A survey of the artists already eligible for induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame through the Modern Era category brings the challenges that the Hall is facing into sharp relief.
In previous years, contemporary giants like Randy Travis, Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, along with this year’s inductee, Alan Jackson, have brought the Hall into the post-New Traditionalist era of country music, which led to the unprecedented commercial boom of the early nineties. This was a period where even moderately successful artists sold millions of records over the course of a few years, a mere generation after Music Row was still throwing parties for albums that sold 100,000 copies.
Narrowing down this list was not easy, even by limiting it to artists who reached significant success by 1995. Luminaries that broke through later – Kenny Chesney, Dixie Chicks, Brad Paisley, and Keith Urban, for starters – would easily make a list of worthy Hall of Famers further down the road! For now, here is who I think deserves induction in the Modern Era category over the next few years.
The most distinguished mainstream vocal group to come along in the early nineties, Diamond Rio were consistent hitmakers with several signature songs and impeccable musicianship. The Hall doesn’t induct many groups, but Diamond Rio deserves to stand alongside Alabama, the Statler Brothers, and the Oak Ridge Boys.
Shania Twain did more than just sell tens of millions of records and achieve unprecedented international success. Her work permanently altered the female point of view in country music, completing the transition from the victim queen archetype to the strong, independent viewpoint that dominates the work of the country women who have come along since Twain flipped the script.
Alison Krauss & Union Station
This is one of two entries on the list where a case could be made for a lead singer induction as easily as for the entire act. Alison Krauss & Union Station mainstreamed bluegrass music more than anyone before or since, and Krauss herself has become synonymous with quality commercial music, achieved mostly without the support of radio. Given that the bulk of her noteworthy work has been with Union Station, as fine a group of musicians as have ever played, I lean toward the inclusion of all of them.
Brooks & Dunn
No duo in country music history has had more commercial success than Brooks & Dunn, and their years of dominance at radio and retail guarantee them a slot in the Hall of Fame. Ronnie Dunn’s vocal talent can hang with most of the singers that are already in there.
Toby Keith’s nineties work is so underrated that I think his induction will take a bit longer than his 1993 breakthrough would normally indicate. His superstar decade cemented his legacy and his future in the Hall of Fame, but I can’t think of a more consistent male singer-songwriter to come along after Alan Jackson.
Tim McGraw parlayed a remarkable song sense into a career that is still going strong 23 years after his first hit. He is perhaps his generation’s best example of the oft-repeated truth about country music: it’s all about the song. That one artist is responsible for everything from “Just to See You Smile” and “Please Remember Me” to “Live Like You Were Dying” and “Humble and Kind” is just awe-inspiring.
Wynonna Judd belongs in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Naomi Judd? Sure, why not. But Wynonna’s sheer vocal talent is the common thread between their solid work as a mother-daughter duo and her bluesy work as a solo artist. I don’t know that The Judds by themselves, or Wynonna’s work by itself, would be quite enough for the Hall of Fame. But put them together, and you’ve got three decades and counting of excellent country music.
The finest female singer of her generation, Trisha Yearwood is also responsible for a peerless body of work, full of consistency and depth. She’s made more great albums than any country artist of the last thirty years, and rarely dipped below the high standards she set from the beginning. She’s the obvious first choice for the Hall of Fame among all the women who debuted in the nineties.
No female artist better embodied traditional country music than Patty Loveless, and she did it in a way that was contemporary in scope, incorporating the best elements of pop and rock into her work while remaining grounded in pure country, bluegrass, and “Mountain Soul.” Her eighties and early nineties work with MCA was solid. Her work with Epic made her a legend.
His rock sensibility always remained in the background, but Dwight Yoakam’s distillation of the Bakersfield sound into his own modern country music revitalized it for a new era in country music. But that’s a whole lot of complicated words. The reality is he’s the best damn country singer of his time that isn’t in the Hall of Fame. He should lead the Class of 2018.