“This is the biggest thing that’s happened since water.”
In rendering that assessment, Patsy Stoneman Murphy pretty much summed it up for everyone who turned out Sunday (April 27) to witness her father, the late Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman, and Emmylou Harris inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. It was an evening of superlatives and superlative music.
The induction — now known as the medallion ceremony — was held in the Ford Theater of Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. A similar ceremony for fellow 2008 inductees Tom T. Hall and the Statler Brothers will be staged June 29 at the same location. Hall of Fame officials said there wasn’t enough space and time to induct all four acts properly in one evening.
Among those attending the ceremony were earlier Hall of Fame inductees Little Jimmy Dickens, Charlie Louvin, Phil Everly, Earl Scruggs, the Jordanaires, Ralph Emery, Frances Preston, Jo Walker Meador and Vince Gill. Also spotted in the crowd were Marty Stuart, the Whites, John Carter Cash, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Jeff Hanna, Matraca Berg, producer Tony Brown, former Sony Nashville label chief John Grady, members of Harris’ various bands and her former husbands, producer Brian Ahern and songwriter Paul Kennerley.
Just before the induction got underway, Tom T. Hall and the Statler Brothers entered the theater unannounced from a side door and unobtrusively took their seats in the front row.
Kevin Lamb, head of the Nashville division of peermusic, the publishing company that oversees the classic songs of the Stoneman and Carter families, presided over a table at which were seated heirs and perpetuators of those musical dynasties, including Pop Stoneman’s three surviving daughters — Patsy, Donna and Roni — and A. P. and Sara Carter’s granddaughter, Rita Forrester. Since the death of her mother, Janette, Forrester has operated the Carter Fold performance center at Hiltons, Va.
As has become the custom, Vince Gill opened the musical part of the program with a hymn, “Drifting Too Far From the Shore.” He said he had sung the song in 1981 at a show in Colorado soon after his grandfather had died. At the time, he was with Pure Prairie League, which was opening the show for Harris.
“She waltzed out to the stage and sang this song with me that night,” Gill recalled, “and I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”
Kyle Young, director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, recited the personal and artistic achievements of Stoneman and Harris and introduced the acts that performed some of their musical milestones. He noted that Stoneman was already a successful recording artist by the time the fabled Bristol Sessions took place in 1927 and launched the careers of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers.
Young spoke of Stoneman’s affinity for sentimental ballads and brought out the Old Crow Medicine Show to illustrate that fondness by singing a faithfully reconstructed version of one of Stoneman’s favorites, “Tell Mother I Will Meet Her.”
Then the Stoneman daughters, backed by Cowboy Jack Clement on vocals and guitar, performed Stoneman’s most famous recording, “The Titanic,” with Roni on banjo, Donna on mandolin and the ever-talkative Patsy on autoharp.
“You don’t grow old because you play music,” Patsy told the crowd. “You grow old because you stop playing music.” Pointing out that she will turn 83 next month, she said the show’s producers had asked her if she needed a Teleprompter to keep track of the lyrics. “I need a Telestopper,” she quipped.
Fans who learned to love the Stonemans through their television series in the late 1960s will be pleased to know that Donna still dances airily from side to side as she picks her mandolin, just as she did when she and her sisters were wearing short skirts and go-go boots.
The Medallion Band, led by keyboardist John Hobbs, next came to the stage to accompany Clement as he warbled the bluegrass classic, “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues,” which Stoneman first popularized. The other band members were drummer Eddie Bayers, steel guitarist Paul Franklin, guitarists Brent Mason and Biff Watson, bassist Michael Rhodes, fiddler Deanie Richardson and background vocalists Tania Hancheroff and Wes Hightower.
Jim Lauderdale and the Jordanaires rounded out Stoneman’s musical journey with the old-time hymn “Are You Washed in the Blood.” Looking out at his fellow musicians and songwriters, Lauderdale enthused, “I think this is the highest concentration of greatness in the whole universe.”
Former BMI chief Frances Preston, who became a Hall of Fame member in 1992, said that Stoneman’s motto was “‘don’t quit’ — and he didn’t.’” She presented his medallion to his daughters. Vince Gill assisted Patsy, who has difficulty walking, to center stage to accept the award. She vowed she would keep it displayed in “a shadow box on my wall.”
Turning his attention to Harris, Young lauded her for helping “establish country music’s cultural importance” by taking and interpreting it to audiences who might otherwise have never heard it.
To demonstrate the start of Harris’ musical pilgrimage, Patty Griffin and Buddy Miller sang “Love Hurts,” a classic Everly Brothers tune the singer had recorded with her chief mentor, Gram Parsons, on his Grievous Angel album.
Lucinda Williams came next to sing “Boulder to Birmingham,” Harris’ heartfelt response to Parson’s death. “I was in tears a couple of times listening to all those songs,” Williams revealed. “I’ve never been so nervous before.” Her inward-looking, almost distracted rendition of the song earned her a standing ovation.
Guy Clark then took the microphone to sing “Bang the Drum Slowly,” an elegy he and Harris crafted for her father, a former Marine fighter pilot. “I must confess I don’t think I wrote any of it,” Clark said. “She would say something, and I would go ‘Yeah!’ I was basically a cheerleader.”
By way of spotlighting Harris’ bluegrass leanings, Sam Bush, Jon Randall, Gill, Miller and Griffin joined forces on “Green Pastures,” a gem from her Roses in the Snow album.
Young noted that, in addition to Harris’ musical pioneering, she has also been active in social causes, ranging from land mine removal to the humane treatment of animals.
Hall of Fame member Charlie Louvin, another of Harris’ prime musical influences, presented her the signature medallion, calling her “a welcome ambassador to all that we stand for.”
Stepping to the speaker’s stand, Harris good-naturedly chided Young for saying everything in his introduction that she wanted to talk about in her acceptance remarks. She first spoke of the “thirty-dollar Kay” guitar her grandfather bought for her in a Birmingham, Ala., pawnshop.
“I didn’t know strings weren’t supposed to be half an inch above the neck,” she said, “but I still learned to play a C chord.” She thanked her brother in the audience for immersing her in country music early, even though she admitted she was a reluctant listener to his records at 16.
She said her first epiphany about the power of country music came when she listened to Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears album. It showed her, she explained, that folk, country and social consciousness could work together.
In a quick aside, Harris turned her attention to the other attendees and exclaimed, “I have to say, Patsy Stoneman, you are the bomb!”
Harris also expressed her appreciation to her parents for taking her back in after she had given birth to her first child and was unsure about continuing in music and to her daughters for not making her feel guilty for being away so much on the road.
“I don’t deserve it, but I’ll take it,” she said. “I feel like that guy in the Verizon commercial with that sea of people behind him.”
Watching from the audience, Steve Fishell, Harris’ steel guitar and Dobro player from 1980 to 1989, observed, “She’s always thinking about everybody else — never about herself.”
Harris wrapped up her remarks by quoting her late friend, Sarah Cannon, best known to the world as Minnie Pearl. “I’m so proud to be here,” she beamed.
Young concluded the ceremony by summoning all the Hall of Fame members to the stage to sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”