The Country Music Hall of Fame was enriched Sunday night (May 22) by the addition of two native Oklahoma trailblazers and a Florida-born songwriter who's equally adept at triggering tears or chuckles with his lyrics.
Photo Credit: Ed Rode
Reba McEntire, Jean Shepard and Bobby Braddock were accorded country music's highest honor (and awarded medallions to mark the occasion) in ceremonies held at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's Ford Theater in Nashville.
Sweetening the event considerably were musical performances by Shepard, Braddock, Vince Gill, Garth Brooks, George Jones, Bill Anderson, Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, Tracy Lawrence, Billy Currington, Ranger Doug Green, Elizabeth Cook, Susie McEntire, Kelly Clarkson and the McCrary Sisters.
Anderson inducted Braddock, Jones officially welcomed Shepard and Dolly Parton opened the door for McEntire.
As customary, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum director Kyle Young served as master of ceremonies, explaining to the overflow crowd the virtues and track record of each inductee. His remarks this year were briefer and pithier than usual, which allowed more time for music.
Once the guests had settled into their seats, just after 7 p.m., the organizers opened the program by playing a country classic, Jimmie Rodgers' recording of "Blue Yodel No. 9," which featured Louis Armstrong on trumpet. The record was selected from the museum's extensive Bob Pinson Collection.
After that, Vince Gill and the McCrary Sisters came to the stage and rocked the house with a hip-swaying, hand-clapping rendition of "Down by the Riverside."
"I'm out of breath," Gill gasped when he finished the song and stumbled to his seat in the front row.
Young then moved to the podium to cite the 70-year-old Braddock's achievements, among which was writing or co-writing No. 1 songs in each of the past five decades, ranging from "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" and "Golden Ring" to "He Stopped Loving Her Today" to "Texas Tornado," "I Wanna Talk About Me" and "People Are Crazy."
He traced Braddock's performing career from his clubs days with a rock band in Florida to touring with Marty Robbins out of Nashville to having his own record deals. And he noted Braddock has been a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame since 1981.
To illustrate Braddock's musical reach, Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert emerged to sing the doleful and cautionary "Golden Ring," the George Jones-Tammy Wynette hit that provided an ironic counterpoint to the fact they had been married for only a few days. At one point in the song, Lambert flashed her wedding ring as if to say, "This is not about us."
"I love you, Bobby," Shelton exclaimed when he'd finished the song. Braddock "discovered" Shelton, secured him a record deal and produced his early albums.
Tracy Lawrence came next to sing his Braddock-penned 1996 hit, "Time Marches On." Turning to Braddock before he left the stage, Lawrence said, "Thank you, Bobby, for the biggest song in my career, brother."
Billy Currington followed with "People Are Crazy," Braddock's most recent No. 1. Young told the crowd that Braddock has nine songs to his credit that have logged between 1 million and 3 million plays each on radio. He further noted that 1 million plays amounts to six and a-half years of around-the-clock playing.
Bill Anderson came forward to induct Bobby Braddock and began by telling a few stories about his fellow songwriter's personality and character.
He recalled getting into a discussion with Braddock about fellow songwriters. That led to a few words concerning the late Roger Miller, who Anderson declared was a "genius" for accomplishing all he had with just an eighth-grade education.
"This is the guy," Anderson enthused to Braddock, who wrote "the last word in lonesome is me. Can you imagine that: The last word in lonesome is me."
To which Braddock instantly responded, "Yeah, and the last word in Kroger is Roger."
On another occasion, Anderson said, Braddock decided that instead of buying the people who pitched his songs a Christmas present each, he would take them all to lunch at a fancy Nashville restaurant.
"So they all showed up -- except Bobby," said Anderson. "He slept through it. His excuse was that he'd stayed up all night writing a song."
Anderson said Braddock keeps a daily journal of his activities and that on the day he and Curly Putman completed "He Stopped Loving Her Today" -- arguably the finest country song ever written -- Braddock jotted down in his journal, "I finished a song with Curly today. I don't know."
With a screen behind the stage showing a picture of Braddock's bronze Hall of Fame plaque, Anderson hung the medallion around Braddock's neck as the crowd responded with a standing ovation.
"It's like getting to go to your own funeral without having to die," said Braddock as he basked in the general adulation. "How awesome is that?"
