With Music and Laughter, Tom T. Hall and the Statlers Stride Into the Hall of Fame
Tom T. Hall and the Statler Brothers stepped back momentarily from their self-imposed retirement Sunday night (June 29) to demonstrate that they still have the musical magic that made them stars -- and, now, the newest members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Their induction took place in the Ford Theater at Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Fellow 2008 Hall of Famers Emmylou Harris and Ernest V. "Pop" Stoneman were inducted April 27. Normally handled in a single program, this year's inductions were split into two segments because of time and space constraints.
On hand to celebrate the new members with songs and stories were Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, Amy Grant, the Jordanaires, Bobby Bare, Michelle Nixon, Dailey & Vincent, Heather Berry and Tony Mabe and the duo Grandstaff.
Hall and the Statlers are bound together by more their common year of entry. Both were on Mercury Records and being produced by Jerry Kennedy when they scored their biggest hits. Moreover, the first song the Statlers recorded was a Hall composition -- "The Ballad of Billy Christian" -- which, unfortunately for Hall, was on the flip side of "Flowers on the Wall," the Statlers' 1965 breakthrough.
Prior to the ceremony, which ran from 7 p.m. to 9:45, there was a two-hour cocktail party, during which earlier members of the Hall of Fame walked the red carpet, among them Harris, Brenda Lee, Little Jimmy Dickens, Earl Scruggs, Sonny James, Ralph Emery, Harold Bradley, Jim Foglesong, Jo-Walker Meador and E. W. "Bud" Wendell.
There was also a profusion of bluegrass musicians in the crowd, many of them there at Hall's request. They included Larry Stephenson, Charlie Sizemore, Chris Jones, Alecia Nugent, Michelle Nixon, Roni Stoneman and Judy Marshall.
Hall started his musical career in a bluegrass band and has concentrated almost exclusively on writing songs for that genre since his official retirement from performing in 1997.
After welcoming remarks from Hall of Fame and Museum director Kyle Young, Gill, Amy Grant and the Jordanaires opened the program with "Rock of Ages."
"I didn't go to church much, so my repertoire [of hymns] was very small," Gill confessed before the song began. "I said the thing to do is marry [gospel singer] Amy Grant." Grant alone sang the lyrics from memory. The others held printed copies.
A band under the direction of keyboardist John Hobbs backed most of the evening's singers. It consisted of Eddie Bayers, drums; Paul Franklin, steel guitar and Dobro; Brent Mason, electric guitar; Michael Rhodes, bass; Deanie Richardson, fiddle and mandolin; Biff Watson, acoustic guitar; and Tania Hancheroff and Wes Hightower, vocals.
Young recounted Hall's hardscrabble childhood growing up in a large family in Olive Hill, Ky., and of witnessing his mother's agonizing death from cancer. Later he suffered through another shock when his preacher father was accidentally shot and permanently wounded.
Hall dropped out of school at 15 to help support his family and at 17 formed a bluegrass band, the Kentucky Travelers. Young noted that Hall once remarked that "the best music he ever heard and ever played was under a tree with a bluegrass band."
After stints as a disc jockey and service in the Army, Hall finally saw some results from his songwriting when a Nashville publisher pitched his song "D. J. for a Day" with Grand Ole Opry star, Jimmy C. Newman. It became a Top 10 hit for Newman in 1963-64.
On Jan. 1, 1964, Hall moved to Nashville. Young said that the newcomer's first act was to look out over the traffic-riddled city and ask, "Are you ready for me, you big son of a bitch?"
Apparently, the answer was yes. By 1967, he'd had songs recorded by Flatt & Scruggs, Dave Dudley and Johnny Wright and signed a recording deal with Mercury. That was also when he gave himself a middle initial.
Young paused in his narrative to introduce bluegrass diva Michelle Nixon, who proceeded to belt out Hall's crossover classic on hypocrisy, "Harper Valley P. T. A." The crowd began cheering wildly after she sang the first line. Nixon has recorded the song for an upcoming album.
