Barbara Mandrell, Roy Clark and Charlie McCoy attained cultural immortality Sunday night (May 17) as they transcended from mere celebrity to membership in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
The induction, an annual event dubbed the "medallion ceremony" because of the beribboned medal presented each member, was held at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's Ford Theater in Nashville and witnessed by an overflow crowd of family, friends and music industry gentry.
Mandrell is 60, Clark 76 and McCoy 68.
The three had crossed paths countless times in arriving at this moment. As a studio musician, McCoy had played on many of their albums and served as music director on Hee Haw, Clark's venue of greatest exposure. And Mandrell and Clark had recorded for the same record labels at the same time -- in addition to performing on the same shows.
Stars performing for the induction included Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, George Jones, Rodney Crowell, Alison Krauss, Josh Turner, Duane Eddy, Michael McDonald and Louise Mandrell.
The evening began with a two-hour cocktail party in the hall's lofty and sun-drenched Curb Conservatory. During this time, the honorees and earlier members of the Hall of Fame arrived in limousines and walked the red carpet into the building, flanked by cheering fans and television crews.
Among the Hall of Fame members attending were Little Jimmy Dickens, Earl Scruggs, George Jones, Brenda Lee, Sonny James, Emmylou Harris, former Country Music Association executive director Jo Walker-Meador and former Gaylord Entertainment chief E. W. "Bud" Wendell. Other members in attendance were Phil Everly (of the Everly Brothers), Charlie Louvin (of the Louvin Brothers), Ray Walker (of the Jordanaires), former MCA Nashville and Capitol Records Nashville president Jim Foglesong, veteran studio musician Harold Bradley and radio and TV personality Ralph Emery.
There was nothing Hollywoodish about this production: no fawning retinues, no assertive security guards. Stars and "civilians" mingled freely as they waited for the formal program to start.
Josh Turner, who would later sing a tribute to Clark, stopped to hug Mandrell and pose for a photo. On his way into the theater, Clark spotted veteran talent manager Billy Deaton, now confined to a wheelchair, and paused to offer kind words and recall old times.
The ceremony began with an audio recording of the late Jerry Reed playing his amazing guitar composition, "The Claw." It was chosen, a Hall of Fame representative explained, to call attention to the fact that each of the three inductees was a multi-instrumentalist.
Vocalist Dawn Sears, who sang background vocals with the Medallion All-Star Band during the ceremony, then offered the opening hymn, "The Old Rugged Cross." Led by keyboardist John Hobbs, the band included Eddie Bayers (drums), Paul Franklin (steel guitar and Dobro), Brent Mason (electric guitar), Jeff White (acoustic guitar and vocals), Michael Rhodes (bass) and Deanie Richardson (fiddle and mandolin).
Kyle Young, director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, hosted the program, reciting a biography of each inductee and stopping at crucial points in his narratives for tribute performances.
Young noted that McCoy, a native of West Virginia, began his career with "a funny book, a box top and 50 cents," later explaining that these were the elements it took to get him his first harmonica. Although McCoy plays several instruments expertly, he became famous via the harmonica.
Noting that McCoy earned $49 for backing Roy Orbison on "Candy Man," Young then introduced Rodney Crowell to sing the 1961 pop hit. Accompanying Crowell, in addition to the band, were Jim Hoke and Sam Levine.
At the peak of McCoy's recording activity, Young said, he did as many as 400 sessions a year.
McCoy's first country hit as a solo artist came in 1972, Young continued, with his cover of Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens' "(Today) I Started Loving You Again." With that, Young brought out harmonica wizard Kirk "Jelly Roll" Johnson to play his own version of the song.
McCoy scored a minor country hit in 1977 working with the group Barefoot Jerry. It was a breezy arrangement of Artie Shaw's "Summit Ridge Drive." Backed by the Medallion band, P.T. Gazell and Barefoot Jerry alums Wayne Moss and Russ Hicks, dusted off that classic to the clear delight of the crowd.
Young recited a few of the hundreds of hit recordings McCoy has played on -- from Tom T. Hall's "(Old Dogs-Children And) Watermelon Wine" to Tanya Tucker's "Delta Dawn" to George Jones' "He Stopped Loving Her Today." In summary, he said McCoy can be credited for "some of the greatest country music in the canon."
McCoy's 35th album, a collection of gospel standards, will be released this year.
