His voice faltering but still resonant and recognizable, stroke-stricken Randy Travis astounded the audience Sunday night (Oct. 16) at the Country Music Hall of Fame by standing and singing the chorus to “Amazing Grace.”
Travis’ surprise performance capped an evening in which he and fellow North Carolinians Fred Foster and Charlie Daniels were inducted into the fabled Nashville shrine.
Felled by a stroke in 2013 that nearly killed him and hospitalized him for more than five months, Travis has been slowly regaining his faculties. He was even able to rise from his wheelchair and, with assistance, climb the steps to the stage of the CMA Theater, where the event was held.
Because medallions are presented to the inductees before their bronze plaques are unveiled, this event has come to be called the Medallion Ceremony.
Travis is 57 year old, Foster, 85, and Daniels, 79.
Some of country music’s brightest stars paid tribute to the new inductees.
Dolly Parton, Brandy Clark, Kris Kristofferson and Charlie McCoy performed in honor of Foster. Trisha Yearwood, Jamey Johnson, Trace Adkins and Andrea Zonn tipped their musical hats to Daniels. And Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley and Garth Brooks lifted their voices to praise Travis.
As the crowd gathered for the two-and-a-half hour plus ceremony, songs the inductees had recorded or produced played over the speaker system, among them Daniels’ “The Legend of Wooley Swamp” and “The South’s Gonna Do It Again,” Travis’ “Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart” and “He Walked on Water” and the Foster-helmed “Cryin’,” by Roy Orbison, and “I Can Help,” by Billy Swan.
Artists and industry insiders streamed in and out of the green room to the side of the stage until the lights were dimmed to start the proceedings.
Following tradition, the first item on the agenda was the playing of a record from the Hall of Fame’s Bob Pinson Collection. This year, it was the song and sound of two other famous North Carolinians — Doc Watson picking John D. Loudermilk’s instrumental classic, “Windy and Warm.”
Hall of Fame director Kyle Young reassured the audience that this would be an evening with “no conflict, only confluence.”
Alluding to the current political clamor, he said, “Here, there is not an election — other than the righteous election of Fred Foster, Charlie Daniels and Randy Travis to the Country Music Hall of Fame.”
Young then recited the names of the Hall of Fame members who had died during the past year — Bonnie Brown of the Browns, Merle Haggard, Sonny James and Jean Shepard.
A video segment presented a parade of Foster’s achievements, beginning with his production of Billy Grammer’s 1959 hit, “Gotta Travel On,” which was also the first single released on Foster’s newly established label, Monument Records.
In the segment, Bruce Springsteen spoke of the “incredibly sophisticated recordings” of Roy Orbison, whom Foster also produced.
Grand Ole Opry star Jeannie Seely, who sat in the audience, had her first and biggest hit on Monument — the Grammy-winning “Don’t Touch Me” in 1966.
Foster recalled on the segment the circumstances surrounding signing Dolly Parton and Kris Kristofferson to his label. Parton had to prove to Foster she was a songwriter — and did. Kristofferson had to be convinced that he was capable of singing his own songs in spite of his rough and uneven voice.
Young returned to the podium to describe Foster working in the field when he was 10 years old and hearing the distant sound of a roadhouse jukebox playing Ernest Tubb’s “Walking the Floor Over You.” That was sufficient inspiration, Young said, to set him on his journey toward musical immortality.
By the age of 18, Young said, Foster had entered the music business with a firm conviction of the kind of distinct, lyric-based sounds he wanted to create.
“Ambiguity and replication are Fred’s mortal enemies,” he declared. “Fred is a genius at identifying genius.”
Young introduced Parton, who took the stage to thunderous applause. “Hello, Fred,” she said. “I love you.”
In 1967, Foster produced Parton’s first charted record, “Dumb Blonde.”
She thanked Foster for being a “gentleman” and letting Porter Wagoner take over her career and bring her to RCA Records soon after her Monument debut.
Acknowledging it had been 50 years since her first hit and speculating she might “strain [her] milk” singing it, Parton nonetheless soared through “Dumb Blonde” and earned herself a standing ovation.
Clark came next to croon Orbison’s “Blue Bayou.” Kristofferson, accompanied by McCoy on harmonica, rounded out the musical tribute with “Me and Bobby McGee.”
Young explained that Foster pitched the phrase “Me and Bobby McKee” to Kristofferson when the young composer was suffering from a writer’s block. Barbara “Bobby” McKee was the name of a receptionist in an office adjacent to Foster’s. Kristofferson transformed the name to “Bobby McGee” and soon had a pop hit on his hands via Janis Joplin’s recording.
Vince Gill came to the stage to formally induct Foster. He told how the older man had taken him under his wing when he moved to Nashville in the early ‘80s, including him in golf games with his influential friends and taking him to University of Tennessee football games.
