Both honorees were absent, but their shadows extended in all directions.
The late Jimmy Dean and the ailing Don Williams were officially inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame Sunday night (Oct. 24) in a ceremony held at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
The event is called the medallion ceremony because each inductee is awarded a commemorative medallion.
Dean died in June of this year at age 81, after his election to the Hall of Fame was announced in February. Williams, 71, fell ill with bronchitis on Friday (Oct. 22) while on tour and cancelled his induction appearance.
A measure of the two artists’ influence was evident in the variety of artists who came to sing their songs and their praises, a lineup that included Roy Clark, Alison Krauss, Dailey & Vincent, the Del McCoury Band, Trace Adkins, the Jordanaires, Joey & Rory and Chris Young.
Under an overcast sky, guests began arriving for the ceremony at 5 p.m. For the next two hours, they mingled in the Hall of Fame’s cavernous Curb Conservatory, sipping cocktails and grazing at the constantly replenished buffet tables. Uniformed waiters circulated with trays of hors d’oeuvres for those disinclined to forage.
Circulating among the guest were Hall of Fame members Bill Anderson, Emmylou Harris, Roy Clark, Harold Bradley, Charlie McCoy, Jim Foglesong, Frances Preston, Jo Walker-Meador and the Jordanaires’ Ray Walker.
The formalities, held in the adjacent Ford Theater, began, as is the custom, with the playing of a historic recording from the Bob Pinson Recorded Sound Collection. This year’s choice was the Stanley Brothers‘ 1960 cover of Hank Ballard’s R&B gem, “Finger Poppin’ Time.”
Somewhat puzzled, the crowd reacted to this “rhythm and bluegrass” hybrid with total silence.
Next came Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives to liven things up with a high-lonesome, high-velocity rendering of the Bill Monroe chestnut, “Working on a Building.” After respectfully greeting the dignitaries seated on the front row, the ever-mischievous Stuart added, “I’ve never in my life seen a bunch that needed a gospel song more than they do.”
Talk about sharp-dressed guys! Stuart, on mandolin, was clad completely in black, while his bandsmen — drummer “Handsome” Harry Stinson, bassist “Apostle” Paul Martin and guitarist “Cousin” Kenny Vaughan — were resplendent in white suits with black shirts. Stinson’s high-tenor vocals set the crowd cheering long before the song was over.
Kyle Young, director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, deftly handled the master of ceremonies chores, summarizing the personal history and professional evolution of each inductee and interrupting his narrative from time to time to bring another performer to the stage.
He traced Dean’s trajectory from being “born into poverty [in Texas] on the eve of the Great Depression” to becoming a recording and television star in the 1950s and ’60s to his final incarnation as the creator and purveyor of Jimmy Dean Sausage.
“He took country music, the voice of the working man, to network television,” Young asserted, citing his successes both on CBS with a morning show, beginning in 1957, and on ABC in prime time, starting in 1964.
Concurrently, Dean was racking up hit after hit on the Billboard country charts, Young continued. His first, “Bumming Around,” a hobo song, came in 1953.
To demonstrate Dean’s sunny attitude and easygoing vocal style, Young introduced singer-songwriter Shawn Camp to breeze through, “Bumming Around.”
Backing Camp was the Medallion All-Star Band, an assemblage of top-drawer session players that included acoustic guitarist and musical director Biff Watson, drummer Eddie Bayers, steel guitarist Paul Franklin, electric guitarist Steve Gibson, bassist Michael Rhodes, fiddler Deanie Richardson, keyboardist John Jarvis and background vocalists Wes Hightower and Tania Hancheroff.
Dean’s biggest record blossomed in 1961. It was his self-penned dramatic recitation, “Big Bad John,” which spent two weeks at No. 1 on the country charts, five weeks on the pop charts and 10 weeks on the adult contemporary listings. The following year, it won a Grammy. Little wonder Dean named his yacht Big Bad John.
Roy Clark, a Country Music Hall of Fame member himself and an early member of Dean’s band, the Texas Wildcats, walked from his front row seat to sing Dean’s 1962 hit, “Little Black Book.”
He was accompanied by fellow Hall of Famer Charlie McCoy on harmonica.
Speaking of his old boss, Clark said, “He was not an accident. He knew where he was going.” He said that while his band members would go out drinking after a show, Dean would go home and begin cultivating the contacts he had made.
Yes, Clark admitted, Dean did fire him from the band, but, he added, “He put up with me longer than anybody else.”
Dailey & Vincent followed Clark’s performance with the buoyant “Harvest of Sunshine,” a tune that was only a minor hit in 1965 but which became a much-requested song in Dean’s live shows.
Among the other songs Dean made into standards, Young noted, were “Dear Ivan” (1962), “P.T. 109” (1962, a tribute to President John Kennedy’s heroism in World War II), “To a Sleeping Beauty” (1952), “I.O.U.” (1976, Dean’s heartfelt devotional to his mother) and “The First Thing Ev’ry Morning (And the Last Thing Ev’ry Night),” Dean’s only other No. 1, which came in 1965.
To cap the musical performances in Dean’s honor, Young brought out Trace Adkins and the Jordanaires to do “Big Bad John.” Biff Watson provided the spike hammering sound effects.
Jordanaire Ray Walker, who sang on the original recording of “Big Bad John,” told the crowd that fellow Jordanaire and Hall of Fame member Gordon Stoker was sidelined with pneumonia but was expected to recover.
The gruff-voiced Adkins proved to be the ideal vocalist for “Big Bad John,” leaning into the lyrics as though he were actually down there in the mine holding up the sagging timbers. And the crowd loved it, rewarding the singer with a standing ovation.
