Garth Brooks summoned the big guns to usher him into the Country Music Hall of Fame Sunday evening (Oct. 21) in Nashville, and they flocked to his cause like farmers to a barn-raising.
James Taylor, Bob Seger and George Strait each took his turn at paying tribute to the best-selling solo recording artist in history by singing one of his hits to an audience that packed the Hall of Fame’s Ford Theater.
The cheering sections for Brooks’ fellow Hall of Fame inductees — Grand Ole Opry star Connie Smith and the enduring A-team session pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins — were not too shabby, either, featuring as they did Ronnie Dunn, Crystal Gayle, Gene Watson, Ronnie Milsap, Lee Ann Womack, the Whites and the Quebe [pronounced KWAY-bee] Sisters Band.
This annual event is officially known as the “Medallion Ceremony” because an engraved Country Music Hall of Fame medallion is placed around the neck of each recipient as the final step in his or her induction.
A crowd of fans gathered behind police barriers on Demonbreun Street to witness the arrival of celebrities and dignitaries that started at 4 in the afternoon.
Unlike previous ceremonies, which began with a two-hour cocktail party, this edition scheduled the party after the inductions. Even so, there were uniformed waiters offering glasses of red and white wine to guests and artists as they arrived.
Inside the theater, while the first few guests wandered in to find their seats, Merle Haggard stood at a lectern beside the stage, adjusting to the Teleprompter and running through the remarks he would give later on to welcome Smith. “I feel a close kinship with her because we’ve recorded each other’s songs,” he uttered to a mostly empty room.
Haggard then wandered over to chat with steel guitarist Paul Franklin, who sat waiting for the other band members to assemble.
On the opposite side of the room, Gayle and her husband-manager Bill Gatzimos eased down the stairs unobtrusively and disappeared into the green room.
Strait, a last-minute substitute for George Jones, who was originally designated to induct Brooks, sauntered out to the lectern to be led through his paces. Once done with that, he stepped over to greet Haggard, clapping him companionably on the shoulder.
Seger emerged from the green room and took his seat at the end of the fourth row.
At 5:30 the ceremony got underway with the playing of Doc Watson‘s recording of “Black Mountain Rag.”
Then Vince Gill and Jeff White came to the stage to sing Gill’s “All Prayed Up,” a song inspired by the music of Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs. Gill played mandolin while White handled guitar and assisted on vocals.
Kyle Young, director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, recognized by name the other Hall of Fame members in the audience, including (in addition to Haggard, Strait and Gill), Emmylou Harris, Sonny James, Ralph Emery, Harold Bradley, Barbara Mandrell, Roy Clark, Brenda Lee, Charlie McCoy, Jim Foglesong, E. W. “Bud” Wendell, Jean Shepard, Ray Walker of the Jordanaires, Jimmy Fortune of the Statler Brothers and Jo Walker-Meador.
From that point on, Young cited biographical details about each inductee and introduced the musicians who would perform selections from their music.
First in line was the 74-year-old Robbins, revered for his distinctive piano licks on hundreds of country standards and his ability to find and focus on the emotional essence of songs.
Young noted that Robbins accidentally blinded himself with a knife when he was 3 years old. He began to study classical piano at the Tennessee School for the Blind when he was 7.
“However, whenever he could,” Young continued, “he planted himself in a back practice room and taught himself the rhythms and chords of popular hits. He learned to play Dixieland jazz, blues and country music.”
A teacher gave him the name “Pig,” Young explained, after he returned to class covered in soot from “rolling around on a fire escape.”
Robbins broke into music by writing songs and taking them to Nashville publishers. One of the publishers befriended the young pianist and saw to it that he joined the musician’s union. Robbins played his first session the day he joined, for which he earned $41.25.
In 1959, producer Buddy Killen hired Robbins to play on Jones’ “White Lightning.” Energized by Robbins’ rambunctious intro, the recording became Jones’ first No. 1 single.
To recall the magic of that hit, Young called Dunn to the stage to perform it, with Medallion Band leader John Hobbs reproducing Robbins’ part.
Dunn came out carrying what appeared to be two quart jars of white lightning — aka moonshine. After setting one aside, he announced, “I am going to try to set a record by drinking this much moonshine in a three-minute song.” He held up the jar, which looked to be about two-thirds full.
