about their long association. “There are many, many songwriters in this town who made a whole lot more royalties because Pig played on their song,” he summed up. “There are hundreds of artists who had better careers because Pig played on their records. There are millions of fans who had their hearts touched and their ears blessed because Pig played on their records.” With that, he invited Robbins, whom he called “the best studio musician I’ve ever known,” onto the stage.
A backup master by temperament as well as in practice, Robbins spoke briefly. “It’s really an honor to come into the Hall of Fame in the Musician category with Charlie, Harold (Bradley) and Floyd (Cramer). Of course,” he added playfully, “I stole enough off of Floyd that I ought to be ashamed of myself – but I’m not!”
A blazing three-fiddle, three-voice romp through “Once a Day” by The Quebe Sisters Band, a rocking performance of “If It Ain’t Love (Leave It Alone)” by The Whites (with father Buck White ripping through several keyboard solos) and an adoring “You’ve Got Me (Right Where You Want Me)” by Lee Ann Womack set the stage for Connie Smith’s induction by Merle Haggard. “I admire her sincerity and her spirit and her commitment to traditional Country Music,” he said. “If you’re talking about a Country singer, there just ain’t nobody better.”
Smith, deeply moved, professed that stardom was never her goal in music. “I just wanted to sing and feed my kids,” she insisted. “I do believe with all my heart that it was God’s destiny for me to be a Country girl singer – and I’ll just continue to be until he tells me otherwise.” As if to acknowledge that gift, she then sang “When I Need Jesus, He’s There,” her voice uniquely expressive, from its throaty, soulful low end to higher long notes given dimension by a delicate rasp. The band joined the audience in giving her a standing ovation.
George Strait began the final segment by speaking directly from the stage to Oklahoma’s own Garth Brooks. “Somebody told me earlier today that you came to town with a song and said, ‘I’ve got to get George Strait to cut this.” After a moment, he added, “Man, you just didn’t try hard enough! I need songs like this.” With that, he powered through “Much Too Young (to Feel This Damn Old)” before flashing a grin and stepping down to embrace its writer.
The breadth of Brooks’ appeal was made clear as James Taylor settled onto a stool and delivered a nuanced interpretation of “The River,” with Trisha Yearwood joining the backup singers. And Bob Seger showcased Brooks’ rockier side with a romp through “That Summer.”
Strait returned after that to present the Gold Medallion to Brooks. “I’ve always felt a connection with you for being from the South and singing about rodeos and whatnot,” the Texan superstar said. “You’ve just brought so many new fans to our music. It helped all of us.”
Speaking freely and with feeling, Brooks paid tribute to the artists who had just performed on his behalf, as well as Merle Haggard and George Jones, tying the importance of their music to his personal and creative growth. Smiling playfully at his friend from Texas, he added that after hearing “Unwound” on the radio years ago, “I wanted to be George Strait so damn bad. And I have to say now … I still want to be George Strait so damn bad!”
He saved his last comments, though, for his daughters and then for his wife. “Once you meet your soul mate, it’s the first time that forever isn’t long enough,” he whispered. “I’m going to misquote the Bible, but somewhere in there it says, ‘A man can make it to Heaven through his wife.’ And I’ve got to say, ‘Miss Yearwood? You’re my only shot!’”
The traditional benedictory performance of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” brought the evening to a close, featuring members of the Hall and artists who had taken part. Like most of the program, this chorus was backed by the Medallion All-Star Band, with keyboardist Hobbs as musical director and featuring Eddie Bayers on drums, Paul Franklin on steel guitar, Brent Mason on electric guitar, Michael Rhodes on bass, Deanie Richardson on fiddle and mandolin, Dawn Sears and Jeff White on vocals and Biff Watson on acoustic guitar.
© 2012 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.