“Every one of us needs a champion,” Gill said. “He’s a man who’s been championing all these years. … He was the one you wanted to please. He knew songs better than anybody I ever met.”
It seems that Foster had produced a couple of songs on Gill while he was still at RCA that were not released. As is common practice when an artist becomes successful on another label, the original label digs through the artist’s unreleased recordings to take advantage of his or her new-found popularity.
Fearing that RCA would do this, even though he didn’t like the Foster recordings, Gill called Foster and voiced his discontent. “Say no more,” Foster said, who agreed with Gill’s assessment, and the tracks miraculously disappeared, never to be heard again.
Now confined to a wheelchair, Foster was transported from the front row to the stage where Gill placed the Hall of Fame medallion around his neck.
“This is the most unbelievable thing that’s ever happened to me — or ever will,” said the tearful Foster. He then held up the medallion and kissed it.
After making a name for himself in his home state, Daniels moved to Nashville in 1967 at the behest of producer Bob Johnston, who subsequently used him on recording sessions with Bob Dylan, Marty Robbins, Ringo Starr and Leonard Cohen, among others.
Daniels founded his namesake band in 1971 and launched the wildly eclectic Volunteer Jam in 1974.
But, as Young explained, Daniels really gained momentum in 1980 when his “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” was featured in the hit movie, Urban Cowboy.
“He helped bring the Southern rock sound into country music,” Young said. He also pointed out that Grand Ole Opry legend Roy Acuff was a formative influence on Daniels, both as a fiddler and band leader.
One of Daniels’ earliest successes came in 1964 when Elvis Presley recorded a song he and Johnston had co-written, “It Hurts Me.”
Trisha Yearwood emerged from the wings to sing a spellbinding version of the song — one of the best performances of the evening.
Jamey Johnson was next in line with “Long Haired Country Boy.” He said he began singing the song when he was in the Marines and couldn’t wear long hair, a deficiency he’s since corrected.
He sang the sanitized lyrics which altered the original line “’Cause I get stoned in the morning, get drunk in the afternoon” to “’Cause, I get up in the morning, get down in the afternoon.”
Backed by ace fiddler Andrea Zonn, Trace Adkins growled out “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
Brenda Lee, a long-time friend, inducted Daniels. “The thing I love most about Charlie Daniels,” she said, “is that he loves you back.”
Referring to their humble rural origins and the rarity of transcending them, she said, “We both know how this life could have gone, don’t we, Charlie? … You have to find a place for yourself and be happy with that place. And that’s what Charlie’s done.”
Responding to his induction, Daniels said, “A plaque on the wall [in the Hall of Fame] is not just an accolade and an award, it’s a page in a history book.”
He said that when he’s asked what his proudest achievement is, he says it’s been “keeping 25 people steadily and gainfully employed for 40 years.”
After some minor brushes with the law for speeding and fighting, Randy Traywick moved to Nashville in 1981, hoping for a career in music. It evolved ever so slowly. First he recorded an independent album under the name Randy Ray.
When he wasn’t angling for an appearance on stage, he worked in the kitchen at Nashville Palace near the Grand Ole Opry House. Then, in 1984, an executive for Warner Bros Records heard him sing and signed him. In so doing, she loosed an artist who would lead country music back to its traditional roots. And she renamed him Randy Travis.
His debut album, Storms of Life, was the first in country music to sell more than 1 million copies within its first year of release, Young noted.
“It came without flash or bombast,” Young said of Travis’ sound. “Randy Travis was startlingly original. … His voice sings through the ages, rich and warm.”
“You opened the doors for a lot of girls and guys,” Alan Jackson said to Travis when he strode onstage to sing “On the Other Hand.”
As his own career was taking off, Jackson toured with Travis.
“He was like Elvis,” Jackson said. “When he sang, the women were screaming and crazy. … When I listen to country music today, I think it’s time for another Randy Travis to come along.”
Brad Paisley called Travis the “north star” to the young talent of his generation and then sang “Forever and Ever, Amen,” Travis’ Grammy-winning single from 1987.
Garth Brooks completed the set with “Three Wooden Crosses,” Travis’ last No. 1 and the CMA song of the year in 2002.
Brooks stayed on to formally usher Travis into the Hall.
Conspicuously absent from Travis’ bio was any mention of Lib Hatcher, the club owner who brought Travis to Nashville, managed him with great success and ultimately married him. She was cited, however, in the Medallion program.
Travis’ current wife, Mary gave his acceptance remarks, at one point detailing the dozens of operations, procedures and setbacks he’d undergone after his stroke.
She told Brooks that his song, “The Dance,” had often sustained her through her husband’s travails.
She observed that Travis’ previous awards had proved “he did some things right,” but that “this medallion indicates he did everything right.”
On that point, the crowd agreed.
Just when it seemed the evening was coasting to an end, Travis gave his brief but arguably his most triumphant performance.