The ceremony welcoming Vince Gill, Mel Tillis and Ralph Emery into the Country Music Hall of Fame was nearing the end Sunday evening (Oct. 28) when word began spreading through the crowd gathered at the Hall's Ford Theater in Nashville that Porter Wagoner had just died.
Wagoner's death wasn't announced, however, during the nostalgic and decidedly upbeat event, during which medallions were presented to the new inductees. A member of the Hall of Fame himself since 2002, Wagoner was cited as being the man who gave Tillis his start in television, a boost Tillis joked about before he learned of Wagoner's passing.
The program was a blend of biography and music. Host and Country Music Foundation director Kyle Young alternated between reciting high points of each man's career and introducing artists who sang songs of particular significance to the spotlighted honoree.
This year's medallion event was the first time formal induction into the Hall of Fame took place at the Hall of Fame rather than during the Country Music Association Awards network TV show. It will be a permanent switch.
Young traced Emery's path from a broken home in McEwen, Tenn., to international fame as a country disc jockey-interviewer and television host. Virtually every country artist from the late 1950s on, Young pointed out, owed Emery a debt of gratitude for the exposure he gave them through his various programs.
Emery's most frequent guest on his late-night show on WSM radio was the singer Marty Robbins. To memorialize that relationship, Raul Malo, backing himself on guitar, sang Robbins' self-penned "You Gave Me a Mountain."
The ad hoc Medallion All-Star Band, made up of some of Nashville's top session and road players, accompanied most of the evening's performers. Led by pianist John Hobbs, the 2007 edition of the band included drummer Eddie Bayers, pedal steel guitarist Paul Franklin, bassist Michael Rhodes, guitarists Brent Mason and Russ Pahl, fiddler Deanie Richardson and background vocalists Wes Hightower and Tania Hancheroff.
The Gaither Vocal Band saluted Emery with the hymn "Yes, I Know" and was followed by country and soul vocalist Con Hunley, who turned in a blistering rendition of "Since I Fell for You." Hunley recalled that Emery had a fondness for departing from the questions artists expected him to ask and instead bringing up personal -- and sometimes embarrassing -- incidents, such as prodding Hunley to tell about the time his date fell through the rotten bathroom floor of his trailer.
Seating himself at an electric piano, Ray Stevens gave the final performance on Emery's behalf. Before he began singing, he recalled a contest Emery dreamed up to promote Stevens' 1977 novelty hit, "In the Mood." Recorded under the pseudonym "Henhouse Five Plus Too," the song faithfully followed Glen Miller's original arrangement -- except for the fact that the melody sounded as if it were being clucked by chickens.
Emery decided, Stevens continued, to give a live chicken to the listener who could most convincingly cluck like one. The winner was a man from Louisiana. Emery chartered a plane so he could deliver the chicken in person and summoned Stevens to ride along with him. When they got to the airport, Stevens said, the chicken made such a fuss about getting onto the plane that Emery took it aside and talked to it until it calmed down.
"What did you say to the chicken?" the understandably curious Stevens asked. To which Emery replied, "I just told him I was a good friend of Colonel Sanders."
Observing that Emery always looked on the bright side of life, Stevens said, "For a positive guy, I want to sing a positive song." Then he crooned his 1970 crossover hit, "Everything Is Beautiful."
Young concluded the formal tribute by reading a letter of congratulation to Emery from Dolly Parton. At the outset of Parton's career, Young said, the affable Emery would pick her up at her Nashville apartment, take her to perform on his early morning show and then drive her back home.
Hall of Fame member E.W. "Bud" Wendell placed the medallion around Emery's neck. Emery reserved his greatest praise for Joy, his wife of 40 years. "I dearly love you," he said, "and I appreciate all you've done for me." Also in the audience were Emery's four sons.
Emery completed his remarks by reading a poem he attributed to Tennessee Ernie Ford, the same poem, he said, that he had recited at Conway Twitty's funeral. Focusing on the differences between a person's desires and his real needs, the poem ends with, "I got nothing I asked for but everything I hoped for. . . . I am, among all men, the most richly blessed."
Young introduced Gill's segment by referring to him as "Bashful Brother Benefit," an allusion to Grand Ole Opry star Roy Acuff's faithful musical sidekick, Bashful Brother Oswald. (Rodney Crowell subsequently explained that his daughter Caitlin was the first to bestow the name "Benefit" on Gill because she could not pronounce "Vincent," which was the way Crowell routinely addressed him. Fluke though it was, the name perfectly fit the man who would become famous not only for his singing, playing and songwriting but also for his endless acts of charity.)
