Archive for the ‘Country Music Hall of Fame Commentary’ Category

Three more names cemented in bronze: the class of 2012

March 7, 2012

As winter slowly turns to spring and the chill begins to exit, a celebration is brought fourth where more than a century of tradition is whisked back into the spotlight, if only for a brief time.

The importance of this commemoration knows no bounds as the past and present collide to bestow an honor upon three worthy individuals whose contributions have been revolutionary.

This recognition, which concludes with a medallion ceremony later in the year, elevates greatness, yet sparks fierce debate among those who object to this honor coming too soon or far too late.

But one ideal will always rise victor – the highest professional honor in country music is induction into the Hall of Fame. And in 2012, that prestigious mark of upmost respect shines a light on Hargus, “Pig” Robbins, Connie Smith, and Garth Brooks.

In three unique and different ways, each inductee has left a stamp on country music not likely to be erased with time. Through his paino-playing on iconic songs such as “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” and “White Lightning,” Robbins has redefined the essence of the studio musician.

With “Once A Day,” a little tune pinned by Bill Anderson, Smith did the impossible – becoming the first female artist to log eight consecutive weeks at #1. That feat, accomplished more than forty years ago, has yet to be topped.

And Brooks took our notion of what a concert tour could be, turned it on its head, and ran with it.

Hargus “Pig” Robbins

I must admit that before this morning, my young age prevented me from knowing Robbins and his contributions to country music. But after listening to his introduction by Kix Brooks, I found familiarity with most of the songs he played on.

Especially this day and age, with digital sales rendering the dust jacket obsolete, the ideal of the studio musican has nearly gone out the window. No longer do we care who backs up our favorite singer as long as said artist releases new music.

But the studio musician is the backbone of all music. Without session players, as they’re also called, albums would never be released. We need these professional musicians who can learn a song on a dime (often without sheet music, thanks Kix) and execute them flawlessly.

Robbins was one of those such people and arguably one of the best the genre has ever seen.

Connie Smith

Unless you are far too close to mainstream country music, the release of Long Line of Heartaches last August brought fourth much joy. It was Smith’s first album since 1997 and an excellent reminder of country’s rich past.

At 70, Smith sounds better today than most female singers in the business. I was recently scanning the television channels when I came across The Marty Stuart Show on RFD-TV. A homage to all the great variety shows from the 60s and 70s, The Marty Stuart Show is a shining example for classic country music in a world in which country rock knows no bounds.

Marty’s guest that evening was none other than Smith, his wife. For half an hour she took to the stage and sang from Heartaches. She performed more than half of the album and even brought her three daughters on stage for “Take My Hand.”

The show can be “hicky” at times, but Smith’s voice shined loud and clear. It was so nice to have an outlet from which to see her perform and I knew I was witnessing something special.

My first vivid memory of Smith came in 1997 when I watched her perform on the Grand Ole Opry from my grandparent’s living room. I don’t remember what she sang, but I remember it airing after she married Stuart. Being young and naive, I didn’t understand what I was watching and thought she looked “tough.”

The next time I remember paying attention to her was during a duet of “Once A Day” live on the Opry with Martina McBride in 2005. That performance is on YouTube and very good, although Smith steals the show (as she should have).

Like Jean Shepard last year, Smith’s induction is long overdue. Her importance to country music may be quiet in comparison to the likes of Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, and Dolly Parton, but she belongs with them in a class of her own.

With a better understanding of her importance, and a deep love of Heartaches, I now can say I’m a bonafide fan.

Garth Brooks

Being a 90s kid, (oh how I loathe that term), I have the most vivid memories of Brooks. It’s funny, as a child, I first came to know him trough his famous stage show and always viewed him as larger than life; some unapproachable giant force. His image of flying over rafters and gliding on his back through rows and rows of fans only magnified it for me.

I remember, once, not “getting” him. This idea of his popularity being something overblown. I don’t know when I woke up and got a clue but it came pretty fast.

In 1997, when I was also first learning about Smith, my grandfather turned 75. So my mom had an idea – I would sing “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” at the party. I’m not a singer or guitar player, so I did my best to pull it off. I remember having to learn the song for weeks before hand and feeling pretty cool that I could use the word “damn.” It was a special moment and I can still see myself sitting on the stool in the middle of the dance floor.

That same year, like the rest of the world, I tuned into the famous Central Park concert. Being young, I really had no idea the magnitude of what that show really symbolized for country music. I remember how happy everyone was that Garth was sticking only to old material.

Watching from my grandfather’s basement, I can see clear as day, his inability to get the VCR to work so we could tape the show. I was mad but it was just so cool to be able to watch it. Funny thing, when he brought Billy Joel on to sing “New York State of Mind” I had never heard of him (or at least really knew who he was). I always thought he should’ve been wearing a cowboy hat.

Apart from his concerts, yes I also saw his 1998 show from Ireland, and a concert of my own in 1996, I have vivid memories of Brooks’ music. More than any other artist, he was a true marketing genius.

Getting a new Garth Brooks album was always a treat because there would be multiple covers and “first editions” to choose from. I have first edition copies of SevensDouble LiveThe Magic of Christmas, and Scarecrow.