Next came Hall's good friend, Bobby Bare, who owes some of his early hits to the Kentuckian. One of these was the 1969 single, "Margie's at the Lincoln Park Inn," the story of a seemingly contented and doting family man whose thoughts are actually consumed by the illicit delights "Margie" has waiting for him.
Bare recalled that Hall's wife complained that the song sounded rather too "believable," prompting Hall to explain, "Oh, I wrote that for Bare." Bare said his wife voiced the same suspicions until he reassured her the song was simply a reflection of Hall's own thoughts. He added that he knew who the real culprits in the song were and that they weren't cavorting at the Lincoln Park Inn, which didn't exist, but at the Capitol Park Inn, which did. He went no further with his revelations.
Instead of singing "Margie," though, Bare favored the crowd with another Hall tune that had done well for him a year later, "That's How I Got to Memphis." Of Hall, he observed, "He has an uncanny ability to capture the spirit of the people he writes about."
Young reminded the audience of Hall's deep appreciation for traditional forms of country music. To illustrate that point, he brought to the stage Tony Mabe and Heather Berry, a young husband-and-wife team from North Carolina, to sing "Can You Hear Me Now," a song in the original Carter Family style that Hall co-wrote with his wife, Dixie, and Johnny Williams. It appears on Berry and Mabe's current CD, Before Bluegrass.
With Berry picking Mother Maybelle Carter style guitar, Mabe accompanying her on autoharp and both recreating antique vocal harmonies, the couple quickly won over the crowd and then went on to earn the evening's first standing ovation.
Radio and TV personality Ralph Emery, who was elected last year to the Country Music Hall of Fame, formally inducted Hall and presented him the official Hall of Fame medallion.
"He has never forgotten [that] it's all about people," said Emery. "He's never forgotten that music is the shorthand of human emotion."
Although he can sometimes appear aloof, Hall was clearly enjoying himself to the hilt. "They asked me if I had a prepared speech," he said, as he stood grinning at the speaker's stand. "I said, 'No. Why should I have a speech? I'm in the Country Music Hall of Fame.'"
Hall confided that he had told his wife on the way to the ceremony that he hoped Bobby Bare wouldn't be there. Then he explained that he felt embarrassed about going into the Hall of Fame before Bare was inducted.
Remembering his arrival in Nashville more than 44 years ago, Hall said he liked the town from the start. "It had a great newspaper, the Nashville Tennessean [sic]," he explained, "and a great beer joint -- Tootsie's. What more could a songwriter want?"
Noting that he is a man with some social standards, Hall said, "I always tried to associate myself with people who wore clean shirts and could speak the English language." One of the things that attracted him to his wife of more than 40 years, he continued, was that she spoke "the King's English," a talent she acquired from being a native of Birmingham, England.
Hall spent much of his speech praising his close friends, many of whom sat in the audience, including former Tennessean publisher John Siegenthaler, civil rights activist the Rev. Will Campbell (immortalized in the "Kudzu" cartoon series as Will B. Dunn), author John Edgerton and longtime booking agent Tandy Rice.
Lots of people had stuck with him, Hall speculated wryly, because he couldn't bring himself to fire them. "I never fired anybody in my whole career," he said. He told of getting on his bus once while he was still mad at his band. One of the members said to him. "Tom T., you look upset,' to which Hall replied, "I'll tell you just how upset I am: I wish all you guys would quit." None of them did.
"Three weeks from now," Hall said, winding up his remarks, "I'll be out standing on my farm, feeding my chickens and hoeing corn, and I'll think of a thousand witty things I could have said about this very evening. And there won't be anyone to hear me but my dog."
As the crowd stood and roared, Young reminded Hall that it was now his turn to do a song. "You think I ought to do this, Kyle?" Hall deadpanned. "I had a pretty good finish."
