The Country Music Hall of Fame presented membership medallions Sunday (May 2) to singer Carl Smith and the widow of the late piano stylist, Floyd Cramer. The ceremonies at the Hall of Fame and Museum’s Ford Theater were preceded by a cocktail reception in the museum’s rotunda where membership plaques are on permanent display. Smith and Cramer were officially inducted into the Hall of Fame last year.
Many of country music’s most revered performers turned out for the event, as well as some rising younger talent. Among these were Country Music Hall of Famers Eddy Arnold, Little Jimmy Dickens, Charlie Louvin, Brenda Lee, Kitty Wells (and her husband, Johnny Wright) and Ray Walker and Gordon Stoker of the Jordanaires; Grand Ole Opry stars Connie Smith, Hank Locklin and Jan Howard; singers Kix Brooks (of Brooks & Dunn), Melba Montgomery, Joe Nichols, Carlene Carter (Smith’s daughter), Goldie Hill (Smith’s wife), Maura O’Connell, Chuck Mead and Chris Scruggs of BR549, Doug Green (of Riders In The Sky) and Gail Davies; Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame members Bobby Braddock and Jerry Chesnut; and legendary disc jockeys Ralph Emery and Charlie Douglas.
Guests filed into the theater as Cramer’s first chart record — “Flip Flop and Bop,” a minor pop hit from 1958 — boomed out from the speakers. Grand Ole Opry bandleader and guitarist Jimmy Capps directed the house band for the event, an ensemble that featured guitarist Spider Wilson, fiddler Hoot Hester, steel guitarist Stu Basore, bassist Billy Linneman, keyboardist Tim Atwood and drummer Eddie Bayers.
After welcoming remarks from Country Music Hall of Fame director Kyle Young, Connie Smith (no relation to Carl) opened the series of performances by singing “Wait a Little Longer Please, Jesus,” a Carl Smith hit from 1955. The honoree, looking slim and regal in a sport coat, jeans, boots and white cowboy hat, rose from his seat on the front row to embrace the singer.
Next up was session pianist Dirk Johnson, who played “On the Rebound,” Cramer’s No. 4 pop hit from 1961. He was followed by Locklin, whose 1960 chart-topper, “Please Help Me, I’m Fallin’,” was enriched by Cramer’s distinctive slip-note piano licks. Still looking dapper at 86, Locklin had some difficulty recalling all the lyrics to his song, but he bridged these lapses like a trouper with jokes and reminiscences. “I’m really delighted to be here with you,” he cracked. “I’d hate to be here without you.”
Cramer’s grandson, Jason Coleman, a student at Nashville’s Belmont University, accompanied Locklin on the piano and remained to back O’Connell, who sang “Crazy,” the Patsy Cline hit that his grandfather’s stylings had helped make a classic. Coleman then played Cramer’s signature song from 1960, “Last Date.” (The song went to No. 2 on the pop charts and to No. 11 on the country rankings.)
At this point, Brenda Lee came forward to present the medallion to Cramer’s widow, Mary. Cramer, who died in 1997, played on many of Lee’s early recording sessions. “Floyd, in my mind, was such a gentle soul,” she recalled. “I feel blessed to have had him in my life — both personally and professionally.”
The program then shifted to Smith’s musical legacy. BR549 lead singer Chuck Mead sang Smith’s No. 1 from 1953, “Hey Joe!” Kix Brooks followed him to the stage to sing Smith’s biggest hit, “Let Old Mother Nature Have Her Way,” from 1951. Brooks was clearly so unfamiliar with the words of the song that he had barely gotten into it before he insisted that Smith come up to sing along with him. After much urging, Smith complied and quickly demonstrated that he still has the star quality that first shone in the early ’50s. As he finished, he leaned over theatrically and kissed Brooks on the cheek.
Rising star Joe Nichols arose to sing “(When You Feel Like You’re in Love) Don’t Just Stand There),” a 1952 No. 1 for Smith. He also faltered on the words when he came to the second verse but recovered well. Taking no chances, Charlie Louvin came out with a lyric sheet in his hand for his duet with Melba Montgomery on “Are You Teasing Me,” a song he co-wrote with his late brother, Ira. “Are You Teasing Me” was Smith’s second No. 1 hit in 1952. Oddly enough, Gail Davies, who had a Top 5 single in 1981 with her cover of Smith’s 1952 hit “It’s A Lovely, Lovely World,” was not asked to sing as part of the tribute.
Little Jimmy Dickens then took the podium to confer the medallion on his longtime friend. He pulled out a sheaf of papers and announced, “This usually means you have a lot to say — but not in this case. I don’t want to pull a Hank Locklin on you.” Before he called Smith up for the presentation, he talked about their “lasting friendship,” the shows they had played together and Smith’s habit of playing pranks on him, such as calling in a game warden when Dickens was fishing in his pond. He spoke of working for a particularly devious concert promoter: “He was the only agent who could take a star and make him a has-been overnight.” Then Dickens waxed serious, telling the crowd, “In the 1950s and ’60s, [Smith] was the Garth Brooks of country music. But he just hung that guitar up one day and became a horseman.” With that, he brought Smith up for the presentation.
“I’m proud that I know this fellow,” Smith said, hugging Dickens. “He’s telling the truth: I’ve done some awful things to him.” One of Dickens’ showstoppers is the song (“You’ve Been Quite a Doll) Raggedy Ann,” in which he cradles a rag doll in his arms and sings to it like a heartbroken father. It was during one such performance, Smith said, that he walked onstage, snatched the doll away from Dickens and walked off. “Being senile,” Smith continued, “he just went right on singing to his hands.”
In obvious high spirits, Smith jibed at Kix Brooks by saying, “Some people will get up to sing your song and won’t know the lyrics. That lets out the secret why he plays guitar and the other one sings.” Talking about growing up in eastern Tennessee, Smith said, “Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a hillbilly singer and a cowboy. And I’ve been both.” He credited three people for his rise to fame: songplugger Troy Martin, former Grand Ole Opry manager Jack Stapp and Don Law, the head of Columbia Records country division and Smith’s producer. He said Law gave him complete creative control over his music, from picking the songs to the way he performed them. “I’ve done that my whole life,” he concluded. “I thank God, and I thank you.”
The ceremonies ended with all the performers joining Smith onstage to sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Nashville radio station WSM-AM carried the event live and on the Internet with Eddie Stubbs hosting.