There were lots of laughs, some great stories and the periodic shedding of nostalgic tears Sunday night (Oct. 25) as the Oak Ridge Boys, Jim Ed Brown and the Browns and Promethean guitarist Grady Martin were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
It was just like any other family reunion — assuming, of course, that the family in question has been pivotal in shaping a nation’s culture.
Taken together, the honorees have led America in song for nearly 70 years, starting in the late ‘40s when the shape-shifting Martin lent his guitar licks to Red Foley’s crossover hit, “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy,” through the Browns-dominated countrypolitan sounds of the 1950s and ‘60s with, among others, “The Three Bells” and “Scarlet Ribbons” and now deep into the 21st century with the Oaks, who continue to tour and record on the propulsive power of such irresistibles as “Elvira,” “Fancy Free” and “Y’All Come Back Saloon.”
Martin died in 2001 and Jim Ed Brown passed away earlier this year.
Because the recipients are presented medallions upon their induction, this event, which originated as a part of the CMA Awards broadcast, is now called the Medallion Ceremony.
Providing live music for the evening were Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, Vince Gill with Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, Duane Eddy and Mandy Barnett, Buddy Miller and Pete Wade, Carolyn Martin and Chris Scruggs, the Isaacs, Dierks Bentley, Jeff Hanna and the Martin Family Circus.
The ceremony began at 4 p. m. with a red-carpet trek past fans and reporters in the Hall of Fame’s cavernous Mike Curb Conservatory and ended just after 9 with the ritual singing of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” in the CMA Theater.
Afterward, there was a lavish buffet and cocktail party in the sixth floor Event Hall that looks out at the Nashville skyline.
Among the several hundred guests were rock star and Broadway luminary Cyndi Lauper and the legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager.
Kyle Young, director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and regular host of this affair, was absent owing to the recent death of his mother. Jody Williams, vice president of writer-publisher relations for BMI, the performance rights society, stood in for Young.
Williams informed the crowd that Grand Ole Opry star Bill Anderson had presented Jim Ed Brown his medallion in June, just before Brown succumbed to lung cancer. He also announced that since last year’s ceremony, Hall of Fame members Little Jimmy Dickens and Billy Sherrill had died.
Anderson was scheduled to induct the remaining Browns but was sidelined from that duty by illness at the last minute. Hall of Famer Bobby Bare took his place.
Martin’s segment was introduced by a video in which Hall of Famers Porter Wagoner, Ferlin Husky, Chet Atkins, Kris Kristofferson and Harold Bradley praised his talents for bringing out the best in a song.
A clip showed Martin standing impassively in Willie Nelson’s band, while his nimble fingers transformed an instrumental break in “Stardust” into a jazz fantasia.
To illustrate Martin’s genius in adapting his talents to a song, Vince Gill joined Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives in a cover of Marty Robbins’ haunting “El Paso,” which Martin underlay with his Mexican-flavored guitar flourishes.
Then Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Duane Eddy teamed with Mandy Barnett on another Robbins’ classic, “Don’t Worry.” In the original recording, Martin introduced the “fuzz tone” effect, thereby turning what had started as an equipment malfunction into a stylistic adornment.
To conclude the segment, guitarist Pete Wade came to the stage with Martin’s “Old Red,” the 335 Gibson electric his mentor had given him, to accompany Buddy Miller on the Martin-enriched Conway Twitty hit “Fifteen Years Ago.”
Brenda Lee, who is a member of both the Country Music and Rock & Roll halls of fame, formally inducted Martin.
She said she had started recording with Martin when she was 10 years old. Even though she admitted she was scared at first by his overwhelming physical presence, she quickly grew to depend on him for artistic guidance.
“He played on every one of my hits,” she said, acknowledging that she sometimes had to confront her producer, the formidable Owen Bradley, to ensure that Martin would be there for all her recording sessions.
“Owen was not happy about that,” she said, “But I stood my ground, and I got my way.”
Martin’s son Josh accepted the medallion. He said his father did not like to be the center of attention and often sent him out as a substitute when an organization wanted to honor him. “I know tonight would have been different,” he said.
Williams said that while people in the music industry often “pontificated” about which performer was best a doing this or that there was simply no dispute about the Browns: They were “the smoothest” in sound.
After tracing their history from the startup days in Arkansas, Williams pointed out that “The Three Bells,” which topped the country charts for 10 weeks in 1959, holds a record no other vocal group has topped in the intervening 56 years.
Apart from its country triumph, “The Three Bells” was a No. 1 pop record for four weeks and even went Top 10 in the rhythm and blues category. It earned the Browns appearances on the major TV variety series of the day — included the star-making Ed Sullivan Sho — and brought them international fame.
After sisters Maxine and Bonnie Brown retired from the road in the mid-‘60s to raise families, Jim Ed continued as a solo performer and then teamed with Helen Cornelius for a string of duet hits, the most prominent of which was “I Don’t Want To Have To Marry You” in 1976.
Carolyn Martin and Chris Scruggs reprised Jim Ed and Maxine’s first hit, the flirtatious “Looking Back To See” from 1954. Also written by the two singers, it went Top 10.
The Isaacs, accompanied by Jimmy Capps on guitar, sang “The Three Bells.” Sonya Isaacs said they had incorporated the song into their gospel shows and performed it last year at a church in Ohio.
During an intermission, she said, she was in the church restroom and overheard two “elderly ladies” gushing about how much they enjoyed the song. One said, “Me and my husband used to make out to that song in the drive in.”
Isaacs said she discreetly avoided looking to see who the two women were but reported the conversation to her brother Ben when she returned to the stage. She said Ben grabbed the microphone and demanded to know who had confessed to “making out” to “The Three Bells.”