He blazed through the song, taking an occasional sip, but not enough to drain the jar. Although he brought Jones’ goofy enthusiasm to the song, he refrained from doing the vocal sound effects of the original. Still, the crowd loved it.
When he finished, Dunn stepped toward the front row, offering the still unfinished jar to anyone who wanted it. But there were no takers.
Young noted that when Floyd Cramer, Music Row’s “first call piano player,” began recording and touring as an artist in his own right, Robbins became his de facto successor.
Adventuring beyond the country music realm, Robbins also recorded with such acts as Bob Dylan (the Blonde on Blonde album), Joan Baez, J. J. Cale, John Denver, Levon Helm, Mark Knopfler, Leon Russell and Neil Young.
Some of Robbins’ most memorable sounds graced Gayle’s 1977 Grammy-winning “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.” Looking remarkably like she did when she first recorded it, Gayle came out to sing the song, accompanied by rising piano star Gordon Mote.
“Your magical touch on this song has been with me forever, and I thank you for it,” Gayle told Robbins, who sat in the front row.
By the 1970s, Young continued, Robbins was firmly ensconced as the preeminent Music Row pianist, often playing four recording sessions a day, from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. Among the hundreds of hits he contributed to were Bobby Bare‘s “Detroit City,” Kenny Rogers‘ “The Gambler” and Shania Twain‘s “Any Man of Mine.”
To illustrate Robbins’ genius with traditional country tunes, Young beckoned Watson to the stage to sing “Fourteen Carat Mind,” his No. 1 single from 1981. Watson’s current producer, Dirk Johnson, emulated Robbins’ rolling, barrel-house licks on that classic.
Charlie McCoy, the multi-instrumentalist whose career as an A-team player coincided with Robbins’, stepped to the lectern to formally induct his friend.
“The one thing I didn’t try to play was the piano,” he told the crowd. “I knew better.” He spoke of Robbins’ remarkable memory and his ability to replay music the first time he heard it.
He also remarked on Robbins’ sense of humor. “I think he knew the floor plans to 100 studios at least,” he said. Once an electrical storm knocked out the power to a studio Robbins and McCoy were working in. After they told Robbins that the room had gone completely dark, he said, “OK, if anyone wants to go to the restroom, I’ll take you there for a dollar.”
Summing it all up, McCoy said, “I would like to induct the greatest studio musician I’ve ever known.” Guided by his son, Robbins stood center stage while McCoy affixed his medallion.
“I’ve stolen enough licks off Floyd [Cramer] that I should be ashamed,” he said when his time came to speak. “But I’m not.”
To conclude his segment, Robbins sat at the piano while another blind pianist of some note, Milsap, came out to sing the Charlie Rich classic “Behind Closed Doors,” which, to no one’s surprise, Robbins also played on.
The crowd interrupted the performance with cheers and rewarded Robbins with prolonged applause when he finished.
Turning his attention to the next honoree, Young proclaimed, “You only need to hear Connie Smith once to realize why she’s considered one of the great vocalists of her generation. . . . Songwriters know they can trust her with their best work. Musicians know they’ll get a chance to shine on her recordings and alongside her onstage. And fans know they can bring their families to see her because they respect her.”
Smith, 71, grew up in West Virginia and Ohio in a poor family of 14 but still managed to graduate as salutatorian of her high school class. Although drawn to country music, Young noted, she was influenced as well by such jazz vocalists as Sarah Vaughn and Nancy Wilson.
As a result of winning a talent contest, she got to perform with Grand Ole Opry stars on a show in Columbus, Ohio. There she was spotted by Bill Anderson who brought her to Nashville. Soon after, Chet Atkins signed her to RCA Records and tapped Bob Ferguson to produce her.
Her first single, “Once a Day,” which Anderson wrote, went No. 1 in 1964 and remained there for eight weeks. It was the first debut single by a female vocalist to reach that height, Young pointed out. It didn’t happen again until 1991 when Trisha Yearwood — now Mrs. Garth Brooks — matched the achievement with “She’s in Love With the Boy.”