Nodding toward Adkins, Walker said, “If this boy had sense enough to use us on his [recording] sessions, he might amount to something.”
Bill Anderson welcomed his longtime friend into the Hall of Fame with a series of anecdotes about Dean’s humor, compassion and generosity. At times, his voice cracked with emotion.
Anderson said Dean gave Roger Miller his first big break by booking him to sing “King of the Road” on his television show. Miller returned to the show and presented Dean with a gold door knob bearing the inscription, “To Jimmy Dean for the millions of doors you’ve opened for me.”
“He opened doors for all of us,” Anderson said, noting that Dean had an open-door policy when few other TV shows would feature country artists.
When Buck Owens began making a name for himself, Dean persuaded his show’s producers to book him and his band, the Buckaroos. Instead, the producers provided an airline ticket only to Owens. Dean argued the band was an integral part of Owens’ sound and had to appear with him. But the producer stood fast. So Dean paid for the band’s tickets out of his own pocket.
Anderson also recalled dining with Dean and some other friends at a little restaurant in the resort town of Jackson Hole, Wyo. Their waiter was wearing a Vanderbilt University shirt, and Dean, whom the waiter did not recognize, asked him if he was a student at the Nashville school.
The waiter replied he planned to return to Vanderbilt if he could scrape up enough money with the two jobs he was working. After the waiter left, Dean put the meal charges on his credit card and then left two $100 bills on the table as a tip.
One summer, Anderson said, Dean invited him and Little Jimmy Dickens for an extended cruise on his yacht (from the deck of which he would shout to fellow boaters, “Buy sausage!”). Their journey took them to Boothbay Harbor, Maine, a picturesque village with a small white hilltop church visible to the ships docked below.
Anderson said Dean told them the church’s bells pealed out beautiful hymns each day at noon. But the first few days there were no bells ringing. Finally, they were rewarded with the stirring sounds of “Amazing Grace.”
Anderson later learned Dean had visited the church to find out why the bells were silent and was told they had fallen into disrepair and that the church couldn’t afford to fix them. Dean told them to get the bells in working order, whatever the cost, and send him the bill.
By Anderson’s estimate, that gesture cost Dean into “the five figures.” The church now has a plaque that reads: “The church bells are ringing again thanks to the kindness and generosity of Donna and Jimmy Dean.” (He married singer Donna Meade in 1991.)
Anderson said Dean was a steady supplier of jokes. “A friend of mine told me the other day I’m not nearly as funny since Jimmy passed away.”
According to Anderson, Dean was surprised to learn he’d been chosen for the Hall of Fame. “He said … ‘I never thought I’d make it. I thought I’d pissed off too many people down there.'”
Anderson’s tribute was so eloquent and moving, the crowd gave him a standing ovation.
He presented Dean’s medallion to his daughter, Connie Dean Taylor.
With Dean ensconced in the Hall, the proceedings next turned to inducting Don Williams.
Young followed Williams’ trail from his birth to a guitar-playing mother and mechanic father in Floydada, Texas in 1939 through his flirtations with rock and folk music to his joining the creative community renaissance man Jack Clement established in Nashville in the 1960s.
There Williams fell into the company of such musical visionaries as producer-songwriter Allen Reynolds, songwriter Bob McDill and engineer-producer Garth Fundis. Williams worked as a demo singer and songplugger, although Young noted he was a conspicuous failure at the latter job.
Williams scored his first hits on Clements’ JMI label, beginning with “The Shelter of Your Eyes,” which Williams also wrote and reached No. 14 in Billboard in 1973. McDill supplied him his next two hits, “Come Early Morning” and “Amanda.”
After moving to Dot Records — which subsequently became ABC/Dot — Williams racked up a series of No. 1 singles, including “I Wouldn’t Want to Live if You Didn’t Love Me” (1974), “You’re My Best Friend” (1975), “(Turn Out the Light And) Love Me Tonight” (1975) and “Till the Rivers All Run Dry” (1976).
He would continue his chart-topping streak at MCA and later at Capitol. In all, Williams had 17 No. 1’s over a 12-year period.
Joey & Rory, who are now touring with Williams, came out to sing “Amanda.” Before they began, Rory Lee Feek said he bought a Don Williams songbook when he was 9 years old in an effort to learn to play the guitar. “Don Williams changed my life,” he proclaimed.
Alison Krauss then came to the stage. She first remarked on Williams’ mellifluous baritone voice.
“I think he sounds somewhere between Santa and the Almighty,” she mused.
She followed with her version of his 1977 hit, “I’m Just a Country Boy,” which she transmuted into “You’re Just a Country Boy,” sung from the point of view of a loving mother watching her son at play.
Del McCoury and his band rocked out with a bluegrass take on “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good” (1981), and Chris Young brought back memories of Williams in his prime with the pensive “I Believe in You” (1980).
Hall of Famer Jim Foglesong, who helmed Dot, ABC-Dot, MCA and Capitol while Williams was on those rosters, inducted his absentee friend.
He told of learning from a label colleague that Don Williams was a favorite in Nigeria.
“Isn’t the population of Nigeria 95 percent black?” the astounded Foglesong inquired.
“It’s 100 percent black,” said his colleague.
Foglesong continued, “In the years that followed, with his records, tours and videos, Don added a goodly portion of the rest of the world to his fan base.”
Foglesong presented Williams’ medallion to his manager, Robert Pratt.
The ceremony ended, as it always does, with all the Country Music Hall of Fame members in the audience coming to the stage to sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
Singer Ferlin Husky and producer-songwriter Billy Sherrill, this year’s other new members to the Hall of Fame, were officially inducted in May.View photos from the ceremony. Find out more about events at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.