It turned out that the culprit was the minister’s wife.
Dierks Bentley, who told of becoming a friend of Jim Ed while performing on the Grand Ole Opry, sang the late star’s signature hit from 1967, “Pop A Top,” with Thom Flora from the Medallion Band providing the can-popping sound.
Popping his finger in his mouth, Bentley demonstrated the sound first, just to show he could do it, he said.
Bare, who then came forward to induct the Browns, said he first met the trio in the summer of 1961 at “a big fair in Iowa.”
“They were big stars,” he recalled, “but they treated me like I was somebody.” (Bare was still two years away from having his breakthrough single, “Detroit City.”)
After he got to know the Browns, he said, he would visit them in Arkansas to partake of their mother’s delectable biscuits and gravy. He pointed out that Jim Ed had trained to be a chef and carried on the Brown family tradition of serving his guests well.
“All the guys I knew fell in love with Bonnie — instantly,” Bare said, including himself and Elvis Presley. Maxine was a different case entirely, he remembered. “That Maxine had a mouth on her.”
But Bare reiterated that the Browns’ singing was without parallel. “Chet [Atkins] told me they had the greatest sibling harmony he had ever heard in his life. … And Chet produced the Everly Brothers.”
In accepting the medallion for Jim Ed, his widow Becky said, “Jim Ed looked at success as being happy. And he was happy. … He felt blessed every day.”
Said Bonnie, “Someone said that this was Minnie Pearl’s birthday. So I’ll [quote her] and say, ‘I’m just so proud to be here.’ We have waited forever for this. We performed at the very first banquet when this [Hall of Fame] was being organized.”
She then introduced by name her extended family that sat in the audience cheering her on.
Vowing she would not cry, she occasionally broke her word as she went deeper into expressing her gratitude.
Maxine said it was their families who had made the greatest sacrifices while the Browns were travelling the road to commercial success. She said she would return home and discover her son didn’t even know who she was. Leaning on a cane as a consequence of a series of accidents, she quipped that her surgeon was drunk when he put her bones back together.
“The only good thing that came out of that,” she deadpanned, “was that I got a permanent screw.”
The evening’s final segment spotlighted the Oak Ridge Boys — William Lee Golden, Duane Allen, Richard Sterban and Joe Bonsall.
“When these four voices joined in harmony,” said Williams, “they created a fifth voice that was instantly recognizable. And that voice sounded famous.”
Williams reminded the crowd that the Oaks scored 17 No. 1 singles while becoming known for their “high-production, arena-ready stage shows.”
Hanna, accompanying himself on guitar and backed by the house band, had the crowd clapping along with his rendering of “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” the Oaks’ second No. 1.
Brooks and Yearwood, backed only by Brooks’ delicate guitar work, sang the poignant “I’ll Be True to You,” the quartet’s first chart-topper.
Capping off the musical tributes was the Martin Family Circus, a group that includes Duane and Norah Lee Allen’s daughter, Jamie, her husband, Paul Martin (also a member of Marty Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives) and their four children, March, Kell, Texas and Tallant.
“We are so proud of Daddy,” Jamie said, before the band ripped through a pulsating rendition of “Elvira.”
Eight-year-old Tallant criss-crossed the stage and belted out the “oom papa mau mau” beat as if demonstrating to Sterban how it really should have been done. She got the loudest and most sustained applause of the evening.
Kenny Rogers netted a standing ovation when he emerged from the wings to induct the Oaks, who had served as his opening act in their early days in country music.
“There ain’t no place in the world I’d rather be tonight than right here,” he proclaimed.
The Oaks were an adaptable group, he said, recalling the time that fledgling comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who was supposed to open the show, “lost his way,” leaving the Oaks to go on early—which they did without complaint.
Once he’d finished his remarks, Rogers began draping medallions around the recipients’ necks, a formidable task in Golden’s case, what with his long, flowing white hair and waist-length beard.
Bonsall, the first of the Oaks to speak, focused on the members’ closeness to each other. “We’ve always been together,” he said. “We travel in the same bus.”
He saluted Yeager as a hero, who sat in a box seat overlooking the stage. He quoted him as joking, “Forty years ago I was breaking the sound barrier. What were you doing?”
Allen said that he attributed the Oaks’ success to luck, good fortune and blessings. He said that after two years in the army, he drove from his native Texas to Nashville hoping to join the Oak Ridge Boys, an ever-evolving group whose history stretched back to World War II.
He said his good luck was to arrive in the Oaks’ manager’s office just as the secretary was trying to reach him by phone to offer him the job. Had he not shown up precisely when he did, he said, the job might have gone to another singer.
Golden is the longest-serving member of the Oaks in their present incarnation, followed in descending order by Allen, Sterban and Bonsall.
Before joining the Oaks, Sterban sang with J. D. Sumner & the Stamps, the group backing Elvis Presley. “It never occurred to me when I was singing on the stage with Elvis,” Sterban said, “that I’d ever be in the same Hall of Fame with him.” (Presley was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1998.)
Golden spoke of growing up on a cotton farm near Brewton, Alabama, and being drawn into music by his older sister. He said the family had a battery-powered radio which they used sparingly or not at all during the week so they could listen to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights.
When the family got together to sing, he said, “That little farm house would come alive with excitement. … It was the music that touched my soul.”
This year’s edition of the Medallion Band consisted of Biff Watson, musical director and acoustic guitarist; Eddy Bayers Jr., drummer; Paul Franklin, steel guitarist; Steve Gibson, electric guitarist; Jeff White, acoustic guitarist; Larry Paxton, bassist; Matt Rollings, keyboardist; Deanie Richardson, fiddler; and Thom Flora and Tania Hancheroff, vocals.