Good finish or no, Hall stepped to the microphone to sing "(Old Dogs-Children and) Watermelon Wine," as Kirk "Jelly Roll" Johnson joined the band to provide the song's harmonica flourishes.
Hall warned the crowd in advance that they would be remembering how he used to sing the song but they needed to focus on how he would be singing it now. He needn't have worried. His performance was both subtle and masterful.
To launch the Statler Brothers' segment, Young spoke briefly about the group's middle-class, small-town upbringing in Staunton, Va., and its early successes as a part of Johnny Cash's touring company and later his ABC-TV show.
That edition of the quartet, which turned professional in 1964, included brothers Harold and Don Reid, Phil Balsley and Lew DeWitt, a configuration that endured until DeWitt was sidelined by illness in 1982. He died in 1990. The Statlers did their last show on Oct. 24, 2002.
Next, Young called on Reba McEntire to sing the Statlers' first hit, "Flowers on the Wall," a tune DeWitt wrote and which crossed over to the pop chart in 1965.
(Both DeWitt and his replacement, Jimmy Fortune, who joined the Statlers in 1982, were made Hall of Fame members, and images of all five men appear on their Hall of Fame plaque.)
"I wouldn't have missed this for all the money in China," McEntire said before the song. The fair-skinned redhead reminded Bare of a show she had opened for him and how he had asked "if I had freckles on my butt." She said Hall let her and her band sit in his new air-conditioned bus while he was on stage because her makeup had been melting in her own hot and dilapidated vehicle.
She also remembered that Hall had gently reprimanded her for not complaining about the defective monitors she had had to work with as his opening act. "Right then and there," she said, "I decided when I get rich and famous, all I'm going to do is bitch and sing."
McEntire reserved her highest praise for the Statlers, who, she said, had rescued her from playing in smoky clubs and destroying her voice by hiring her as their opening act on one of their tours. With Gill joining the two other backup singers, McEntire soon had the crowd swaying as she sang of "smoking cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo."
Dailey & Vincent followed McEntire with a raucous bluegrass version of "Do You Know You Are My Sunshine." Co-penned by Harold and Don, that song, in 1978, became the Statlers' first No. 1 single.
Jamie Dailey told the crowd he was 9 years old when his father bought him his first Statler Brothers album. "I've never been right since," he declared proudly. He and singing partner Darrin Vincent included Fortune's "More Than a Name on a Wall," the Statler hit from 1989, on their debut album.
Young alluded briefly to the Statlers' hapless alter egos, Lester "Roadhog" Moran & the Cadillac Cowboys, a group created to parody some of the glaringly inept country acts that used to haunt live radio.
"The Statlers have told us," Young reported, "that Roadhog is recovering from an autopsy."
Next to pay musical tribute was the duo Grandstaff, made up of Harold's son, Wil, and Don's son, Langdon. Like his father, Wil has the deep voice, the comic timing and the somewhat stricken look. He acknowledged their appearance wasn't entirely without commercial intent and hinted he might be selling albums afterwards from the back of his car.
Their performance of "The Statler Brothers Song" was larded with references to a long string of Statler hits and characters. One line went, "From 'Flowers On The Wall' 'til the last curtain call, country music will never be the same." The crowd loudly agreed.
Country Music and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member Brenda Lee came forward to induct the group. She began by welcoming all the new members, including Harris and Stoneman, whose daughter, Roni, was in the audience.
Lee recalled touring with the Statlers for "two wonderful years," during which she "stood backstage and watched every show. . . . I thought I was disciplined, but I learned from you guys." She praised their loyalty to their fans, to Johnny Cash (with whom they stayed well after they'd achieved the chart momentum to go out on their own) and to their country, as manifested in their fabled "Happy Birthday U. S. A." Fourth of July concerts in Staunton.
Lee first presented a medallion to DeWitt's daughter, Shannon, after which she chirped to the remaining members, "Come on up and let me hang you, boys." Harold did just that, first dropping to his knees to hug the diminutive Lee around the waist. After she had placed the medallions around the necks of Phil, Don and Jimmy, Harold bleated, "Don't I get one?"
"I've never completely understood what the requirements are for getting into the Hall of Fame," Don mused when he moved to the podium. "I look at Emmylou and I look at myself and I think maybe you've got to be really good-looking. Then I look at the other Statlers and Tom T. and . . . . "
He said when he was first told that the Statlers had been selected for the Hall of Fame and then visited the Hall of Fame rotunda where the members' plaques hang, "I felt like a little Amish boy who'd wandered into a Circuit City."
Like Hall, he thanked a legion of people who were instrumental in the Statlers' success, from their first booking agent, the late Dick Blake, to their veteran manager, Marshall Grant (who was also a member of Cash's band, the Tennessee Two) to the late publisher Bill Hall to his older sister, who bought him his first musical instrument, a saxophone.
Finally, Don thanked his wife, Deborah: "She's the reason I wake up in the morning. She gives me love, she gives me strength."
"His wife also gives me love and strength," Harold announced without missing a beat. "God, I'm sorry he had to find out this way." He recalled how exhilarated he was when he got the Hall of Fame news, so much so, he said, that he was thanking everybody whether they had anything to do with the distinction or not. "I was in the checkout line at Wal-Mart kissing a fairly unattractive woman," he confessed.
Turning semi-serious, he cited friends and supporters his younger brother hadn't mentioned, such as TV honchos Steve Womack and Jim Owens, music director Bill Walker and Gene Ferguson of Columbia Records, who stubbornly promoted "Flowers" until it became a hit. He told how Marshall Grant once picked up and set to the side a huge state trooper who was blocking the Statlers' route to the stage.
He, too, thanked his wife, Brenda, who he said he first met when she was a 15-year-old high schooler. "I tapped her on the shoulder and said, 'Don't I know you?'" he related, "and she said, 'I don't know, do you?' Her being that sarcastic kept me around for 50 years."
Harold said his one regret was that the high school counselor who consistently made light of his musical ambitions wasn't there to witness how things had turned out for him.
Fortune was the last Statler to speak (after Balsley had uttered the briefest of thank-yous). "I used to sing with [the Statlers] on the radio," he said, conjuring up the days when he was just another local guy with stars in his eyes. He credited DeWitt, who heard him singing in a ski lodge, with sparking his career.
Although he was hired for his DeWitt-like tenor, Fortune eventually became one of the Statlers' top songwriters. On his own, he penned the groups last three No. 1's, "Elizabeth," "My Only Love" and "Too Much on My Heart."
He remembered his sense of wonder when he did his first show with the group on Jan. 28, 1982, and how wistful he felt during their final performance. He said it was like watching the smoke settle after a Fourth of July fireworks display and then watching taillights disappear into the darkness.
"It was a great ride, and I enjoyed every moment with you guys," he said. Noting that his seven children were in the audience, he added, "I tell people I went broke making Fortunes. But the truth is you guys made me the richest man in the world."
At last, the four men stepped to center stage to render the final song in their segment. With an eye toward lowering expectations, Don pointed out that they "hadn't sang a note" together since they retired. He said they had all refrained from smoking during their years on the road but revealed that Harold had recently suggested they step out and puff a "celebratory cigar" to mark their induction.
When Don demurred, saying that such an act might impair their one-time Hall of Fame performance, he said Harold snapped, "Go on and smoke it. It's been six years. It's going to sound like hell anyway."
Backed by a band thoroughly into their music, the Statlers let go with "I'll Go to My Grave Loving You." Hell never sounded sweeter, and the crowd stood and yelled for more.
The evening ended, as such evenings always do, with all the Hall of Fame members coming to the stage and warbling, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." There also seemed to be a prevailing feeling that Hall and the Statlers still have a lot of music to offer.