I remember listening to a radio show, in 1998, when they played every cut off of The Limited Series with commentary from Brooks. It was so cool, at that time, to think he was releasing a boxed set of his material with one new cut on each album.

I also rushed out and bought everything he had for sale during his “Wal-Mart Only” years. Sure, you could say I’m a sad sap for buying into all this, but for some reason you had to – it’s Garth Brooks. (Along those same principles – I also own In The Life of Chris Ganes).

In his day, Brooks had it all. The mammoth concert tours, hit singles, and everything in between. And with Trisha Yearwood he had the tabloid love affair we all love to speculate about (did they hook up in the 90s or not?).

But the truly remarkable aspect of Brooks’ career are the songs. It isn’t very often that an artist can back up their success with such memorable and iconic records. There isn’t a single superstar today – from Kenny Chesney, Carrie Underwood, and Taylor Swift, to Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, or Tim McGraw who can match Brooks song for song. His is music of substance, class, and grace.

For instance, on 9/11, I remember singing “The Dance” to myself on the way home from school. When I got home, the first song I turned to was “The Change.”

There isn’t anyone who can match him. I remember people would take the day off from school or work to stand in line at their local CD store on Garth Brooks release day. His albums were events.

But Brooks’ induction came so soon, ahead of the more deserving Randy Travis and Ricky Skaggs (who he singled out in his speech), because of one aspect – touring. His concerts were revolutionary for elevating the stage show to heights previously unknown in country music. Like his albums, his shows were happenings.

Before Brooks, you didn’t have fans rushing online at 10:00am to secure their seats to a show. Country artists may have seen sellouts aplenty, but never in places like the Staples Center and Madison Square Garden. He brought country music to a whole new level; one not surpassed until Chesney’s stadium shows in the 21st century. Brooks drew the blueprint that made the mammoth country shows we all go to today, possible.

All and all, If Brooks is anything, he’s his own man. He was the first to announce a retirement (via a silver covered Country Weekly cover in 2000) at the height of his fame, and remains the staunch holdout for a presence digitally. He doesn’t even have any vintage clips on YouTube.

But like any great artist, the songs will always live on. I was listening to my local country station just last week and what came on? None other than “If Tomorrow Never Comes.” Singing along to his first #1, it felt comfortable, right. Just like his entrance into the Hall of Fame.

Looking Ahead

As we look back at the legacy Robbins, Smith, and Brooks bring to the Hall, the debate over future inductees rages on. Brooks may have gotten in ahead of his time, but no one exemplifies the “90s boom” better and as the forefather of the country spectacle, he made the stadium shows of today doable.

But here’s my list of who should welcome the exit of winter’s chill in some upcoming March and allow us to have a celebration in their honor:

Modern Era Category (In order of importance):

  • Randy Travis
  • Alan Jackson
  • Gene Watson
  • Brooks & Dunn
  • Hank Williams, JR
  • Ricky Skaggs
  • John Anderson
  • Dwight Yoakam
  • Clint Black
  • The Judds
  • Alison Krauss
  • Patty Loveless
  • Marty Stuart

Veteran Era Category (In order of importance):

  • Kenny Rogers
  • Ronnie Milsap
  • David Allan Coe
  • Johnny Paycheck
  • June Carter Cash
  • Tanya Tucker
  • Anne Murray
  • Rose Maddox
  • The Browns (and/or Jim Ed Brown)

Another class makes its mark on history

March 5, 2011

The annual announcement of inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame is a cause for celebration. Honorees span the vast historical landscape of the genre and bridge together the generations who’ve kept country music thriving for well over a century. It’s a reminder that the past is still very much alive and the future remains bright.

Every year I go into the announcement with anticipation that someone I love is going to get their rightful place in the hall. This has been a more realistic expectation since the Hall added a “Modern Era” artist category in 2003, where singers I grew up with cement their place in country music history. It makes me very happy to see Alabama, George Strait, Vince Gill, Barbara Mandrell, Emmylou Harris, and others stand along side all the greats. They’ve earned their moment and it’s finally arrived.

Going in this year I had a laundry list of names I hoped would be called. I tend to root for women singers, and since it took 10 years between Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, I never bet they have much of a chance. But this year, all my hopes came to fruition. Not one, but two female artists are going to take their rightful place in the hall along side a gifted and still active songwriter. The class of 2011 is – Bobby Braddock, Jean Shepard, and Reba McEntire.

Braddock is one of the most important songwriters to make his mark in country music. His singular greatest achievement, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” is highly regarded as the greatest country song ever composed.

Written with Curly Putman, “Today” is the story of a man, who in death finally stops loving his ex-wife. When she hears he’s died, she comes to his funeral and “places a wreath upon his door.” By the end we learn that by “coming to see him one last time,” she’s “finally over him for good.”

As the story goes, George Jones, who’s recording made the song legendary, didn’t think “Today” would amount to anything because it was too sad. The song became a one-week number one and went on to win the CMA song of the year award in both 1980 and 1981. Jones was obviously wrong, and the song has become the epitome of a country classic.