To induct "the most recorded harmonica player in history" into the Hall of Fame, Young called up Harold Bradley, whom he labeled "the most recorded guitarist in history."
"I never thought much of harmonicas or harmonica players," Bradley confessed, "until I heard Charlie McCoy." He said McCoy had prospered by learning the two basic rules of being a session player: "The artist is always right, and the artist is never wrong."
After Bradley presented him his medallion, McCoy looked out into the audience and beamed, "This is better than a family reunion." Stressing that his induction didn't mean he was through playing, he said he will tour with Dawn Sears in October.
Giving a nod to Bradley, his old recording pal and former musicians union president, McCoy said, "I got the best of things the union had to offer when I stole my wife, Pat, from them."
He recalled that producer Owen Bradley, Harold's brother, admitted him to the first recording session he ever witnessed, the one in which 13-year-old Brenda Lee cut her 1959 pop hit, "Sweet Nothin's."
Among the legions McCoy singled out for praise were fellow studio players and mentors Grady Martin and Hargus "Pig" Robbins and Monument Records owner Fred Foster, who nourished McCoy's solo recording career for eight years before his first hit came along.
Counting Mandrell and Clark, McCoy said he had played on recordings for 53 of the Hall of Fame's 108 members. Then, to demonstrate he hasn't lost any of his instrumental chops, McCoy brought the crowd to its feet with a haunting rendition of "Shenandoah."
"We made records that are still being played," McCoy mused, "and that's cool. That's really cool."
Next it was Clark's turn in the spotlight. Young said the Virginia native first sampled music as a profession when his high school excused him for two weeks to play on a bill with Hank Williams.
Clark was a part of the burgeoning country music scene in and around Washington, D.C., during the 1950s, where he played in clubs and appeared on local TV. By the end of the decade, he had started performing on network TV, including Arthur Godfrey's vastly popular Talent Scouts.
However, it was as a member of rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson's band that Clark reached "the turning point in his career," according to Young. Serving also as Jackson's opening act, Clark soon established himself as a significant attraction in Las Vegas, relying on deft, light-hearted comedy to enhance his musical appeal.
In time, Young said, Clark was making regular appearances on The Tonight Show (and later guest-hosting it) and acting in the network comedy series, The Beverly Hillbillies.
With the advent of Hee Haw in 1969, Clark became an authentic cultural icon, co-hosting the audience-winning series with Buck Owens, playing in the show's comic skits and singing as a member of the Hee Haw Gospel Quartet.
Young said Clark viewed himself as a "TV entertainer who sang a country song rather than as a country singer who sang on TV."
Although Clark's recording career was less spectacular -- he had only one No. 1 song -- he was on the Billboard charts for 26 years, from 1963 to 1989.
To focus on that aspect of Clark's artistry, guitar master Duane Eddy led the band in Clark's 1973 chart single, "Riders in the Sky."
Young pointed out that Clark marked himself as a serious balladeer with his poignant 1969 interpretation of Charles Aznavour's "Yesterday, When I Was Young." The song was Clark's first Top 10 single. Young added that the song was a favorite of baseball legend Mickey Mantle and that Clark performed it at Mantle's funeral.
Josh Turner then brightened the mood a bit with Clark's 1970 kiss-off classic, "Thank God and Greyhound."
Next up, Garth Brooks, accompanied by the Carol Lee Singers, turned in a soulful reading of Clark's lone chart-topper from 1973, "Come Live With Me." The crowd rewarded Brooks with a standing ovation.
Young called on Little Jimmy Dickens to award Clark his medallion. After some comic business about finding a box to stand on so he could peer over the podium, Dickens struck a serious note.
"They've asked me to say a few words about Roy Clark," he said. "You can't say a few words about Roy Clark. You can't do that when [he's] the ultimate country music performer all over the world."
But the diminutive star didn't stay serious very long. "There are two sides to every man," he proclaimed, and then launched into a convoluted story about Clark and his bandmates pushing a red Volkswagen bug into a motel swimming pool to see if it would float.
Dickens, who's recovering from a serious illness, excused his rambling by saying, "I had two brain surgeries in one day -- and they never found it."
Clark was more than ready to match Dickens' medical woes. He acknowledged he still needed assistance in getting around because he'd also had an operation.
"I'm taking pain medicine," he said. "God bless it. ... I've got a doctor, and he's legal, and whenever something new comes out, he sends it to me immediately."
