NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Is the Country Music Hall of Fame Fair?

Or Should All Artists Be Inducted?

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

The annual roll call of new members of the Country Music Hall of Fame has been a bone of spirited contention among both country fans and country artists for many years. Everyone agrees there are a number of extremely worthy country artists who aren’t members of the Hall and who should be.

And I can’t argue with that. But there are limits that should be imposed, and there are checks and balances that should be respected.

My colleague and friend Peter Cooper recently wrote in a blog in The Tennessean newspaper that he feels there should be what sounds to me like virtually an open door policy for inducting new Hall of Fame members. As in “They Should All Be in the Country Music Hall of Fame,” according to The Tennessean headline.

Usually, there are three new inductees honored every year. Occasionally, it has been one, two or four (depending on categories that come up every few years). Cooper harks back to the year 2001, when 12 new members were inducted, as a sort of cattle stampede to try to catch up with the overlooked candidates. Peter feels that hauling in 12 at once that year was good, but that even 12 is not enough new members every year.

I disagree.

The year of the 12 was like a panicky reaction to catch up with and try to pacify all the then-current criticism of the electoral process. The only one of those 12 inductees that comes to mind immediately is Waylon Jennings, and that’s because he refused to acknowledge the honor and did not show up to receive the award (although he did turn up at the Palm restaurant, just down the street from the Hall, that same week to see the new drawing of his face on the wall). Jennings felt, and I think it’s a justifiable position, that music artists should not be put in a position of competing with each other.

Just for the record, the other 11 inductees that year were the Everly Brothers, Bill Anderson, the Delmore Brothers, Don Gibson, Homer & Jethro, the Jordanaires, the Louvin Brothers, Webb Pierce and producers Sam Philips, Don Law, and Ken Nelson. A pretty worthy bunch.

Formerly, the new inductees were prominently featured on the televised CMA Awards show. Now, if they get a fleeting mention on the telecast, it’s unusual. You know, the demographics of TV don’t encourage featuring old people. Instead, the new inductees are honored at an invitation-only ceremony at the Hall.

But shoe-horning a whole truckload into the place every year can only lead to the cheapening and degrading of the honor. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has unfortunately become, in many ways, a less than important institution. I thought it was a very good idea in the beginning, and I have gladly served as a Rock Hall of Fame voter for many years. But there are many questionable inductees amid a virtual glut of those being honored with membership. There was a total of 17 inductees last year. I think the sheer numbers of inductees has lessened the honor and the status of being a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member. Since it began installing members in 1986, they’ve inducted 287 individual artists and groups, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Third-stringers don’t make it into the football and baseball halls of fame. Why should it be any different for music?

The Rock Hall has almost come to resemble an animal shelter, with numerous strays being brought in every year. By comparison, the Country Music Hall of Fame has inducted 115 individuals and groups since 1961, and three more will be joining them this year. The majority are white males. So, is the CMA voting process just an old white man’s club?

I am pretty much conversant with the machinery and the process of how the Country Music Hall of Fame inductee process works. The Country Music Hall of Fame has nothing to do with choosing new members. The election procedure actually is conducted by an anonymous committee of Country Music Association members. I feel it is, as far as is possible, fair and impartial. It is not just a bunch of old white guys voting their buddies into the place. It’s very much a serious and contemplative process, based on the legacy of the music and the lasting influence.

When I look over this week’s Billboard charts of country songs and albums, I see very few artists with even a slender, tiny chance of ever even being considered for a spot in the Country Hall. That’s one reason that generally only three country inductees every year become Hall of Famers.

Ageism is part of the modern backlash against traditionalism and basically against old white people. But I’ll tell you one thing: There would not be a Kenny Chesney or Keith Urban or Miranda Lambert or Carrie Underwood if it weren’t for the likes of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.

One prediction: Taylor Swift will be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame as its youngest member ever. I think she will be inducted before Gram Parsons or Ray Charles or Johnny Horton or Dottie West will be — and I think all four of those artists deserve to be there. Why? Because Taylor is more important to the country music machine and the country music world right now than any of the other prospective candidates.