Another class makes its mark on history

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: