One Enchanted Evening: Ferlin Husky, Billy Sherrill Enter Country Music Hall of Fame

Ricky Skaggs, Shelby Lynne, Ronnie Milsap, Lee Ann Womack Among Those Singing Tributes

It is a cultural loss bordering on the tragic that so few people were able to witness the induction of singer Ferlin Husky and producer-songwriter Billy Sherrill into the Country Music Hall of Fame Sunday evening (May 23) at the Hall’s Curb Conservatory.

Not only did the invitation-only event resurrect some of the most moving songs recorded since the early 1950s, it also demonstrated the degree to which music is a keystone to building community — first among its creators and then throughout the world.

Besides being one of the most star-intensive gatherings in country music, the medallion ceremony is perhaps the only one in which celebrities routinely react in awe to each other’s artistry.

The Hall’s Ford Theater, the usual site of the ceremony, was damaged in the recent Nashville flood and is not expected to be ready for use again until early August. To keep the history-laden proceedings at a manageable length, the Hall of Fame will welcome Husky’s and Sherrill’s 2010 “classmates,” singers Jimmy Dean and Don Williams, into its ranks on Oct. 24.

Husky, 84, and Sherrill, 73, heard themselves praised for taking country music in brave — and sometimes controversial — new directions. Their achievements were footnoted with performances by Lee Ann Womack, Ronnie Milsap, Ricky Skaggs and the Whites, Craig Morgan, Shelby Lynne, Webb Wilder, Dallas Frazier and Ronnie McDowell (accompanied by the Jordanaires and Millie Kirkham).

Keyboardist John Hobbs again led the Medallion Band, made up of drummer Eddie Bayers, steel guitarist Paul Franklin, guitarists Steve Gibson and Biff Watson, fiddler Deanie Richardson, bassist Michael Rhodes, tuba player Larry Paxton and vocalists Dawn Sears and Jeff White.

Kyle Young, director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, narrated the induction services with a mixture of reverence and good humor, salting his comments with little-known details about the honorees’ personal lives and careers.

Young credited Husky, Sherrill, Dean and Williams as being among “the sonic architects that lifted country music into the mainstream.”

As customary, the evening opened with the playing of a classic country record, in this case Johnny Cash‘s 1959 hit, “Five Feet High and Rising,” a vivid memory of an earlier flood.

Vince Gill, as in years past, offered the opening hymn, “Oh Happy Day,” which he sang with the rapturous backing of the nine-member Settles Connection Choir. It earned the first of the ceremony’s many standing ovations.

After tracing Husky’s early career struggles — including a stretch in the Merchant Marines in World War II during which he began developing his comic alter ego, Simon Crum — Young asserted “his was the voice and the sound of the people.”

Husky first entered the Billboard charts in 1953, Young noted, with “A Dear John Letter,” which he recorded with Jean Shepard. The song went No. 1 and stayed there for six weeks. A couple of years later, Husky let his humor shine through with the raucous, love-crazed “I Feel Better All Over (More Than Anywhere’s Else).”

To a roar of applause, country rocker Wilder bounded onto the stage and proceeded to recreate the sense of youthful glee that song first conveyed.

Young declared that Husky “created the template for the famed Nashville Sound,” principally through his 1956 recording of “Gone,” a doleful composition he had originally cut in 1952 under the name Terry Preston. Backing Husky in the updated recording of “Gone” were the Jordanaires gospel quartet and soprano Kirkham.

In 1957, “Gone” topped the country charts for 10 weeks and climbed to No. 4 on the pop charts. The Jordanaires and Kirkham were soon adding their magic vocal touches to Elvis Presley‘s records. In recent, years, they have backed Ronnie McDowell, an Elvis-influenced vocalist who covered “Gone” in 1980.

Before singing “Gone” with the Jordanaires and Kirkham, McDowell told the crowd he had gotten a congratulatory call from Husky — masquerading as Simon Crum — on his last birthday.

Addressing Husky directly, McDowell said, “In 1957, when I was 7 years old, I was walking around the house singing that song.” Then, in his best Husky style, he ignited the drama of “Gone,” soon stepping off the stage to stand in front of Husky and sing to him directly. George Jones, who sat a few rows behind Husky, smiled broadly as McDowell sang.

After the song was over and while the audience was still applauding, the Jordanaires and Kirkham came down from the stage one by one to hug the wheelchair-bound Husky or shake his hand.

Of equal importance to “Gone” in Husky’s rise to the top was the rollicking hymn, “Wings of a Dove.” Released in 1960, it, too, spent 10 weeks at No. 1 and reached a respectable No. 12 in the pop rankings.

Skaggs and the Whites, who had covered “Wings of a Dove” on their Salt of the Earth album, invited the crowd to sing along with them as they revisited the song, and many did.

Young observed that Husky has befriended many young songwriters, some of whom would go on to lyrical greatness. Among these was Dallas Frazier, who actually lived with Husky for a while when his career was ascending.

Frazier returned the favor when he, in league with Doodle Owens, wrote the sunny Dixieland tune, “Freckles and Polliwog Days.” Husky recorded it 1974, thereby earning his last Top 30 hit.

Beaming and buoyed along by Larry Paxton’s “oom-pah” tuba, Frazier sang and squeezed the song for every nostalgic nuance.

One of Husky’s early ambitions, Young pointed out, was to be a movie star. In time, he would appear in 18 movies and earn a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Charley Pride, who entered the Hall of Fame in 2000, inducted Husky as its newest member. He recalled he first met Husky at a Memphis, Tenn., airport in the late 1960s when they were on their way to Pensacola, Fla., to do a show with Hank Locklin and Carl Smith.

Husky, who has had nine heart bypasses and breathes from an oxygen tank, was nonetheless able to stand by Pride to receive his medallion and see the bronze plaque unveiled that bears his likeness.

“I don’t want to get too emotional,” said Husky, “but I want to say this with all sincerity: God bless everyone here and everybody who had anything to do with bringing me here.”

As the applause died away, Young shifted the focus to Sherrill. In a town that’s turned self-congratulation into an industry, Sherrill was the shy mover and shaker that few outside his immediate circle ever saw or talked to.

“Billy was an Alabama R&B hepcat [when he arrived in Nashville],” said Young. “Then he rewrote the book of country music. … He changed Nashville’s production style.”

Sherrill, Young explained, was a preacher’s kid — and a poor one at that — who got his start playing church music. “There wasn’t a whole lot of money in church music,” Sherrill once told an interviewer, “but there was some in rock ‘n’ roll.”

That being the economic reality, Sherrill ventured into rock & roll and R&B via a group called the Fairlanes. A member of that group was Rick Hall. He, Sherrill and Tom Stafford would later found Fame Recording Studios.

Sherrill moved to Nashville in 1962 as an engineer-producer for Sam Phillips, who discovered Presley. When Phillips’ studio closed the following year, Epic Records, a division of CBS Records, hired Sherrill as a staff producer.

That was the beginning of musical reign that would see the flowering of Tammy Wynette, Tanya Tucker, David Houston, Barbara Mandrell and Janie Fricke and the musical revitalization of such maturing talents as George Jones, Johnny Paycheck and Charlie Rich.

Sherrill co-wrote and produced Houston’s first No. 1 single, the guilt-ridden “Almost Persuaded,” along with five other chart-toppers in the late ’60s.

Craig Morgan recaptured Houston’s tormented earnestness with his own heartfelt rendering of “Almost Persuaded.”

When a young divorcee named Virginia Wynette Pugh came to Sherrill with some songs she’d written, Young said, the producer heard the voice of which country hits are made and signed her to a recording contract. He also convinced her to change her name to Tammy Wynette. Later, he paired her with Houston to create her first No. 1, “My Elusive Dreams,” a tune he also co-wrote.

Combining his songwriting talents with Wynette’s, Sherrill went on to mastermind the controversial but Grammy-winning 1968 hit, “Stand by Your Man.”

Shelby Lynne, who worked with Sherrill after he retired from Epic, emerged from the wings to put her own distinctive vocal stamp on the song that had angered so many feminists.

Young said it was Sherrill who found a country voice for R&B crooner Charlie Rich, a discovery that enabled Rich to win the Country Music Association’s entertainer of the year award in 1974. With Rory Bourke and Norro Wilson, Sherrill wrote “The Most Beautiful Girl,” Rich’s longest-running No. 1.

“You have painted for all of us the soundtrack of our lives with the records you’ve made,” Milsap told Sherrill when he came up to sit at the piano and sing “The Most Beautiful Girl.” As usual, Milsap’s rendering was superb, and the crowd responded accordingly.

Young noted that Sherrill began working with the precocious Tanya Tucker when she was 13 but never heeded her calendar age. “He rejected outright all the age-appropriate songs pitched to Tanya,” said Young. Instead, he opted for such dark adult fare as “Delta Dawn,” “What’s Your Mama’s Name” and “Blood Red and Goin’ Down.”

It was also Sherrill, Young continued, who talked George Jones into recording “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” even though Jones thought it was “way too morbid.” Not only did the song raise Jones’ stature immensely, it twice won the CMA song of the year award and, in 2007, was elected to the Grammy Hall of Fame.

(The ubiquitous Kirkham provided the high, wailing voice on this classic, too.)

With Country Music Hall of Fame member Charlie McCoy backing her on harmonica, Lee Ann Womack brought nearly as much anguish to “He Stopped Loving Her Today” as Jones did to the original. The crowd burst into applause when she reached the first chorus.

While it was not a quality that endeared him to publishers and other songwriters, Young said, Sherrill became Nashville’s prime example of the “auteur” producer, one who exercised near total control over his creations through producing, songwriting, playing on sessions and wielding label muscle.

In 1984, Sherrill was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

“There’s not a more miserable person in Nashville tonight than Billy Sherrill,” said former BMI CEO Frances Preston when she came forward to present Sherrill his medallion. “He’s a very shy man,” she said, “not one who’ll claim the spotlight for himself.”

Indeed, Sherrill looked pained as he waited for Preston to complete her enumeration of his gifts and charms. When she unveiled his plaque, he mumbled, “That’s a mistake. That’s Brad Pitt.”

After acknowledging he would probably think of a lot of things he could have said after the ceremony was over, Sherrill observed, “You have to have a lot of help to get here, and I’ve got it.” He singled out for thanks former Fame partner Stafford, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, Clive Davis (who headed CBS Records during Sherrill’s early glory days) and publisher Al Gallico.

To conclude the program, Young invited all the Hall of Fame members to the stage to sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Rising from his wheel chair, Husky stood straight and tall and sang with the vigor and heart that made him famous. Sherrill continued to look uncomfortable.

Judging by the number of those who stayed on for drinks and desserts after the program concluded at 9 p.m., it seemed that few wanted the evening to end.

See photos from the ceremony. Find out more about Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum events.