Oddly enough, Gill's segment got underway at almost the same moment Wagoner died, a coincidence one member of audience later regarded as the transition from the "old face of the [Grand Ole] Opry to the new face of the Opry." Both men have long been fierce supporters of the hallowed radio show.
The first performers to pay tribute to Gill were Crowell and Gill's former boss, Emmylou Harris. They sang "Some Things Never Get Old," a Gill composition from his current four CD album, These Days.
Young told of how Gill had written one of his most universally cherished songs, "Go Rest High On That Mountain," following the death of his "blues-loving" brother. Noting its popularity as a funeral piece, Young remarked, "That song has accompanied many souls to the far side banks of Jordan."
Ex-Doobie Brother and R&B vocalist Michael McDonald sang "Go Rest High," backed by the Medallion Band and other members of Gill's touring group.
Guy Clark followed with a performance of his lyrical tribute to his father, "The Randall Knife." That song had, in turn, inspired Gill to write "The Key to Life," a memorial to his own dad. Al Anderson, who now tours with Gill's band, wrapped up the musical portion of the presentation with "The Next Big Thing," a song he co-wrote with Gill and Hobbs. "Nobody sits on a higher pedestal than Vince Gill," Anderson proclaimed.
Praising Gill's "full life of giving to others," Young introduced members of Gill's family, among them his wife, Amy Grant, and his mother.
Bill Anderson, a 2001 Hall of Famer, rose to award Gill his medallion. He said that after Gill had completed his current four records for his new album, he told his friends he henceforth wanted to be called "Quadcephus" (a nod to Hank Williams Jr.'s moniker, Bocephus.) Anderson also reminded the crowd that Gill had also co-written "that great country song" everyone had neglected to mention: "It's Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long." The song was a minor hit for the Notorious Cherry Bombs, of which Gill was a member.
Anderson, whose soft, earnest singing style long ago earned him the title "Whispering Bill," credited Gill with reviving his own dormant songwriting career. Although he had come to Nashville in the late '50s to write songs, Anderson said, he was soon sidetracked into being a performer and later a game show host, soap opera actor and fried-chicken entrepreneur. By the late '90s, he had basically quit writing. When friends urged him to reignite his interest by pairing up with some young songwriters, he said he was almost too afraid to try.
One suggestion was that he arrange to co-write with Gill, who was on a particularly hot streak at the time. He said he had met Gill only once -- and briefly at that -- and feared the younger writer might not even know who he was. After a while, though, he summoned up the nerve to call. Instead of Gill answering the phone, Anderson heard a soft, earnest recorded message that said, "Hi, this is Whispering Gill."
"Hell," Anderson sputtered, "not only did he know who I was, he was stealing my act!" The first two songs he and Gill wrote together were both recorded, he said. "[The pairing] opened up a door for me in Nashville I was afraid was closed forever," he said. Then, speaking directly to Gill, he added, "Thanks, pal."
Anderson also praised the impact "Go Rest High on That Mountain" has had as a memorial song. "Nobody expects you to rest high on a mountain or anywhere else, Vince," he concluded. "Just enjoy the view -- because you've earned it."
After receiving his medallion, Gill moved to the speaker's stand. "A lot of my buddies out there are betting on how many times I'll cry," said the singer who's known to weep heartily on sentimental occasions. But it appeared that he had done all his crying when he first learned he'd been selected for the Hall. Although his voice faltered with emotion now and then, he was largely tear-free.
Just before each man was given his medallion, a screen dropped from the top of the stage and a picture of the recipient's actual Hall of Fame plaque was projected on it. Without exception, the images were more idealized that photographic. In Gill's case, the handsome, square cut face peering out from the plaque was barely recognizable. "I've never had any work done on my face or my eyes," he deadpanned as he glanced toward the screen, "but I'm gonna work on that chin."
Growing up in Oklahoma, Gill said, he was attracted to the instrumental licks he heard on records as much as he was to the vocal performances. He cited the intros to Marty Robbins' "El Paso" and Bobby Bare's "Detroit City" as cases in point. "I always felt like all notes were created equal. I've always felt like every note mattered."
He said it worried him at first when he was told he had been elected to the Hall since he knew of so many other performers who should have preceded him. "To every musician I ever played a note with, you go into the Hall of Fame with me," he said firmly. "We did this together."
He recalled the euphoric effect Emmylou Harris' voice had on him when he first heard it -- although he admitted he was certain the crystalline voice must actually belong to Dolly Parton's because "nobody's named Emmylou." Later, though, as he was browsing through a record store bin he came upon her first Reprise Records album, Pieces of the Sky, a discovery, he said, that turned him into a "stalker."
