The most fun surrounding each new class of inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame is guessing who will be in it.
There was plenty of wild — and wrong — guessing among reporters in Nashville Tuesday morning (March 29) before it was officially announced that Randy Travis, Charlie Daniels and producer/publisher Fred Foster were the 2016 honorees.
There at the head of the line were comedian-musician Ray Stevens and legendary songwriter Whitey Shafer (“Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind,” “All My Ex’s Live In Texas”). Could they be the new inductees?
Well, probably not? The Country Music Association, which confers the awards, would never allow its honorees to wait in line with the common folk. Beside, this wasn’t the year for admitting songwriters — even iconic ones like Shafer.
So who else could it be? Those of us in the media whose job it is to hang around the famous began looking for managers or publicists or wives and children that might tip us off early.
Some of us even tried to peek behind the black curtain that shields the elect. But we saw nothing there.
Standing across the room were Oak Ridge Boys William Lee Golden and Joe Bonsall, who were elected to the Hall of Fame last year. Were they here to bask in their celebrity? Or could they be waiting to toast their venerable and imaginative manager, Jim Halsey, who surely deserves a niche in the Hall? Apparently not, we decided, or else all four Oaks would have turned out.
We also noticed Jim Ed Norman, who headed Warner Bros Records during Travis’ glory days, but that, by itself, was a slim thread to hold onto. So we let it go and kept looking for clues elsewhere, all the while mentally scrolling through the list of those artists we thought had been overlooked. That was too long a list to be helpful.
Finally, “Little Miss Dynamite,” Brenda Lee, stepped up on a box behind the lectern to tell us what we had failed miserably to guess. The diminutive songstress is in both the Country Music and the Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. And when she speaks, everybody listens.
As customary, Lee prolonged the suspense by first citing obscure details from the inductee’s biography — like birthdates and hometowns — knowing that when she got to the major details, everyone would have known who she was talking about.
It didn’t take long for the audience to realize that the first inductee she would be introducing was Fred Foster, the man who was crucial in launching the careers of Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson and Roy Orbison.
Ailing at the age of 84, Foster was wheeled up to the front of the room but managed to get up and walk the last few steps.
“I have to say the view is very good from up here,” he said with a smile as he looked out over the still-cheering crowd. “I’ve always been a big dreamer, but this is too big.”
Then he spilled the beans, closing his remarks by saying how honored he was to be inducted along with Charlie Daniels and Randy Travis.
No more guessing necessary now.
“Well,” said Lee, as she stepped back up on her box, “since Fred has let the cat out of the bag, you can all go home.”
Of course, no one did, although a few did sidle back to the coffee, rolls and orange juice arrayed on tables at the back of the room.
Lee bravely read through Daniels’ considerable credentials, even though the suspense was gone.
“At 79, he logs more than 100 dates a year,” she concluded before beckoning Daniels out.
As if to prove that 79 was just a number, Daniels strode up to the stage with the vigor of a man half his age.
“There’s no way to work toward this goal,” he said, alluding to his impending induction. “It happens, or it don’t. … I’m 80 years old in October, and I’ve made no provisions for retiring.”
When Lee came back to make the final announcement, she turned to Kyle Young, director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and said, “Kyle, if you don’t mind, I’d like for you to have [Charlie’s plaque] hanging next to [mine] up there.”
After reciting Travis’ remarkable achievements as a recording artist, songwriter and actor, Lee began to cry when she told of his arduous but inspirational recovery from a massive stroke.
That was the cue for Travis to walk out and bask in the crowd’s standing ovation. He was assisted by his wife, Mary Davis-Travis, on one side, and his longtime producer, Kyle Lehning, on the other.
Looking as alert and dapper as ever, he began to speak. But after a few halting and hard-to-understand words, he turned to his wife to be his voice.
Calling this chore “a daunting task,” she continued, “He’s a man of great courage. He’s kind and he’s gentle.” She told how, when he was 9 years old and performing with his older brother, he had been picked to be the singer of the group, a choice that would reverberate through country music years later.
She recalled Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers appearing at a benefit concert with Travis. She said Gatlin told of how proud he’d been when he and his brothers sold out the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo with a total of 45,000 tickets — only to have Travis come in and eclipse their record by selling 49,000 tickets.
Travis just smiled at the memory of that event.
Helping Travis recover from his stroke was an ordeal for both of them, his wife said.
“I went to his bedside and said, ‘Honey, you’ve got to give me a little more fight,’” she said. “I could tell he was having a little talk with Jesus.”
After she finished, friends, photographers and reporters moved in to overwhelm the happy inductees.
We never did find out what Ray Stevens and Whitey Shafer were doing there, although Stevens enjoyed a great deal of success as a member of Foster’s roster at Monument Records.
Probably, though, they were just fans like the rest of us.