The three fiddling and singing Quebe Sisters from Fort Worth, Texas, backed by a bassist and a guitarist, trooped to the stage to sing an absolutely dazzling version of “Once a Day.” It earned them the loudest, most sustained applause of the evening up to that point.
Although “Once a Day” was Smith’s only No. 1, she would, over the next 12 years, score 19 Top 10s. As her family grew, she cut back on recording and touring but continued her prominence as an Opry star.
In 1971, she had a No. 7 hit with the Dallas Frazier-penned, “If It Ain’t Love (Let’s Leave It Alone).” The Whites, a fellow Opry act, liked the song so much that they recorded it in 1985 and took it to No. 12 on the charts.
Sharon, Cheryl and Buck White came to the stage to reprise that common musical treasure. Sharon recalled that when they were living in Arkansas, Smith’s songs were played so much on the radio they were able to learn the words without having to write them down.
“What you’ve been to us,” Cheryl told Smith, “is a friend and a sister.”
The final musical tribute to Smith came from Womack, who sang “You’ve Got Me (Right Where You Want Me).” Smith co-wrote the song with George Richey and had a No. 21 hit with it in 1973.
“All the girl singers want to sing like Connie,” Womack declared.
Continuing his narrative of Smith’s career, Young said, “In 1998, she released an album produced by a national star who’d been enjoying his own run up the country charts, Mr. Marty Stuart. Maybe more important to Connie, the two had joined together in holy matrimony the previous year while working on the album. Talk about mixing business with pleasure!
“The two collaborated again last year on the outstanding album, Long Line of Heartaches, which proved Connie’s talents remained as great as ever.”
With that, Young introduced Smith’s three daughters and Stuart and then brought Haggard forward to complete the induction.
“There’s a real close kinship between her and me because we’ve recorded each other’s songs,” said Haggard, repeating the line he’d rehearsed earlier. “I admire her sincerity, her spirit and her commitment to traditional country music. If you’re talking about a country singer, there just ain’t none better.”
After accepting her medallion, Smith addressed the audience. “It is such an honor to be here. I kind of feel I deserve it least because I didn’t aim for it. I just wanted to feed my kids. I love my music and I love my family. I do believe with all my heart it was God’s destiny for me to be a country girl singer.”
She recited a list of people to whom she felt indebted, especially her husband. “I really, really want to thank Marty for believing in me. He’s my biggest supporter. I’ve learned so much from him and continue to learn every day. He’s just the greatest man I know.”
Smith bowed out to rapturous applause after singing “When I Need Jesus, He’s There.” Her voice was strong, sure and vibrant with religious fervor. The crowd whooped and hollered as Smith left the stage in triumph.
“Whenever the topic turns to Garth Brooks,” said Young, “people inevitably talk about how he changed country music. But he did not change country music. Like every important artist honored in the Hall of Fame, Garth Brooks is country music.
“But Garth Brooks did change American culture. He proved that there were no barriers to how many hearts and souls country music could touch.”
Young recounted how Brooks, who’s now 50, grew up in the Oklahoma City suburb of Yukon, the youngest in a family of six children, his father a draftsman for an oil company and his mother a former country singer.
Drawn as he was to music, Young said, Brooks veered more toward sports in high school, where he was a starting quarterback for the football team and a “standout” competitor in baseball and track.
“It will surprise no one,” Young said, “that he was voted homecoming king in his senior year.”
Brooks began taking music more seriously at Oklahoma State University, where he both performed in local clubs and sometimes served as a bouncer. His first trip to Nashville to establish himself as an artist was a disappointment. But he had more luck the second time around, quickly attracting attention as a songwriter and demo singer.
After impressing a Capitol Records executive with a performance at Nashville’s legendary Bluebird Café, Brooks signed to the label in 1988. He charted his first single, “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” the next year. It peaked at an encouraging No. 8.
In honor of that pivotal achievement, Strait ambled to the stage to perform the song. Speaking to Brooks directly, he said, “Somebody told me today that you came to town with this song and said, “I’ve got to get George Strait to cut this.’ You just didn’t try hard enough.”
He then sang the song, investing the lyrics with all the angst and loneliness Brooks put into them.
Brooks’ next single, “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” went No. 1. But the songs that really boosted him to superstardom were “The Dance” and “Friends in Low Places,” also both No. 1′s.