In spite of all the wisecracking, Clark was clearly moved by his election to the Hall of Fame. "I don't want to get in too deep," he said, "but I don't want to be frivolous."
Bent, but unaided, Clark walked from the podium to center stage, picked up his electric guitar and sang in plaintive, valedictory tones, "Yesterday, When I Was Young."
Mandrell was last to be honored. Young told how Mandrell as a preschooler in her native Texas had modeled herself on the elegant TV actress, Loretta Young. The imitation had worked, he continued. "She grew up to be everybody's Miss America."
By the time Mandrell was 13, she had becomes so proficient on steel guitar, she was invited to tour nationally with a show headlined by Johnny Cash and featuring Patsy Cline and George Jones. Cline took the youngster under her maternal wing, Young said, and Cash sat beside her to reassure her on the long flights.
Mandrell signed to Columbia Records in the late '60s and joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1972. She had a Top 10 hit the following year with "The Midnight Oil," a lyrical confession of adultery.
It would be followed by such other sexually-tinged hits as "Sleeping Single in Double Bed" and "(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want to Be Right."
Young said Mandrell's father and manager, Irby Mandrell, decided it was all right for his squeaky-clean daughter to sing such songs because "she comes from a good family, she's married, and she looks like she just came from church."
Mandrell would go on to star in her own hit TV series and rack up a long string of No. 1 and Top 10 singles. Near the end of her singing career, she also authored a best-selling autobiography.
Alison Krauss sang "The Midnight Oil" with all the passion and self-recrimination of the original, while Mandrell's sister, Louise, imparted a bouncy, c'est la vie quality to "Sleeping Single."
"I was one of the first Barbara Mandrell fans," Louise proclaimed. Speaking directly to her sister, she said, "The only thing better than me singing ['Sleeping Single'] would be if you sang it. But since I can't convince you, I get to sing with these guys."
Mandrell, who retired from performing in 1997, has steadfastly refused to return to stage or studio and now confines her singing to church.
McDonald came close to blistering the paint with his bluesy take on "(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want to Be Right." Young reminded the crowd that this song was originally an R&B hit for Luther Ingram in 1972. "It shows that great songs can walk in many rooms," he said.
Reba McEntire led the final musical tribute to Mandrell with a just-as-sassy version of her 1981 smash, "I Was Country When Country Wasn't Cool." McCoy and George Jones joined in with their own distinctive musical licks. The song won them a standing ovation.
"I adore you with all my heart," McEntire told Mandrell. "I thank you for all the things you taught me, not just musically but spiritually."
After the music was over, Ralph Emery stepped forward to welcome Mandrell officially into the Hall. He said he had known the still-perky singer for 41 years, ever since Merle Travis recommended her for a guest spot on Emery's local TV show.
Asserting that Mandrell is a Christian, Emery joked that her favorite prayer is, "God give me patience -- and could you please hurry?"
Radiant in a red, form-flattering pantsuit, Mandrell spent most of her acceptance speech praising the talent and goodness of others. Her first target of admiration was Jones.
She said Jones probably had forgotten what she still regards as one of the biggest moments of her life. It happened on that long-ago tour with Johnny Cash, she explained, when Jones asked her to play steel guitar on his portion of the show. He did so, she said, because Cash's band, which was backing all the performers, didn't include a steel guitar. She called that incident "my claim to fame in my own heart."
Mandrell thanked McEntire for interrupting a vacation with her mother and sisters to sing for her. Continuing with the kudos, she vowed she was a fan of Krauss' "very special, pristine, magnificent voice."
Of her sister she said, "There's none better than my sister, Louise. She amazes me. She's the most generous person I know.
"And Michael McDonald? O-o-o-e-e-e! You just don't know, you just don't know!"
Mandrell said she was especially grateful that her father lived long enough to know she would be inducted into the Hall of Fame. It was her gift to him, she said, to take the Mandrell name there.
After thanking her extended family "for making my life glorious and my career possible," she read, without additional comment, the names of dozens of people who had contributed to her success.
"For me, this evening is monumental," she concluded. "God bless you, and God bless the Country Music Hall of Fame."
Following custom, Young called all the Hall of Fame members in the audience to the stage to sing "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." Departing from her performing abstinence, Mandrell sang along.
The ceremony ended at 10:20 p.m. Most of the attendees retreated to the conservatory for a final drink and/or a serving of southern shortbread.