He was quick to point out he wrote most of his biggest hits with other writers.
"Frankly," he said, "I don't think I'd be standing up here if not for them." He recognized two of those co-writers in the audience -- Rafe Van Hoy and Matraca Berg -- and had them stand.
To conclude his segment of the ceremony, Braddock called to the stage Hall of Famer Charlie McCoy, Grand Ole Opry guitarist Jimmie Capps and fabled studio vocalist Millie Kirkham, all of whom had performed on George Jones' hit recording of "He Stopped Loving Her Today."
He said Jones would join the group later, but added, "I'm not going to follow George Jones. I'm mentally ill, but I'm not crazy." That said, Braddock sat at the piano and sang the first verses of the song. Jones came in near the end to do the somber recitation.
This garnered a standing ovation as well.
Young chronicled 77-year-old Jean Shepard's life from her impoverished childhood in Oklahoma -- during which she steeped herself in the recorded "blue yodels" of Jimmie Rodgers and the live western swing radio broadcasts of Bob Wills -- from her family's move to California to her rise as a strong and assertive musical voice for women specifically and working folk generally.
Shepard was signed to Capitol Records on the recommendation of Hank Thompson, Young said, and in 1953 scored her first and only No. 1 single, "A Dear John Letter," with supporting vocals by her friend and mentor, Ferlin Husky.
The song tells of a soldier in the Korean War who opens a letter only to discover that his sweetheart back home has abandoned him to marry his brother.
At this point in Young's narrative, Anderson and Cook came to the stage to recreate the song in all its unrelieved misery. A much under-appreciated singer, Cook gave a magnificent performance, and Anderson was properly dolorous as the betrayed and crushed suitor.
Young said that Husky, who was elected to the Hall of Fame last year, learned of Shepard's induction before he died this past March. Because she was too young to tour on her own at the outset of her career, her parents appointed Husky her legal guardian.
In 1955, Shepard joined the Grand Ole Opry and that same year recorded Songs of a Love Affair, which Young said was "possibly country music's first concept album by a female singer." She married fellow Opry star Hawkshaw Hawkins in 1960 and was eight months pregnant with his child when he died in the 1963 airplane crash that also killed singers Patsy Cline and Cowboy Copas.
Shepard continued to chart records every year through 1978.
To further illustrate her string of hits, Vince Gill sang "I Want to Go Where No One Knows Me," and Ranger Doug Green of Riders in the Sky did "Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar)" complete with a fancy yodel.
Young described Shepard's music as opening "an important window into the lives of women -- and men -- in 20th century America."
George Jones, who toured with Shepard when he was a young man, stepped up to welcome her into the Hall of Fame. He said he first met her when he was "about 22" and had the chance to play her guitar with her name inscribed on the neck.
"I thought that was the biggest thing," he said, "singing to them 30 people there."
Jones said Shepard still swaps jokes with "the guys" in the music business. "She's funny. She's real funny."
"Thank you, George. Thanks for showing up," Shepard cracked after accepting her medallion from him. She applauded her own persistence as a performer, remarking, "I hung in there like hair on grilled cheese."
Turning to Braddock, she said, "Bobby, how did I ever miss recording one of your songs?" To which the eternally enterprising Braddock responded, "I don't know. It's not too late."
Shepard pleaded with the electors of the Country Music Hall of Fame to induct other performers of her generation, specifically citing the late Skeeter Davis and the Wilburn Brothers, as well as Mac Wiseman, the Browns, Jimmy C. Newman and Leroy Van Dyke.
"Let's get these people into the Hall of Fame," she said. "Don't let their efforts fall by the wayside."
Demonstrating that she still has the magic, Shepard stood center stage and sang "A Satisfied Mind," her 1955 hit, in a strong, authoritative voice. It brought the crowd to its feet.
Young portrayed the 56-year-old Reba McEntire as a woman who can do it all -- and has -- from singing to acting in movies, television and on Broadway to overseeing an entertainment empire.
He told of her growing up on a ranch in Oklahoma and doing all the hard cowboy chores that life entailed, including roping, branding and castrating bulls. Her singing at a rodeo attracted the attention of artist Red Steagall. He encouraged her to come to Nashville and paid for her first recording session. She signed with Mercury Records in 1975 and had her first chart hit in 1976.
In time, she would score more than 25 No. 1 singles, including her 2010 hit, "Turn On the Radio."
