The Country Music Hall of Fame embraced Alabama, Glen Campbell and DeFord Bailey as its newest members Sunday evening (May 7) via its annual medallion ceremony which included performances by Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flatts, Lonestar, Vince Gill, Sawyer Brown and others. Demonstrating that he is still a formidable musical force, Campbell rocked the house with a rapturous rendition of his 1975 hit, “Rhinestone Cowboy.”
To bestow the medallions on those officially inducted in November, a two and-a-half-hour event was held in the Ford Theater of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in downtown Nashville. An elegant cocktail party in the museum’s Curb Conservatory preceded the program, and desserts and cordials were served there afterward. Because the Ford Theater seats only 213 people, the overflow crowd watched a TV simulcast in the Hall of Fame rotunda and on the museum’s East Plaza.
On hand to greet the new inductees were Hall of Fame members Eddy Arnold, Brenda Lee, Phil Everly, Charlie Louvin, Earl Scruggs, Bill Anderson, Jo Walker-Meador, Frances Preston, E.W. “Bud” Wendell, Jim Foglesong, Gordon Stoker and Ray Walker. Other notable celebrants included Tom T. Hall, Duane Eddy, Jimmy Wayne, Bryan White, Nanci Griffith, Billy Burnette, record producer and Campbell’s former banjo player Carl Jackson, Larry Weiss (writer of “Rhinestone Cowboy”) and former Hee Haw producer Sam Lovullo.
Pianist John Hobbs led the Medallion All-Stars, the ad hoc band that backed most of the performances. Band members were drummer Eddie Bayers, bassist Michael Rhodes, steel guitarist Russ Pahl, violinist Andrea Zonn and guitarists Tom Britt and Biff Watson.
Gill opened the show with “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today,” a song he dedicated to country music figures who died during the past year, specifically Louise Scruggs, Cindy Walker, Buck Owens, Jimmy Martin and Vassar Clements, all of whom, he said, had had a great influence on his own music.
“The three newest members of the Country Music Hall of Fame can each be credited with distinct, instantly recognizable and innovative music,” Hall of Fame director Kyle Young told the crowd in his opening remarks. “On their journeys, they all crossed major cultural and social boundaries.”
First to be singled out was the late Grand Ole Opry star DeFord Bailey, who was represented by his widow, son, two daughters and a grandson. Bailey, who joined the Opry in 1926 when it was still called the WSM Barn Dance, was country music’s first African American star. An inventive harmonica player, he incorporated such extramusical elements as trains and animal sounds into his performances and soon became one of the Opry’s most in-demand stars, even though he had to tour under vicious and demeaning Jim Crow laws. He quit the Opry in 1941 and did not play on the show again until 1974. Bailey died in 1982.
Chicago harmonica player Joe Filisko offered the first musical bow to Bailey, playing the rousing and legendary “Fox Chase,” complete with the sounds of baying hounds and shouts of encouragement from the hunters. By the time the “chase” gained momentum, the crowd was already cheering.
Also wielding a harmonica, DeFord Bailey Jr. showed his father’s more sedate side by playing a slow and sonorous version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” one of the honoree’s favorite hymns. Charlie McCoy, the harmonica wizard from the famed A-Team of Nashville session musicians, was up next with Bailey’s “Pan American Blues,” an uncanny simulation of a train gaining speed and hurtling along the tracks.
Finally, Carlos Bailey, DeFord’s grandson, sang his own composition, “The Legend of DeFord Bailey,” backed by DeFord Jr. and the Medallion All-Stars. “When DeFord died,” said the refrain, “a chorus of angels cried.”
Hall of Famer Wendell presented Bailey’s medallion to his family. “I’m going to tell you something else,” said daughter Dezoral Lee Thomas in her acceptance remarks. “My daddy was a preacher. He loved God. … God just anointed him.”
Young then recited a few of the achievements Campbell made on his way from an impoverished Arkansas childhood to world renown. Among these were touring briefly with the Beach Boys (in Brian Wilson’s place), working for such famed record producers as Phil Spector and Jimmy Bowen and playing guitar on sessions for Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard and hundreds of other stars.
Campbell’s breakthrough as a solo artist came in 1967, Young explained, when he recorded John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind.” The next year he began hosting his wildly popular CBS-TV musical variety series, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, which gave exposure to such up-and-coming talents as Hartford and Jerry Reed.
At this point, Young called Jamie Hartford, John Hartford’s son, to the stage. Addressing Campbell, who sat on the front row alongside the other honorees and their families, Hartford said, “Ever since I’ve been growing up, I’ve been watching that guy play guitar. He still knocks me out.” Then, backed by the band and accompanying himself on electric guitar, he sang “Gentle on My Mind.”
Fellow Arkansan Shawn Camp prefaced his rendition of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” one of Campbell’s many hits from songwriter Jimmy Webb, by explaining to Campbell how his music had inspired him as he was growing up.
The last musical nod to Campbell came from songwriter John D. Loudermilk, whose “I Wanna Live” in 1968 became Campbell’s first No. 1 country hit. Before singing it, Loudermilk told of passing by a park in London and hearing hundreds of voices singing the song. When he went to investigate, he discovered that singers were representatives of the then-warring Irish factions who had found this one piece of common ground.
Brenda Lee inducted Campbell and recalled that she had known him since he played guitar on her Reflections in Blue album in Hollywood in 1967. “To be a living legend,” she continued, “you need to survive the harsh reality of celebrity life, and Glen has certainly done that.”
“It has been an incredible ride,” Campbell responded. “It has been wonderful. Sometimes it has been hurtful.” For a moment, his voice broke and he paused before going on. “I was thinking of my mom and dad,” he explained. He told how, as a kid, he couldn’t “mash down” the strings on the $7 guitar his dad had bought him. So his dad fashioned him a capo from a corn cob and a rubber band.