The prestige of songwriting is all but gone in modern country, which makes Braddock’s induction both enduring and bittersweet. He’s written some very solid songs (“D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” “Time Marches On,” “I Wanna Talk About Me,” and “People Are Crazy”) and also produced Blake Shelton’s first three albums including his massive hit “Austin.”

Braddock’s songs have contributed to many different eras of country music and he’s become the only songwriter to score a number one hit in five different decades.

Without really knowing it, generations of fans have grown up with him. He was as popular in the 1960s as he remains today. In any field, that kind of success is what dreams are built on.

Braddock’s induction comes in a new category honoring songwriters. This is an important group because songs are the foundation of all music and songwriters make that happen. Without them, there wouldn’t be the music we’ve all grown to love.

Plus, there are many gifted songwriters in country music history that should see their names added to this list in coming years (induction in this category comes every third year). I would love to see Kostas, Gary Burr, Darrell Scott, Dallas Frazier, Dennis Linde, Matraca Berg, Mac McAnally, Bob DiPiero, and others get their rightful place in the Hall in the decades to come.

Shepard is the inductee I know the least about. A “girl singer” from the 50s-60s, she was a trailblazer who paved the way for artists like Loretta Lynn. When emcee Kix Brooks (yes, that Kix Brooks) was reading off her accomplishments and mentioned her signature hit “Dear John Letter,” I knew whom he was talking about. A member of the Grand Ole Opry since 1955, Shepard has been a force in country music for well over half a century. She was the first girl singer to establish herself outside a band and she also recorded Songs of a Love Affair, country music’s first concept album.

What really hit home for me was something she said in her speech at the press conference: “There was no $100,000, $200,000, $500,000 buses to ride in. There was no interstates. We traveled in a station wagon pulling a trailer. … Our reward was when we got to the date and got paid. Boy, that was a chore — getting your money. But we did it for the love of the music.”

Whenever I hear older singers talk about what it took to make it and the conditions of life on the road, I feel a profound sadness towards singers and entertainers of today. Artists like Taylor Swift, Brad Paisley, and Jason Aldean have the life of Riley compared to those who came before them.

The value of hard work is much different today and I would argue much easier. The comforts of today (million dollar tour buses, private jets, etc) have made everyone lazy.

Not that I want to go back to the conditions Shepard is talking about, but if anyone can speak to hard work it’s her. I remember a time, and it wasn’t that long ago, when country music singers weren’t celebrities; a time when you didn’t show up to the CMA or ACM awards in the latest Vivian Westwood or Pamela Roland dress fresh off the runway. Heck, when the Judds won the CMA Horizon Award in 1984 their gowns were homemade.

Country singers used to be authentic to experience because they’d lived. Traveling in station wagons pulled by trailers teaches you about life and dedication to your craft.

Shepard hit the nail on the head when she mentioned the common denominator – love of the music and respect for tradition. What it took to be a country singer in her era was a lot more than what it takes to be a country singer today. I know we live in a different world, but the points she was making are universal. Her greater point was about integrity, and that’s been missing since Nashville went Hollywood about 17 years ago.

The modern era inductee, and most famous of the three to today’s audience, is McEntire. An entertainer for more then thirty years, every project she’s done has been a success. Her masterpiece For My Broken Heart is the first country album by a female artist to be certified double platinum for shipments in excess of 2 million units.

When Brooks called her name, I was overcome with joy because McEntire has been a fixture in my life for as long I can remember. She’s the top female artist of the modern era, and is breaking boundaries by redefining a culture obsessed with youth.

In 2010 she began and ended with number one hits “Consider Me Gone” and “Turn on the Radio” and her concerts with fellow Hall of Famer George Strait and Lee Ann Womack is one of the top grossing tours of the year.

Brooks mentioned that McEntire was at a hospital in Tulsa with her father, who is in a coma following a stroke. Moments like that mark true character. Here is a woman receiving the greatest professional honor of her career, and she’s home with her family. It’s comforting to know that after all these years and unprecedented success, family still comes first. I would hope that McEntire’s absence stands as a lesson to everyone that dedication to your family always comes before devotion to your career. It’s family that’s going to be there once all the hits, platinum albums and industry honors become a thing of the past.

This year’s Hall of Fame inductees are two trailblazing female singers and a tunesmith who knows his way around a lyric. They have earned their place in history, not because of accolades or popularity, but because they embody the true meaning of country music. All three have endured because their contributions to the genre are timeless treasures.

While Shepard isn’t heard on country radio anymore, her presence at the Grand Ole Opry has turned many a fan onto her music. She displays her quick wit and spunk whenever she hits the stage.

McEntire still seems to be everywhere and won’t be slowing down any time soon. In about a month, she’s co-hosting the annual Academy of Country Music Awards with Blake Shelton. Her latest single, a cover of Beyonce’s “If I Were A Boy,” is making its climb up the charts.

And as for Braddock, it won’t be long before another of his songs is making its way to the number one. He may have done the impossible with “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” but he never let the success of that song define him. He’ll never write a song that genre defining again and he seems to understand it. Plus, it’s funny; he didn’t even think it was his time. Success hasn’t gone to Bobby Braddock’s head and he and country music are all the better for it.


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