Jerry Bradley, Ray Stevens, and Brooks & Dunn were borne into the Country Music Hall of Fame Sunday evening (Oct. 20) on the wings of songs performed by Ricky Skaggs, Luke Bryan, Trisha Yearwood, Travis Tritt, Marty Stuart, Brothers Osborne, Old Crow Medicine Show, Yola, the McCrary Sisters and the Medallion All-Star Band.
Formally known as the Medallion Ceremony, in reference to the ribboned medals awarded inductees, the event was held in the CMA Theater of the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum. Museum CEO Kyle Young officiated.
As is traditional, the proceedings opened with the playing of a country song from the Museum’s Bob Pinson Collection. This time it was Mac Wiseman’s “’Tis Sweet to be Remembered.” Young asked for a moment of silence to honor the Hall of Fame members who had died during the past year, a group that included Wiseman, Roy Clark, Maxine Brown (of The Browns), studio musician Harold Bradley and producer Fred Foster.
“This is as close as we get to a religious ceremony,” Young told the audience, “although we do have an inductee who wrote about a squirrel going berserk in a church in Pascagoula,” an allusion to Stevens’ 1984 novelty hit, “Mississippi Squirrel Revival.”
Stevens, whose birth name was Harold Ray Ragsdale, was the first of the inductees to have his career chronicled. Born in Clarkdale, Georgia, and raised there and in Albany and Atlanta, Stevens mastered the piano and other instruments while still in high school. He also had a regional hit, “Silver Bracelet,” during this period. It was on this record that he first presented himself as Ray Stevens. He would soon after move to Nashville, where he quickly distinguished himself as a songwriter, all-purpose studio musician and recording artist. All the while he exhibited a particular gift for humor.
In 1970, pop singer Andy Williams, on whose label Stevens then recorded, tapped the young artist to be the summer replacement on his NBC-TV show. As a theme song for the show, Stevens wrote “Everything Is Beautiful.” It became both a pop and country hit and earned him his first of two Grammys. His second would be for his 1975 banjo-inflected version of the jazz standard, “Misty.”
By way of illustrating Stevens’ genius, Ricky Skaggs came to the stage to sing “Misty,” with Justin Moses providing the banjo licks. “I wanted to sing ’Mississippi Squirrel’ but they wouldn’t let me,” Skaggs joked. After he finished the song, he pretended he was booked in Stevens’ Nashville showroom called Caba-Ray. “Welcome to Caba-Ray,” he announced. “I’ll be here all week.” Stevens could be seen chuckling in the front row.
Another of Stevens’ novelty hits, “The Streak,” centered on the mid-70s trend of running naked — or ’streaking’ — through public places. Young reminded the crowd that Tom T. Hall, who’s now a proud member of the Hall of Fame, has once streaked from the backdoor of Tootsie’s saloon in Nashville to his nearby tour bus.
This anecdote was quickly followed by a live performance of “The Streak,” with veteran DJ Keith Bilbrey taking the speaking role of the TV interviewer who questions the aggrieved husband, played by comedian James Gregory, who keeps trying to shield his wife, Ethel, from a series of such epidermal outrages.
The performances of Stevens’ songs concluded with the McCrary Sisters rendering a high-spirited interpretation of “Everything Is Beautiful” that had the audience on its feet and cheering before the song was over.
Revered DJ, TV personality and Hall of Fame member Ralph Emery officially inducted Stevens, noting before he placed the medallion around his neck, “I have lobbied for four years for this. . . . He is really overdue for this award.”
Stevens made another point: “If you guys had gotten me in here sooner, I could have upped my booking price and bought the other half of Music Row. But Mike Curb beat me to it.” (Stevens was an early investor in Music Row’s now-gold-plated real estate, and record executive and philanthropist Curb owns and has his name on much of it.)
“How sweet it is to be chosen to be here,” Stevens concluded. “Until this, my biggest honor was to be included as a ’Nashville Cat.’”
Jerry Bradley was next in line for volcanic praises. He is the son of fabled producer and record label chief Owen Bradley and nephew of the equally famous studio musician Harold Bradley, both of whom preceded him in the Hall of Fame. He began his career in music painting the houses on Music Row his father purchased to be converted into recording studios, then moved on to cleaning up the studios between sessions. Eventually producer and guitarist Chet Atkins hired him as his assistant at RCA Records, where he rose in the 1970s to head the label’s Nashville division.
In that capacity, he signed such future superstars as Alabama and Ronnie Milsap and produced sides for Charley Pride. But his big bang as label lord was packaging and promoting a collection of cuts by formerly mid-selling artists Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser that found glory under the title Wanted! The Outlaws. Released in 1976, it became country music’s first certified million-selling album. His was also the guiding hand when RCA’s Dolly Parton invaded the pop field.
“He found his own path,” Young asserted, “not through bloodline but by action and invention.”
Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart then came forward to cover the Willie and Waylon hit from Outlaws, “Good Hearted Woman,” with Tritt singing the Waylon lines.
Next up was English singer Yola delivering Parton’s “Jolene” and turning it from a quiet entreaty into a wounded cry for mercy.
Old Crow Medicine Show, aided by guitarist Molly Tuttle and drummer Jerry Pentecost, blazed through Alabama’s “Dixieland Delight.” All three Bradley-tinted acts earned standing ovations.
Former Grand Ole Opry manager and Hall of Fame member Bud Wendell medallioned Bradley. Wendell confessed that he had initially found Bradley intimidating. “He threatened my life,” Wendell said. “That’s how I met him.”
