Dolly Parton could upstage a train wreck.
Country music’s favorite blonde came close to stealing the show Sunday (May 4) during the ceremony that awarded commemorative medallions to the Hall’s two newest members, Porter Wagoner and the late Bill Carlisle . But Wagoner, no slouch at scene-stealing himself, had the last word.
All manner of famous folk turned out for the event, including Hall of Famers Earl Scruggs , Bill Anderson , Charlie Louvin, Little Jimmy Dickens , and Gordon Stoker and Ray Walker of the Jordanaires; Grand Ole Opry members Vince Gill , Hank Locklin , Jeannie Seeley , Ray Pillow and Hal Ketchum ; and music industry guests Jimmy Martin , Amy Grant, Jim Lauderdale, Ralph Emery and Donna the Buffalo.
The by-invitation-only festivities began with the celebs entering the Hall of Fame on a red carpet laid between rows of cheering fans, proceeded on to a cocktail party on the building’s veranda and then moved to the peak event — the awarding of the medallions in the Hall of Fame rotunda where the members’ plaques are displayed. The evening concluded with a formal dinner in the lobby.
Jack Clement and his Cowboy’s Ragtime Band enlivened the speeches and presentations with songs that Wagoner and Carlisle made famous. Band members included Shawn Camp, fiddle and guitar; Billy Burnette, guitar; Kenny Malone, drums; Glenn Rieuf, steel; David Roe, bass; and Bobby Wood, piano. As the standing-room-only crowd filtered into the rotunda, Clement looked at Parton sitting on the front row in tight, bright red dress with fringes and crooned the opening lines to “Hello Dolly.”
Gill and Dickens paid tribute to Carlisle before presenting the medallion to his son, Bill Carlisle Jr. “No cracks about the glasses,” Gill joked as he peered at his notes through his recently acquired reading glasses. Praising Carlisle’s good humor and showmanship, Gill continued, “I am so proud he was inducted into the Hall of Fame before he passed on.” (Carlisle was inducted into the Hall last November and died on March 17.) “Even when he was ill, he went out there [on the Grand Ole Opry stage] on a walker and kicked their butts.”
Urging the crowd to sing along, Clement and his band played “Too Old to Cut the Mustard,” Carlisle’s 1951 breakthrough hit. George Riddle and Bill Carlisle Jr., who played in Carlisle’s band, and veteran Opry musician Joe Edwards teamed up for the equally zany “Is Zat You Myrtle” and “No Help Wanted.” Jim Lauderdale and the Jordanires then took the stage to sing Carlisle’s classic hymn, “Gone Home.”
Dickens told stories of his closeness with Carlisle during their 50 years on the Opry together. He said it became a routine for him to stop by Carlisle’s dressing room on Opry nights. “We traded little nasty jokes together,” he confessed. One time he walked in, he said, and Carlisle without even looking up, barked to his sideman, “George, run up to the bar and get him a drink so he’ll leave.”
Gill also took the lead in honoring Wagoner, recalling how he had faithfully watched the syndicated Porter Wagoner Show with his father every weekend when he was a kid. “All those years, I thought [Dad] was a big Porter Wagoner fan,” he said. “But then I found out he kind of dug Dolly.” He said the only time he really impressed his dad was when he called him at his home in Columbus, Ohio, to tell him that Parton had asked him to sing with her on a re-recording of “I Will Always Love You.” “He said, ‘I’ll be right down.’” Indeed, the elder Gill drove to Nashville to watch the recording. And get his picture taken with Parton.
Gordon Mote, a singer and pianist Wagoner recommended for the spot, sat in with the band to sing “A Satisfied Mind,” Wagoner’s first No. 1 single. Gill and the Jordanaires followed with a spirited but occasionally halting rendition of “Green, Green Grass of Home.” Wagoner slipped from the room during the musical tribute, which prompted Parton to crack, “Vince, I think you messed up his song so bad he had to go pee.” In setting up her own song, she explained to the crowd that she wrote “I Will Always Love You” as a way of explaining her feelings to Wagoner when she decided to leave his show and strike out on her own. She acknowledged that the separation caused bad blood between them but stressed that their friendship had still survived. Noting that Wagoner had grandchildren in the audience, the eternally youthful star quipped, “Those grandkids look like Porter and me think we still do.” After a spellbinding performance of “I Will Always Love You,” she teamed up with Wagoner to sing one of their best-known duets, the Jack Clement composition, “Just Someone I Used To Know.” They sounded as fresh as they did in their prime.
Still slim, regally dressed and sassy, the 75-year-old Wagoner warned the crowd that his acceptance speech would be a long one. “I knew that this was going to be a touching moment for me,” he said, “and I figured I’d get out here and forget what to say. So I wrote all of it down — 23 pages.” He welcomed “friends from the music industry, fishing buddies, my family and representatives from the Internal Revenue Service.” Wagoner assailed radio for neglecting traditional country artists, asserting that such artists were still making good music and earning money with their shows.
Always the self-promoter, Wagoner announced, “I’ve got a new gospel album that will knock your socks off. … You’re going to hear it if I have to carry the damn thing around and play it from the top of my car.”
Wagoner concluded his remarks by reading a list of the country artists he most cherished, all of them now members of the Hall of Fame. “It’s like reading a list of the members of my family,” he said, “because, in truth, these were my family. They were as close kin to me as uncles, cousins and aunts. … We shared stories, stages, dressing rooms, bus trips, food and drink, happiness and grief. But most of all, we shared music. Great music. That’s the main reason I wanted to be in the Country Music Hall of Fame so badly. I wanted to be with my family.”
The program ended with a group singing of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.”