Revisited: Who the Country Music Hall of Fame Should Induct Next
Since my September 2008 article, Charlie McCoy, Barbara Mandrell, Roy Clark, Don Williams, Billy Sherrill, Ferlin Husky and Jimmy Dean have been elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
As I noted, for decades the Country Music Hall of Fame was caught in the position where many deserving performers died before their turn for induction arrived. This was mostly due to the Hall’s practice of electing only one new member per year (and in at least one year, electing no one).
At this point the backlog is largely cleared so it is time to assess those in more current memory. Here is my take on who, among living artists, should be inducted, in order of precedence:
- Connie Smith
The genre’s best female singer ever. Period. Not the biggest star but the best singer, and a skilled songwriter who has regained prominence through her collaborations with husband Marty Stuart.
- Jean Shepard
A true pioneer among country females. Unlike Kitty Wells , who stepped back into the traditional role after her initial success, Jean Shepard never gave in. Her Dreams of An Old Love Affair was the first concept album ever, and she was the prototype for Loretta Lynn and other feisty purveyors of in-your-face defiance.
- Bonnie Guitar
Another pioneering woman, maybe even more so than Jean Shepard, although perhaps less important than Jean as a performer. I greatly reassessed my position on Bonnie Guitar as a result of the research I did in putting together the Forgotten Artist article on her. Bonnie Guitar was a true renaissance woman who moved from role to role during the course of her long career. You name it, she did it: singer, songwriter, session musician, producer, executive and record label owner. In the latter four capacities she was the first woman to fill those roles. Her recording of “Dark Moon” remains one of the classic songs. As a producer, she produced the Fleetwoods’ million-seller “Mr. Blue” as well as their other hits.
- Bobby Bare
My failure to list Bobby Bare two years ago was oversight, nothing more or less. If ever a performer can be said to be “the thinking man’s country music singer,” Bobby Bare is that performer. Personable, with a wry sense of humor, Bare recorded some of the most thoughtful songs ever written, in “Detroit City,” “Margie’s At The Lincoln Park Inn,” “Daddy What If,” “Streets of Baltimore” and “500 Miles,” among others. Many really interesting songs are contained even within Bare’s earliest albums, including songs such as “Brooklyn Bridge” and “Lynching Party.” He had two of the earliest themed albums in A Bird Named Yesterday and Margie’s At The Lincoln Park Inn (And Other Controversial Songs). He gave significant support to songwriters and up and coming performers alike, being an early supporter of songwriters such as Gordon Lightfoot, Billy Joe Shaver, Tom T. Hall, Kris Kristofferson. Bare was Shel Silverstein’s greatest champion, and he brought Waylon Jennings to the attention of Chet Atkins at RCA.
- Reba McEntire
What more needs to be said about Reba.
- Ronnie Milsap
I’m not a big Milsap fan but the breadth and depth of his catalog reveals a supremely gifted performer capable of handling any genre of music. Fortunately, he chose Country Music as his area of concentration.
- Dallas Frazier
Probably the greatest songwriter not named Merle Haggard or Harlan Howard. I would rate him above any of the other country songwriters living or dead and his catalog is full of huge pop, country and R&B hits. “Alley Oop” or “Elvira” anyone?
- Hank Williams, Jr.
Hank is overdue for induction. So talented a singer and performer is he that even if he had merely continued as a straight-ahead mainstream performer, he would be worthy of induction as his early singles such as “Eleven Roses,” “Divorce or Destroy,” “Pride’s Not Hard To Swallow” and “Standing In The Shadows” still hold up today.
- Tanya Tucker
Very few female performers have left a legacy of great music as deep as that of Tanya Tucker. I would rate Ms Tucker over either Mandrell or McEntire strictly on their musical catalog (Tanya’s best songs blow the best songs of Reba or Barbara out of the water). Her early records were American Gothic’s last stand.
- Ray Stevens
Normally I would not advocate comedians for the CMHOF (I think Rod Brasfield and Duke of Paducah were horrible mistakes), but Ray Stevens is so much more than merely a comedian — record producer, song writer, session musician and major pop and country music star. Ray’s songs ranged from the merely funny to biting satire and social commentary.
