George Strait, Sonny James and Harold Bradley, the newest members of the Country Music Hall of Fame, were awarded medallions commemorating the achievement Sunday night (May 6) at a celebration that lasted five hours and featured at least $5 million worth of musical talent. The by-invitation-only event was held at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in downtown Nashville.
Although the three principals were formally inducted into the Hall of Fame in November during the Country Music Association’s annual awards show, the medallion ceremony is designed to focus solely on the history and careers of the newest inductees.
Performing during the ceremony were Bradley, Strait, Vince Gill, Reba McEntire, Alan Jackson, Charlie Daniels, Connie Smith, Lee Ann Womack, Trace Adkins, Ray Stevens, Alabama lead vocalist Randy Owen, George “Goober” Lindsey, members of the Southern Gentlemen (James’ vocal group), Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer Dean Dillon, guitarist Dan Huff and an all-star band made up of John Hobbs (keyboards), Eddie Bayers (drums), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Paul Franklin (steel guitar), Brent Mason (guitar, bass), Russ Pahl (guitar), Michael Rhodes (bass) and Wes Hightower and Marty Slayton (background vocals).
The festivities began at 5 p.m. with a cocktail party that continued as dignitaries arrived for a red-carpet walk past media and fans into the Hall of Fame’s Curb Conservatory. Most prominent among the guests were earlier Hall of Fame members Owen, Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook of Alabama, Charlie Louvin, Bill Anderson, George Jones, Little Jimmy Dickens, Brenda Lee, Porter Wagoner, Phil Everly, Jo Walker-Meador, Frances Preston, E. W. “Bud” Wendell and Gordon Stoker, Ray Walker and Louis Nunley of the Jordanaires.
Also spotted in the crowd were disc jockey and country music historian Eddie Stubbs, singer Jimmy Wayne, Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell, singer-songwriters Jack Clement and Jim Lauderdale, John Carter Cash and radio and TV personality Ralph Emery. Others in attendance included Charlie Dick, husband of the late Patsy Cline, and actor John Amos (Men in Trees, Good Times), who is in town recording a country album.
“It is country music of the highest order that brings us here tonight,” proclaimed Hall of Fame board chairman Wendell when the official ceremony began.
As he has at past ceremonies, Gill, who doubles as president of the Hall of Fame trustees, opened the observances with a hymn. It was not, however, “Rock of Ages,” the one listed in the program.
“This is a political year,” he explained. “They had one picked out for me, and, using my presidential power, I vetoed it.” Instead, he sang “Drifting Too Far From the Shore,” accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, and dedicated it to Brian Williams, the beloved entertainment banker who died last year in a drowning accident.
Kyle Young, director of the Hall of Fame and Museum, summarized the lives of the honorees before turning his attention specifically to Bradley, believed to be the most recorded guitarist in history. Now 81 and still recording, he also serves as president of the Nashville chapter of the American Federation of Musicians.
Charlie Daniels tipped his hat to Bradley by performing the Ernest Tubb hit “Thanks a Lot,” from 1963, one of the hundreds of country classics on which Bradley had played. (Bradley was still in high school when he toured briefly as Tubb’s lead guitarist.) Daniels recalled that he was once asked to play on a recording for a pop star whose arrangements had some strange chords. He said when he failed to play them properly, the session producer called in guitar legend Grady Martin, who faltered, too. Finally, Daniels said, they brought in Bradley, who nailed the arrangement immediately.
Gill backed Daniels, playing tic tac bass guitar.
The next artist to pay Bradley tribute was Trace Adkins. Looking at the honorees lined up together in the front row, Adkins boomed, “Congratulations, gentlemen. I don’t scare easy, but I’ve never been more terrified in my life than I am right now.” Even so, he rendered an emotionally riveting cover of Conway Twitty’s 1970 “Hello Darlin'” that drew thunderous applause.
Reba McEntire then came forward to sing “I Fall to Pieces,” a song made famous in 1961 by her chief role model, Patsy Cline. “Harold, I was one of the people lucky enough to get to work with you in the ’70s,” McEntire said. Her heart-rending interpretation of the Cline classic had the audience applauding from the first line.
Brenda Lee next took the stage to present Bradley his medallion. She noted that she had known and worked with Bradley since the start of her recording career and considered herself one of his family. (Her producer was Harold’s older brother, Owen, also a member of the Hall of Fame.) The diminutive singer recalled that when she was 15 and wanted to give a party for her friends, the Bradleys canceled sessions and let her use their recording studio, the famed Quonset Hut. They even decorated the studio and provided “burgers and fries,” she added.
“I’d like to thank all the performers who came out,” Bradley said in his acceptance remarks, “except Vince. He played too loud.” Gill covered his face and shook with laughter at the affectionate dig. “If he’s going to start picking that good,” Bradley continued, “I’m going to start singing.” Bradley again advocated that the Hall of Fame induct all the other members of Nashville’s historic “A team” of session musicians. He began weeping when he spoke of his late brother and tireless supporter, Owen, whom he called “a second father.”
Bradley ended his portion of the proceedings by playing “Lara’s Theme,” which he explained became a crowd favorite when he was touring England with singer Slim Whitman.