The first song on Harris' album, Gill continued, was Crowell's "Bluebird Wine." The song meant so much to him, he said, that he referred to it in "Some Things Never Get Old."
Gill told the crowd he had a reason for doing the good works attributed to him. "The reason I did all those things was to make up for all the things I'd done wrong in my life. . . . [I needed] to do things that would right these wrongs in my heart."
The burden of these unspecified offenses, Gill said, had made it difficult for him to rest at night. But after uniting with Amy Grant, he said, "I've found that peace at the end of the day."
Gill ended his acceptance remarks with a vow to push on rather than rest on his laurels. "After 35 years of being in this business, I feel like the pressure is really on. . . . I am now inspired, I feel reborn, I feel brand new again." He said he will use the time he has left to "validate" his election to the Hall of Fame.
In presenting Mel Tillis, Young told the crowd that the singer first encountered "hillbilly music" as a child while working in a cannery in his native Florida. A bout with malaria afflicted him with a chronic stutter, but he soon he found he could short-circuit the speech defect by singing.
Tillis eventually strayed into songwriting, Young said, and began creating the kind of material that incorporated real life experiences into the traditional country sound, experiences such as the migration of Southerners to the north to find jobs -- and to face the homesickness that naturally ensued.
To exemplify this theme, Bobby Bare came to the stage to sing Tillis' "Detroit City," the song that won Bare a Grammy for best country single in 1963. "[It's] a song I never get tired of," Bare said.
Kenny Rogers followed Bare to perform another of Tillis' "realistic" efforts, "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town," the story of a severely wounded Vietnam War veteran who has to face the fact that his dissatisfied wife is cheating on him.
Rogers explained that record promoter Frank Leffel had first suggested he record "Ruby" after playing him Roger Miller's version of the song. Rogers, who was then being produced by Jimmy Bowen, said he cut it during the final 15 minutes of a three-hour recording session.
"Bowen told me 'You'll never get that [song] played on radio,'" Rogers said. "I said, 'But if I do, it'll be huge.' . . . There are a lot of people who can write great songs, but there are only a few who can write important songs. . . . ['Ruby'] wasn't anti-war. It was anti the effects of war. I've been in 55 countries. There are only two songs [of mine] that everybody knows. One is 'The Gambler.' The other is 'Ruby.'"
Tillis' famous daughter, Pam, preceded her singing of Tillis' 1979 hit, "Coca Cola Cowboy," a song he didn't write, by acknowledging she had made life rough for her dad and mom while growing up. "I was known here for a long time as the prodigal daughter of Nashville," she confessed. She said she he had spent much of her life trying to make her busy and celebrated father proud of her. "I love you, Daddy," she said, as she finished her performance.
Dierks Bentley sang the final musical tribute after explaining the significance the new inductees had had to his career. He said he was working as a researcher for TNN, the Nashville-based cable network, when he met Emery and had his first conversations with him. Gill had taken time out to sing with him, Bentley said, when he was playing at a local club and still without a record deal. Recently, he and Tillis have worked the same shows together.
Bentley tipped his hat to Tillis with a rocking rendition of "I Ain't Never," the 1959 Webb Pierce hit that Tillis wrote.
Young spotlighted the members of Tillis' identically costumed band, the Statesiders; former Statesider Buddy Cannon, who now produces Kenny Chesney; and Tillis' manager and companion, Kathy DeMonaco.
Little Jimmy Dickens, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983, draped the medallion on Tillis. "If you've never seen Mel in concert, you've missed a lot," he said, "because he does it with pride, dignity and character. . . . When he steps on the stage, he upgrades country music."
Tillis reminisced about his first days in Nashville in 1956. He noted that there were only three or four major music publishers then. One of them, Fred Rose of Acuff-Rose, told him, "Hell, we don't need any stuttering singers. We ain't got enough plastic [to record them]. We need songwriters."
He said comedian Minnie Pearl and members of the Bradley musical dynasty had been especially helpful and encouraging to him when he was getting started. He also singled out his band members for praise, introducing each one and mentioning their hometowns and the years they had worked with him.
Tillis thanked Wagoner for launching his television career -- one that would later include a regular role on Glen Campbell's musical variety series and appearances on all the daytime and primetime talk shows. "I worked on [Porter's] show for about six months," he recalled. "I got an awful lot of [fan] mail, and he fired me."
As has become traditional, the ceremony ended with all the members of the Hall of Fame in the audience trooping to the stage and singing "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." Randy Scruggs opened the evening by playing "Amazing Grace" on acoustic guitar.