Campbell stepped away from the podium to join the All-Stars, then, as a prudent afterthought, leaned back to the microphone and added, “I want to thank my wife.” Still handsome, trim and dapper in a black suit and black shirt, Campbell seized a guitar and, with his medallion swinging from his neck, led the band in an impassioned reading of “Rhinestone Cowboy.”
The tribute to Alabama — Randy Owen, Teddy Gentry, Jeff Cook and Mark Herndon — was the longest and loosest of the evening. Following Young’s survey of Alabama’s origin and successes, the four members of Lonestar trooped out. Lead singer Richie McDonald began by declaring, “Alabama, you guys had a lot of effect on the people’s lives who are up here tonight.” He noted that Lonestar plays a medley of Alabama’s hits on its shows and added, “The fans still love you.” Then the group sang “Mountain Music,” which, in 1982, earned Alabama a Grammy for best country vocal performance by a group or duo.
Sawyer Brown’s Mark Miller, Hobie Hubbard and Shayne Hill fronted the Medallion All-Stars to perform the joyous “Dixieland Delight,” one of Alabama’s three No. 1 singles from 1983. Before starting the song, Miller told Alabama, “My son was very excited that you guys had been abducted into the Hall of Fame.”
Young noted that Alabama had had its share of hit ballads as well as up-tempo numbers, including Owen’s own doleful composition, “Lady Down on Love.” He then called Chesney out to sing it.
Normally reticent, Chesney rushed over and hugged Owen. He also seemed eager to talk about his debt to Alabama. He said his first tour was with the group (they shared the same manager, Dale Morris). Chesney explained that the tour was sponsored by Fruit of the Loom underwear and recalled it was at the start of the tour that he first experienced the “Randy Owen stare.”
Fruit of the Loom executives had gathered backstage for a “meet and greet” with the stars, Chesney continued, and his road manager — in an excess of chumminess — cornered one of them and cracked, “I like your tie. It must go with everything else you’ve got because it doesn’t go with anything you’ve got on.” That, said Chesney, was when he got Owen’s censorius stare. He said he was glad he was allowed to finish the tour.
Clad in a black hat, long-sleeved black shirt and gray slacks, Chesney stood with his hands in his pockets and gave a tender rendering of “Lady Down on Love” that brought the crowd to its feet.
Last up was Rascal Flatts. Lead singer Gary LeVox, whose normally spiky hair was covered by a STP baseball cap, apologized to the crowd for his appearance, noting that his hairdresser mistakenly thought the band wouldn’t go on until later. He lifted his cap quickly to confirm his excuse. LeVox and bandmates Jay DeMarcus and Joe Don Rooney sat casually on high stools as they sang “My Home’s in Alabama.” Introducing this signature hit, LeVox remarked, “I know Randy and the guys must have had a lot to say because they’ve got a lot of words in this song.” Even so, excepting for one miscue early in the song, the trio managed to recall those words.
Meador, the former head of the Country Music Association, and Preston, the former CEO of BMI, the performance rights organization, inducted the four members of Alabama. Meador recalled that early in the 1980s, Jerry Bradley, then head of RCA, Alabama’s record label, had pitched the band for a spot on the CMA Awards Show. When the other committee members expressed reservations that the band wasn’t that well-known, Bradley retorted, “You may not know them, but if you don’t put them on, they may not be available next year.”
Referring to all the time she had spent backstage with Alabama, Preston observed, “I’m probably one of the few people — other than Kenny Chesney — who can tell you who wears boxer shorts and who wears briefs.”
After Meador and Preston handed out the medallions, Herndon addressed the crowd. “A few short years ago,” he mused, “they would have kept drummers out of here.’ (Indeed, he appears to be the first drummer in the Hall of Fame.) “There’s a lot of love in this room,” he said. “I don’t mean to sound corny, but it’s palpable. And, in your case, DeFord, there’s some justice, too.” Turning to his bandmates, he concluded, “I thank these guys too for always staying country — despite my best efforts to turn them to rock.”
“I’ve had three months, and I still can’t think of anything,” said the taciturn Gentry. “Except it feels good. … Once they put you in, I don’t think they can take you back out, boys.”
Cook was equally brief. He said someone had asked him before the ceremony who he would like to see sitting in the front row this night. On the verge of tears, he added, “I wish we could have seen our fathers, who have all passed away.”
Owen luxuriated in having all the time he wanted to thank those who had supported the band through the years. And he took it, enumerating all the people at RCA who had boosted the band’s career, from label heads Jerry Bradley and Joe Galante down through the ranks of the promotion department. He dramatically shucked off his suit coat and donned a red RCA jacket to show his allegiance to the label that’s been the band’s home since 1980. He singled out producer Harold Shedd — “an honest man who understood our music” — and talent buyer George Moffett, who took a chance on the band when it was still in its infancy. He thanked the band’s bodyguard, its publicist and its guitar tuner.
Owen told of how the band had persuaded their manager to buy the best sound and lighting available for its stage shows — and how it then had to live with the debt. “For two years,” he said, “we basically made no money. But we looked great and sounded great.”
One of the obstacles Alabama faced in the early days was the widely accepted notion that a band couldn’t sell records. Although it has long since dispatched that idea, Owen still had cause for complaint. “I watch Nashville Star, and I don’t see one band on that show,” he said. “And I watch American Idol, and I don’t see any bands. Why is that?” Owen concluded on an upbeat note, however. “Tonight I celebrate,” he proclaimed. “I celebrate all the love.”
The ceremony ended with all the artists returning to the stage to lead the audience in “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”