“No one in any style of music sold more albums in the 1990s than Garth Brooks,” Young declared. (His total album sales, as certified by the Recording Industry Association of America, currently exceed 128 million.)
In a nod to the variety in Brooks’ music, Taylor walked in from the wings to sing “The River.” Backing him on vocals were Yearwood, Robert Bailey and Vicki Hampton. The song, co-written by Brooks and Victoria Shaw, went No. 1 in 1992.
Thin and stylishly dressed in a sports coat, slacks and a newsboy cap, Taylor seated himself on a stool and waited out the audience’s applause. “I used to sit down at the beginning of my career,” he remarked, “and I’m doing it again. I find it much less likely that I’ll fall over.”
He thanked Yearwood for inviting him to perform for Brooks and said he told her he wouldn’t miss the chance.
His version of “The River” was somewhat less declamatory than Brooks’–but no less dramatic, as the long applause confirmed.
Young quickly segued to another of Brooks’ musical influences by bringing out Bob Seger to sing “That Summer,” the 1993 No. 1 that chronicles a young man’s initiation into sex by an older woman.
“The thing I love about Garth is his passion,” Seger said before starting the song. “I also love the fact that with his enormous success — his soaring success — he’s still a really good guy.”
Yearwood, Bailey and Hamilton provided background vocals for this song as well.
Young then covered the period during which Brooks announced he would retire from touring and cut back on recording in order to be a more attentive parent to his three daughters.
“He returned home to Oklahoma and before long married Trisha Yearwood,” Young continued, “and, true to his word, his public appearances [were restricted] to cheering on the sidelines at the soccer field or joining the line of parents picking up their kids after school.”
Brooks’ self-imposed exile from the stage didn’t prevent him from performing on special occasions, Young noted, often for charitable causes. In 2010, he sold out Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena nine times to raise funds for flood victims.
“We know Garth is far from finished,” said Young, “but what he’s achieved in barely two decades, we won’t see anything quite like it again.” He asked Brooks’ three daughters to stand and be recognized.
With those formalities out of the way, Young called back Brooks’ avowed “hero,” Strait, to complete the induction.
Standing at the lectern and grinning knowingly, Strait said of Brooks, “I remember hearing about him out onstage, swinging on ropes and throwing himself around and saying, ‘This is country music. Can he do that?’ Yes, he can do that. You can see it today in a lot of the young acts.”
He said he had always felt a connection with Brooks “being from the South and singing about rodeos and whatnot. You’ve brought so many fans to our music. It helps all of us.”
Strait then presented Brooks his medallion.
Working his way down from God and through his mom and dad, Brooks cited by name virtually everyone who had aided him in his career, including the seven session players who had backed him on most of his records.
He said there was a lot of fighting in his family during his childhood but that it stopped in 1972 when his brother Mike brought home a James Taylor album.
He added that the names “Haggard and Jones” were always spoken together in his home. He pronounced that Haggard was the greatest country entertainer “hands down” and that Jones possessed the greatest voice.
Noting that his daughters in the audience kept him from being more specific, he credited Bob Seger’s music with helping him transition from adolescence into manhood.
It was after he returned home from his freshman year in college, he said, that he heard the sound that would change his life. He was driving with his dad when a DJ began mentioned something about “this new kid from Texas” and played Strait’s “Unwound.”
“From that point forward,” Brooks said, “I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I wanted to be George Strait. Tonight after 20 years in the business under my own name, thank you very much, I still want to be George Strait so damn bad.”
He recalled that earlier in the evening Gill had told him this would be the greatest day in his life. He said he agreed that it was the greatest day in his career, but that the greatest days of his life were “sitting in the front row,” and he gestured toward his daughters.
“When you meet your soulmate,” Brooks said as he wrapped up his acceptance remarks, “for the first time forever is not long enough. I love the Bible. I think it’s the greatest book on the planet and I know I’m going to misquote it, but somewhere in there it says a man can make it to heaven through his wife. I’ve got to say, ‘Miss Yearwood, you’re my only shot.’”
As always the ceremony concluded with all the performers and Hall of Fame members clustering on the stage to sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
Then it was cocktail time.