Young then spoke of Sonny James’ early years as a musical prodigy in an Alabama farm family that eventually became a professional singing group. He told how Chet Atkins, once James’ roommate, had introduced the aspiring young artist to producer Ken Nelson at Capitol Records — a linkup that would go on to foster a 20-year string of hits, including 16 consecutive No. 1’s. (Both Atkins and Nelson preceded James into the Hall of Fame.) James’ first recording triumph was the 1956 hit, “Young Love,” which topped both the country and pop charts.
Grand Ole Opry member Connie Smith began the round of tributes to James by singing “A World of Our Own,” his chart topper from 1968. Backing her were four members of James’ celebrated group, the Southern Gentlemen: Lin Bown, Jack Galloway, Glenn Huggins and Gary Robble. Dressed in black suits and chauffeur caps, they swayed and bopped like teenagers and were an instant hit with the crowd. Dann Huff stepped in to cover James’ distinctive guitar licks.
Randy Owen also turned to the Southern Gentlemen for support for his version of James’ 1964 smash, “You’re the Only World I Know.” Said Owen to James, “We’re going to do this one a little bit different. The guys told me you’d really like it.” With that, he was off on a finger-snapping, doo-wop journey that had James beaming with delight and the crowd equally charmed.
In his continuing biographical remarks, Young noted that James and Bobbie Gentry had hosted the first CMA awards show in 1967, the year before it went on television.
Gill returned to the stage to sing the yearning “Young Love.” He told the crowd he had brought along the song’s lyric sheet in case he forgot the words.
“I just turned 50 last week,” he said, “and evidently one of the side effects of Cialis is memory loss. So Porter, be careful.” (Gill addressed that last remark to 79-year-old Porter Wagoner, whose amorous reputation shines almost as brightly as the rhinestones on his costumes.)
Dressed for the part in buckskins and buffalo horns, Ray Stevens ambled into the spotlight to perform James’ 1969 novelty tune, “Running Bear.”
“I just wanted you to know that I had a record called ‘Running Bare,’ too — ‘The Streak.'” About midway in the song about Running Bear’s ill-fated love for “little White Dove,” George “Goober” Lindsey sashayed in wearing Indian maiden regalia. It was a real crowd-pleaser, although it would likely have gone over less well in certain ethnically-centered casinos.
Wagoner presented James his medallion and ventured the explanation that James’ guitar always sounded so bright because he changed strings every day, apparently a remarkable extravagance at the time.
“If you notice, I’m talking just a little bit better,” said James, who was barely able to speak during last fall’s CMA Awards. “It’s an allergy situation.” Indeed, his voice did become more distinct as he spoke to the crowd. “I accept this medallion on behalf of my good Lord,” he continued.
James was also moved to tears when he spoke of all the friends and family who had supported him in his music. He had special praise for the Southern Gentlemen, including those who were not on hand to share in his celebration. “We were good friends when we started, and today we’re even closer,” he said.
It was just after 9 p.m. when it came Strait’s turn for canonization. Young began the encomiums by declaring that Strait “reigns as the most influential male vocalist in country music.” He traced the singer’s rise from military band member to Texas club favorite to his eventual signing by MCA Records. And he told of Strait’s work as a rancher. “There’s absolutely nothing drugstore about this cowboy,” Young insisted.
Dean Dillon, who has written more Strait hits than any other songwriter, opened the segment by singing “The Chair” from 1985. Lee Ann Womack followed with “The King of Broken Hearts” from the soundtrack album to Strait’s 1992 movie, Pure Country. (Jim Lauderdale, who wrote the song as a tribute to George Jones, was in the audience.)
Alan Jackson emerged from the wings to offer a few words of praise before singing Strait’s 1985 hit, “The Fireman.” “I’m not much of a speechmaker,” Jackson said, “but I guess I ought to say something about you. Congratulations. It’s well-deserved.” He added that “The Fireman” had been one of his most requested songs back when he was singing covers in clubs.
Among those in the audience were two of Strait’s most effective producers, Jimmy Bowen and Tony Brown, as well as Strait’s father and his longtime champion and manager, Erv Woolsey.
George Jones came to the podium to praise Strait and hang the medallion around his neck. He said he first met Strait when he performed at a music park Jones was operating in Texas. Later, he said, Strait came to his house and sat on the edge of the bed with him and watched a football game.
Jones also lauded Strait as a husband. “He’s stayed married to the same woman, Norma, for 35 years. And, goddamn, that’s good!”
Wearing reading glasses, Strait became clearly choked up during his opening remarks.
“From the time I first started singing country music,” he said, “I dreamed of getting into the Hall of Fame. … I wanted it all.” He thanked his father for his love. “My belief in God came from that,” he said. Acknowledging Bowen for forcing him to become involved in the song selection for and production of his own albums, Strait said the producer “unleashed the beast.”
Brandishing a sly grin, Strait tipped his hat to MCA Records, which has undergone a series of management changes since he signed to the label. “[You’re] the only one I’ve ever been with,” he told the MCA officials in the audience. “I’ve been there longer than most of you have.”
Strait concluded his speech by asserting, “I’m going to continue to strive to be the best that I can be for the rest of my life.”
Turning toward the band, Strait strapped on his guitar to sing his 1983 hit, “Amarillo by Morning.” Then he looked at Gill and said, “Vince, I didn’t think you were too loud.”
The program ended at 10 p.m. with all the performers gathering on stage and leading the audience in “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”