June 24, 2006
Last year, I posted the top twelve worthy inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Sadly, the CMA only took one of my three suggestions: Glen Campbell, with the other two slots going to Alabama and DeFord Bailey. I seemed to have forgotten those new categories that allowed for more recent artists to become inductees. Oh well. Here’s the revised list for 2006:
Top Twelve Worthy Inductees to the Country Music Hall of Fame
1. Jimmy Bowen
As a record label president, he had the golden touch. He turned around the fortunes of Warner Bros., MCA and Capitol Nashville during his tenure at each respective label. When he sat in the producer’s chair, George Strait, Hank Williams Jr. and Reba McEntire became superstars, and artists ranging from Merle Haggard to Dean Martin mounted comebacks. His skills and successes were both impressive, but what makes him worthy of the Hall of Fame was his vision: he was the first major label president to switch to paying musicians double and triple scale; he was the first to cease production of vinyl records; and, most importantly, he was the torch-bearer for switching to all-digital recording. He also was a powerful voice for artists having a say in their own music; Strait & McEntire are still superstars today because of the lessons they learned from Jimmy Bowen. He’s never been popular in Nashville, but his impact is undeniable.
2. Rodney Crowell
There will come a time when historians will argue that Rodney Crowell was the greatest country songwriter that ever lived, but for now, I’ll make the less controversial claim that he’s the greatest one to come along in the last thirty years. He’s a pretty damn good artist, too, along with a top-notch producer, but he is definitely writing himself into the Hall of Fame. Beginning with his early and continuous association with Emmylou Harris, who can rightly claim she discovered him, his list of classics have continued to grow: “Til I Gain Control Again”, “Please Remember Me”, “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me”, “Leavin’ Louisiana In The Broad Daylight”, “Ashes By Now”, right up to the recent Keith Urban #1 “Making Memories Of Us.” The dirty secret is that artists with good taste have learned to just wait until Crowell has released a new album, and find their future hits on it. His songwriting prowess is still somehow growing; his latest series of albums, particularly The Outsider, show he is still a force to be reckoned with, perhaps now more than ever.
3. Chet Flippo
As a senior editor of Rolling Stone magazine in the 1970’s, Flippo’s work was pivotal in elevating the national profile of the country outlaw movement. By covering Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings on the same level as The Rolling Stones and Crosby, Stills & Nash, the renegades of that generation of country music were given access to a fan base that would embrace them, even though they’d cringe at the rest of the music dominating NashVegas. Flippo has continued to have an impact on country music, through his work at Billboard magazine to his current recurring column, Nashville Skyline at CMT.com, in addition to preserving the history of the genre with excellent biographies, particularly You’re Cheatin’ Heart, the story of Hank Williams. But the most important impact remains his creation of a group of consumers who “hate country music” but like Waylon, Johnny & Willie. This segment still exists today, as people who will claim the same thing buy Alison Krauss, Lucinda Williams and Lyle Lovett records.
4. Tom T. Hall
The classic country story-teller, Tom T. Hall was responsible for some of the best story songs in the history of the genre. His observational style of writing managed to capture large truths in the telling of small details. A story about a widowed mother in a mini-skirt being shamed by the Harper Valley P.T.A. made a much larger statement about the hypocrisy of the “do as I say, not as I do” authority figures of the late sixties; his own hit “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died” became a universal expression of affection for the “Clayton Delaney” in any person’s childhood. His songs are still being revived today; as recently as 1996, Alan Jackson scored a huge hit with Tom’s “Little Bitty”. He belongs beside Roger Miller and Harlan Howard in the Hall of Fame.
5. Emmylou Harris
The gold standard of musical integrity, Emmylou Harris is the most significant female artist not currently in the Hall of Fame. Beginning her career as the harmony singer for Gram Parsons, her solo work has been distinguished by impeccable song selection, flawless musicianship and vocals beyond reproach. From her 1975 debut Pieces of the Sky to her most recent album, 2003’s Stumble Into Grace, Harris has forged an independent musical path that has crossed ways with traditional country, bluegrass, rock, blues and southern gospel. She has the most consistent album catalog of any country music artist in history, and has raised the bar for every artist to come along since.
