(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
The Country Music Hall of Fame struck a nice chord in its selection of the next three inductees into the Hall. Reba McEntire, Jean Shepard and Bobby Braddock are all representative of the best in country music in recent years.
The Hall of Fame process is not an easy one. Of the many artists throughout the 89-year history of recorded country music, the Hall has inducted 115. It’s a much more exclusive group than is the comparable Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which has a wide-open door policy by comparison (the Rock Hall has inducted 605 people, not counting the eight inductees for 2011). The Country Hall’s careful deliberation in choosing inductees has been a much-criticized process, but sometimes it works just right. Like it did this year.
McEntire is a gutsy Oklahoma barrel rider turned country star and Broadway star who seems totally fearless in her career. From such songs as “Is There Life Out There” and “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” to her starring role on Broadway in Annie Get Your Gun, she has easily wedded country’s history to its present and future. Along the way, she became the first woman in country to claim a double-platinum album, with For My Broken Heart.
Shepard exemplifies an entire generation of women country artists who have been largely overlooked. She was one of the so-called “girl singers” who paved the way for later women stars. Shepard was the first country woman artist to successfully tour on her own, rather than as part of a group or duo. And she did it singing a hardcore, honky-tonk style. Her first recording, 1953’s “Dear John Letter,” was a No. 1 country hit and crossed over to pop. She also wrote and recorded country’s first concept album, Songs of a Love Affair.
Braddock, a former country recording artist, has written songs that bridge historical eras. As writer or co-writer, his songs have been No. 1 hits for Tammy Wynette (“D-I-V-O-R-C-E”), George Jones (“He Stopped Loving Her Today”), Tracy Lawrence (“Time Marches On”), Toby Keith (“I Wanna Talk About Me”) and Billy Currington (“People Are Crazy” ). In the case of Blake Shelton, Braddock discovered him and produced his first No. 1 hit, “Austin.” Braddock is the first country songwriter to have No. 1 hits across five different decades.
So, with this year’s Hall of Fame selections, history has been served well, as has contemporary country.
One of the things that has always struck me about Nashville and country music is that ancient history is taken too seriously and recent history is completely ignored.
Ancient history is now revered. Hank Williams’ musical footsteps are now traced in gold leaf, as it were. Whereas, in real life, his actual last footsteps were welcomed by many in Nashville, as faltering. He had become a drug and drink-addled embarrassment to many. He was a major pain in the ass to a lot of people at the time of his death. Hank’s “timely death,” as country pioneer Roy Acuff termed it, served Nashville well — especially Acuff-Rose Publishing, which largely drew from Hank’s songs to build Nashville as a song publishing empire.
One of Nashville’s and country music’s most enduring and recognizable icons is the photogenic Ryman Auditorium. It is now worshipped as one of the world’s truly great acoustic listening halls and home of many treasured musical moments. It was also, as I discovered on one of my first visits to Nashville in 1970, a major irritant to a lot of people in country music.
It was the home of the Grand Ole Opry, which was then still a major national force and tastemaker in country music due to its powerful clear-channel radio signal emanating from WSM’s giant radio tower.
But the Opry management had decided to move the show out to the suburbs, to a newly-constructed Opryland complex which included a huge, and very popular, amusement park. Which, of course, would later be destroyed to make room for a large retail mall, which remains closed today after disastrous floods last year.
When I asked the “King of Country Music,” Roy Acuff, many years ago about uprooting the Opry from the historic old Ryman, I expected him to be wistful and sad about displacing history.
Instead, he was intransigent. “I’ll be the first one to knock the bricks from out from under that old building!” he told me forcefully. He wanted central air conditioning and large dressing rooms and to hell with history. He wanted comfort.
So, in 1974 the Opry got moved out to suburban AC comfort. And the Ryman shut down for many years and came very close to being demolished.
At that time, when the Ryman closed, Reba McEntire was in college in Oklahoma and singing whenever and wherever she could.
Jean Shepard was beginning her final string of commercial singles as country radio began to turn to younger artists.
Bobby Braddock was already a successful Nashville songwriter.