Trisha Yearwood came out to sing "How Blue," McEntire's 1985 chart-topper, but she stopped the band just as it struck up the intro. "Sorry, boys," she said, "I have a story. My sister and I used to sing this song all the time."
She proceeded to tell how the two came to Nashville and stopped at a make-your-own-record studio at the old Barbara Mandrell Museum on Music Row to record their own earnest version of "How Blue." She said they still have the cassette.
Then she invited McEntire's sister, Susie, to join her to reprise the song. Both clad in black dresses, they belted out the song with almost as much power and forlornness as McEntire did in the original.
"I have a story, too," Gill deadpanned, when it came time for his tribute. "A castrated bull goes into a bar ..." He dropped the story there and moved on to sing the domestic tragedy, "Somebody Should Leave," which McEntire took to the top, also in 1985.
McEntire was one of the first to recognize the importance of music videos, Young said, and made a big impact both with the song and with the video for the Grammy-winning "Whoever's in New England."
Garth Brooks came out to great applause to sing "Whoever's in New England" and bowed to McEntire as he finished.
Young continued reciting McEntire's triumphs: winning the CMA's entertainer of the year award in 1986 and joining the Opry that same year, headlining at Carnegie Hall in 1987, breaking into the movies in 1990 with Tremors and setting new standards in high-tech staging for her concerts.
He noted that one of her biggest hits came in 1993 with "Does He Love You," her duet with Linda Davis. It won a Grammy for best vocal collaboration and a CMA trophy for vocal event of the year.
To remind everyone how powerful that pairing was, Martina McBride and Kelly Clarkson stood on opposite sides of the stage to belt out this aural cat fight, each presenting her side of the love triangle with operatic intensity. It was the vocal high point of the evening.
McEntire starred in a roundly acclaimed Broadway revival of Annie Get Your Gun in 2001, Young noted, and had her own popular TV sitcom for six seasons before returning to a successful run at recording and touring.
She is, he declared, "the most successful female country performer of her generation."
Dolly Parton, who informed the crowd she was stopping by to honor McEntire on her way to somewhere else, began her induction remarks by joking with her red-haired friend.
"Reba and I kind of feel like sisters," she said. "Through the years, we've both had enough hair to stuff a mattress. I look at those old publicity photos and think, 'What were we thinking?'"
On a more serious note, she added, "I've never heard anybody who can put more into a song than Reba."
As Parton adjusted the medallion around McEntire's neck, she observed, "I'm glad you don't have the big hair on."
Once Parton made her exit, McEntire told the audience about her first encounter with the star. She said it was on Sept. 17, 1977, and she was making her first appearance on the Opry.
When she and her family drove to the stage entrance, McEntire said, the guard told them they were not on the list to get in. He remained adamant despite their protests.
They retreated so McEntire could call her booking agent and tell him their problem. The agent sorted things out, and the family got in. Soon after that, McEntire said, Parton swept past her, wearing a black gown with butterflies on it.
"She was the most angelic thing I ever saw," said McEntire. But there was a kicker: Since Parton was making one of her rare Opry appearances that night, the Opry manager cut back the number of songs McEntire was scheduled to sing from two to one.
McEntire said she was glad to defer to the superstar.
Addressing her husband and manager, Narvel Blackstock, she said, "Narvel, I love you. I appreciate you very much, guiding me, being my partner, my husband."
To her other supporters, she said, "I couldn't have done it without you, and, by God, I wouldn't have wanted to."
Hall of Fame members in the audience included Bill Anderson, George Jones, Charlie McCoy, Brenda Lee, Sonny James, Harold Bradley, Jo Walker-Meador, the Statler Brothers' Jimmy Fortune, Ralph Emery, Billy Sherrill, Jim Foglesong, Barbara Mandrell, the Jordanaires and Bud Wendell.
The evening's performers were backed by the Medallion All-Star Band, an ensemble led by keyboardist John Hobbs and made up of drummer Eddie Bayers, steel guitarist Paul Franklin, electric guitarist Steve Gibson, bassist Michael Rhodes, fiddler Deanie Richardson, acoustic guitarist Biff Watson and vocalists Dawn Sears and Jeff White.
The show ended at 9:15 p.m. with a group singing of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."
View photos from the medallion ceremony.
Find out more about events at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.