The Oak Ridge Boys
The mighty Oaks started out as a gospel group and a very fine one. Along the way they appeared on records by Paul Simon and Johnny Cash before making the transition to major country music stars. Starting in the middle of 1977, they ran off a string of hits that ran for a dozen years, including some of the most memorable songs of the period including “Elvira”, “Fancy Free” and “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”. Twenty-one of their records made it to #1 on one or more of the major charts (Billboard, Cashbox, Record World).
They continue to perform to this day. They have largely returned to their gospel roots, but are still capable of making good secular music, even if modern country radio can’t be bothered to play it.
- The Browns (Jim Ed, Bonnie & Maxine)
Jim Ed Brown is a veteran performer with many hits to his credit, but his work as part of the Browns trio is what earns him and the group the nod. The Browns were among the early international ambassadors of country music.
If I were a betting man, I would bet that Kenny Rogers and Reba McEntire will be inducted in 2011 or 2012. I was never a big fan of Kenny but his accomplishments are legion in the field of entertainment, from successful movies to gold and platinum selling albums to successful concert tours around the world.
Doc Watson is another special case–is he folk, bluegrass or country? However you classify him, he never made a bad record. At age 87, he continues to perform. He was among the most accomplished guitarists ever, and plays a pretty mean banjo as well. Along the way he has won seven Grammy awards and influenced generations of guitar players. In 2000 he was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor. In 1997, Doc Watson received the National Medal of Arts from then-president Bill Clinton.
In the future I expect the following artists to receive serious consideration:
For a few years Lynn Anderson was the dominant force among female country singers. Even prior to signing with Columbia in 1970, Lynn, the daughter of songwriters Casey & Liz Anderson, had achieved substantial success, appearing as a regular on the Lawrence Welk Show and having 13 charted records including “Promises, Promises” (#1 Record World) and “That’s A No-No” (#1 Cashbox). She ultimately had 60 charted records with 10 #1s. “Rose Garden,” of course, was her biggest hit. Billboard has her among the top 15 female country artists of all time.
Crystal Gayle and Anne Murray both were hugely successful performers, working mostly in the pop-country realm. Murray was a Canadian folk/MOR performer, whose thick contralto crossed easily onto the country charts with 54 charted country records and over 30 charted pop hits. Gayle had 52 charted country hits including 20 to reach #1 on Billboard and/or Cashbox. Ms. Gayle came from a musical family, but unlike siblings Jay Lee Webb and Peggy Sue (both of whom had some chart success), she was able to emerge from the giant shadow of sister Loretta Lynn to be come a major star.
Gene Watson is a “singer’s singer,” the artist that professional singers go see on their night off. “Love In The Hot Afternoon” pushed the limits of where country music was willing to go vis-à-vis semi-erotic material, but beyond that Watson was a skilled interpreter of songs, more so than even Conway Twitty, “the best friend a song ever had.” Watson is still out there playing road dates and thrilling audiences throughout the United States and the British Isles.
Ricky Skaggs re-energized the traditional side of country music that had been washed away during the “Urban Cowboy” era. With his unique hybrid of bluegrass and country, Skaggs helped bluegrass regain a foothold on the charts and on the radio that had been missing for a decade. He had eleven #1 records and another eight that reached the Top 10. He remains active and is one of the driving engines in the current bluegrass renaissance.
Randy Travis spearheaded the “New Traditionalist” movement that made the airwaves safe again for honky-tonk music. Possessed of the most extraordinary voice to hit the genre since Charley Pride nearly two decades before, Travis dominated the charts from 1986-89 before turning his attention to movies and Christian music.
A good case can be made for Patty Loveless, Roseanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, Radney Foster, Jerry Jeff Walker, Jack Greene and maybe Mary Chapin Carpenter, but I am not sold on them yet and will let others make the case for them.
The class of 1989 contains several members who future years will find us considering, namely Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson and Clint Black.
Brooks & Dunn, Rascal Flatts and other current chart acts will make it, but their turn has not yet come. The above is what I regard as the proper sequencing of inductions over the next few years. No doubt the actual inductions will be in a different sequence than I’ve suggested, with perhaps a few names included that escaped my consideration.
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- chris: That voice singing with Jim Ed is younger sister Bonnie, also a member of the Browns.