6. Wanda Jackson
The rockabilly queen is long overdue for acknowledgement of her key role in creating that genre. While touring with (and dating) Elvis Presley, she was inspired by him to begin cutting rockin’ country records like “Let’s Have A Party”, “Hot Dog! That Made Him Mad!” and the mind-boggling “Fujiyama Mama.” She was a firebrand on stage, growling into the microphone while she shook her assets in a barely-there dress. She knocked down doors for the way women in country music could express themselves on record and on stage. Without her precedent, you don’t have the ferocious vocals of Brenda Lee, Tanya Tucker and Wynonna Judd, or the confidently sexual attitudes of Shania Twain and Faith Hill.
7. Ronnie Milsap
A legend in his own time, blind pianist Ronnie Milsap racked up an incredible 35 #1 hits during his superstar run in the 1970’s and 1980’s. He infused his country with more than a little bit of soul and sixties pop, producing melodic songs that embedded in the memory. His commercial success is the primary reason he belongs in the Hall, but his talent shouldn’t be underestimated; his virtuoso piano playing was leagues above ordinary.
8. Jerry Reed
A brilliant instrumentalist first, he’s probably the greatest artist-musician not already in the Hall of Fame. Check out “The Claw” if you’re doubting his guitar prowess. Reed is also second only to Hall-of-Famer Roger Miller in the history of country music’s musical comedians. His hilarious records like “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot”, “Lord Mr. Ford” and “She Got the Goldmine (I Got The Shaft)” slipped in clever social commentary; he may be singing in the voice of a fool, but there’s wisdom in those characters he created.
9. Kenny Rogers
Country music’s first genuine, bona fide superstar. He was the first country artist to experience stratospheric sales, regularly selling multi-platinum at his peak. Many country artists have songs cross over, but Kenny Rogers was a legitimate pop star, having massive success with “Lady” and “The Gambler”, and dueting with everyone from Kim Carnes to Sheena Easton. Before Garth, there was nobody bigger than Kenny. He’s long overdue for the Hall of Fame.
10. The Statler Brothers
This vocal quartet was the traditional bedrock of country music, their four-part harmonies embracing songs of nostalgia for the old days and gospel tunes of yore. They won CMA Vocal Group of the Year an astonishing nine times, and were ambassadors for the format on TNN in the early 90’s. Ever since their debut smash “Flowers On The Wall” in 1966, they have been an integral part of country music history. As the most successful vocal group (in the purest sense), with an endless list of hits, they belong in the Hall.
11. Mel Tillis
Mel Tillis is one of the most successful pre-1975 acts that isn’t in the Hall of Fame yet. This former Entertainer of the Year scored hit after hit for 20 years, but contemporary fans are more likely to know him as Pam Tillis’ dad. In truth, a lot of his recorded work isn’t very memorable – daughter certainly outshined daddy in that regard – but his songwriting catalog is legendary, including such standards as “Heart Over Mind”, “Honey, Open That Door”, “I Ain’t Never”, “Detroit City” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town.” He also wrote the very progressive “Mental Revenge” and “Unmitigated Gall”, which also turned into hits. It’s for his pen more than his voice that he deserves the plaque. Pick up Pam’s tribute album to Dad’s songs (It’s All Relative) and you’re sure to agree.
12. Hank Williams, Jr.
After having fifty chart hits, and falling off a mountain, Williams seized control of his music and created a music and persona that is still iconic today. His hard-drinking, party animal sound created a persona completely different from his legendary father; it’s safe to assume that non-country fans are more familiar with Hank Jr. than his daddy. He’s the only major outlaw to not receive this honor; for his impressive body of work, from “Family Tradition” to “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight”, he’s due.