He went on to explain that when he was organizing the event that came to be known as Fan Fair and is now the CMA Music Festival he mistakenly scheduled it before schools had their summer break. This meant that attendance might be slim. That possibility infuriated Bradley who wanted to be sure that his star Charley Pride would be playing for numbers in keeping with his stature. Somehow the crowd came and Bradley was mollified, Wendell reported.
Wendell called Bradley “a real force for country music in Nashville. . . . He was a great leader.” Bradley recounted his humble and not-too-promising beginnings as a studio go-fer and how he gradually found himself in the company of stars, ranging from Joan Baez to Burl Ives. Still sounding a bit awed by all the compliments being showered on him, he quoted his old friend, the late Norro Wilson, who famously said, “I don’t know how I got here, but I sure as hell ain’t leaving.”
Young then turned the spotlight on Brooks & Dunn, tracing their musical apprenticeship days and noting that they both came to Nashville from different points on the compass with the aim of becoming solo stars. Both showed early promise, Brooks as a songwriter, and Dunn as the winner of a national talent contest. But by the time Tim DuBois, the head of Arista Records’ Nashville division, brought them together in the early 1990s, they had been sufficiently chastened by reality to accept his suggestion that they forsake their solo ambitions and work together as an act.
It was a good decision for all concerned. Their first four singles, all of which they wrote individually or collectively with their producer, Don Cook, went straight to No. 1. Over the next decade and a half they would rack up a total of 20 No. 1’s and sell 28 million albums. Young quoted Brooks as having said of those salad days, “We were young and dumb. I thought I could live on my first million.” (He wasn’t alluding to albums sold.)
To jog the crowd’s memory about some of the duo’s high points, Brothers Osborne ripped it up with “Brand New Man,” and Luke Bryan vocally revisited their travels along “Red Dirt Road.” Before he sang, Bryan told of the kindnesses the two men had shown him. In Brooks’ case, it was calling him while he was on a plane to offer condolences on the death of Bryan’s sister. With Dunn, it was calling and offering him 35 minutes of sage advice on how to handle his exhausted voice.
But the most riveting performance of the night came when Trisha Yearwood sang their 2005 show-stopper “Believe.” So powerful was her delivery (without being overpowering) that the crowd began applauding mid-song and was on its feet cheering during the last verse. It was a bravura display.
“Oh, payback is hell,” Reba McEntire, told the titled twosome when they came to the stage to accept their medallions. “You recall when we were touring in the ’90s and you pulled all those pranks? Well now I’ve got the mic.” Nonetheless she went easy on them, explaining that “they’re like my OLDER brothers.”
Brooks reminisced about working with Merle Haggard, whom both he and Dunn idolized. This was at the point in their career where they were thinking about splitting up. He said Haggard had them singing with him on certain of his songs, usually the more obscure ones that they had to bone up on feverishly in time to perform.
He recalled he’d once gone to Haggard’s room to ask what the next song was he wanted them to work up, and Haggard asked him what size the crowd was that was waiting for them to go on. “About 20,000,” Brooks replied, “What’s wrong with you?” Haggard asked abruptly. “Why would you quit? You boys have got a ’thing.’ You cannot waste that.” Brooks said he advised him to reconcile any differences he and Dunn had.
“We had our intentions of quitting,” Brooks said, “but I think we realized how lucky we were.” He said they now have about 20 dates scheduled for next year. Their latest album, Reboot, which teams them with a number of country’s rising stars, debuted at No. 1 this past April. Returning to the subject at hand, Brooks tried to explain what being in the Hall of Fame means to him: “Have you ever been invited to a really cool party? And all the cool people there make you feel welcome?”
Dunn said he was “feeling [his] oats” the night before the ceremony and noticed that his wife had set out the trash can for him to empty. “I said, ’After tomorrow night, I probably won’t be doing this anymore.” His wife was underwhelmed. “Well, when you get through with that one,” she said, “there’s another one over here.”
“My therapist is here tonight,” he informed the crowd. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do.” He said the night before he had gone to sleep with the sound of “munchkins” singing in his head and had awakened to them singing, “Follow the Yellow Brick Road.” He noted that as a psychology major in college he had been warned against over analyzing situations. But he thought those voices might indicate something.
He stressed how honored he was to be inducted. “If you don’t believe that,” he said, “just step into my heart right now.”
Biff Watson led the Medallion All-Star Band and played acoustic guitar. The other members were Eddie Bayers Jr., drums; Brent Mason, electric guitar; Alison Prestwood, bass; Deanie Richardson, fiddle and mandolin; Bruce Bouton, steel guitar; Mike Rojas, keyboard; Thom Flora, vocals; Tania Hancheroff, vocals; and Carmella Ramsey, fiddle and vocals.
The evening concluded, as it always does, with all the performers and Hall of Fame members assembling on stage to lead the audience in singing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
There was also a lavish after party on the Museum’s sixth floor for the honorees and their guests.
Members of the Country Music Hall of Fame welcomed its newest members Sunday, Oct. 20, in the Hall of Fame Rotunda at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tenn. Pictured: (Front row, L-R) Charley Pride; Randy Travis; Bud Wendell; Jerry Bradley; Ray Stevens; Kix Brooks; Ronnie Dunn; Reba McEntire; and Ralph Emery. (Second row, L-R) Charlie Daniels; Connie Smith; Charlie McCoy; Bill Anderson; Jimmy Fortune; Bobby Braddock; Randy Owen; and Ricky Skaggs. (Third row, L-R) Don Schlitz; The Oak Ridge Boys (Duane Allen, Richard Sterban and William Lee Golden); and Garth Brooks. (Photo by: Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum)