ALOE BLACC, MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER, TOMMY EMMANUEL, VINCE GILL, JAMEY JOHNSON, JELLY ROLL JOHNSON, FRED KNOBLOCH, JOHN KNOWLES, ALISON KRAUSS, THOM SCHUYLER, RAY STEVENS, GEORGE STRAIT, STEVE WARINER, LEE ANN WOMACK, CHARLIE WORSHAM AMONG ALL-STAR CAST OFFERING MUSICAL TRIBUTES TO INDUCTEES
Three distinctive artists who shared a commitment to a creative path that separated them from their peers were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame during a star-studded, open-hearted Medallion Ceremony on October 22, 2017, in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s CMA Theater.
Traditional country stalwart Alan Jackson, multi-talented Jerry Reed and songwriter Don Schlitz were feted with heartfelt testimonials, emotion-spiked speeches and memorable performances of the classic country material that these new Hall of Fame members brought to the world. The artists paying tribute crossed generations, backgrounds and styles, underscoring the universal nature of the art created by the men being inducted.
“This year’s class is special,” said Sarah Trahern, chief executive officer of the Country Music Association, the organization that elects the Hall of Fame members. “Each new member has written songs that have become part of our American musical history. Each new member is a master at creating timeless music that is often deceptively simple and still deeply meaningful.”
Produced by the staff of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the Medallion Ceremony honors the inductees by highlighting their life stories, their important turning points, and the breakthrough artistic achievements that elevated their careers. The inductees are celebrated with speeches, live musical tributes and original video biographies, created by the museum staff using old and often rare recorded performances, past televised interviews and historic photos culled from materials collected, stored and digitized in the museum’s Frist Library and Archives. The ceremony conveys the unique talents, personalities and backgrounds of each Hall of Fame inductee and highlights why they deserve this prestigious honor.
“These men came to Nashville with no earthly idea of the mark that they would make,” said Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. With hard work, they honed their talents to become masters of their chosen art. That mastery led to their induction into the Hall of Fame, country music’s highest honor.
The tribute to Jerry Reed recounted how, from a young age, music provided a beacon of hope amid the dire poverty of a difficult family situation. He began pretending to play a guitar long before anyone could afford to buy him one. He used a plank of wood or a hair brush—anything handy—to act as if he were playing along while listening to the Grand Ole Opry.
Eventually, his mother bought Reed a cheap guitar, but couldn’t keep him supplied with guitar picks. When Reed got hold of a thumb pick, he used it as a catalyst to practice, to play, and without realizing it, to invent a new way of coaxing uncommon sounds out of a common instrument. Forced to innovate, Reed used that thumb pick and intensive study of recordings by Chet Atkins, Django Reinhardt, Les Paul and others, to create a new manner of playing that eventually became known as “the claw,” because of the way Reed curled his fingers to combine thumb pick and finger-picking.
He would apply the same ingenuity to his songwriting and performance style, thereby staking out territory all his own as a musician, songwriter and vocalist.
At age five, the Georgia native began living in a foster home. His parents, hardened mill workers, were in and out of work and sometimes homeless. They divorced when he was an infant.
“He really was born in a hobo jungle,” his longtime friend Bobby Bare said when giving the induction speech for Reed. “His mom and daddy were both hobos.”
In her acceptance speech on behalf of her late father, Reed’s daughter Seidina Hubbard elaborated on the early years of her father’s life. “Dad came from such a bad time,” she said. “Social services picked him up at age five at the train station. He was carrying luggage for a nickel a bag so he could have food to eat. That stuff just breaks my heart.”
Young touched on the point in his remarks. “For those observing his situation, his life held little in the way of hope or possibility,” Young said. Yet Reed was a spirited child who escaped his difficult upbringing by listening to the radio—especially the Grand Ole Opry, broadcast from Nashville on WSM. As Young put it: “Saturday nights held hope, possibility, and a kind of joy that, to everyone else around, seemed inexplicable.”
Reed signed his first record contract at seventeen, thanks to Atlanta music honcho Bill Lowery. In his early twenties, he married Priscilla Mitchell—Reed always called her “Prissy”—who enjoyed several country music hits as a vocalist, including the #1 “Yes, Mr. Peters” in 1966.
Although his first recordings didn’t find an audience, the songs he wrote for other artists did, starting with “That’s All You Gotta Do,” cut by Country Music Hall of Fame member Brenda Lee. Over his career, Reed had more than 300 cuts by other artists, including Porter Wagoner’s stone-cold-country “Misery Loves Company,” a #1 in 1962, and Elvis Presley’s rambunctious “Guitar Man,” released in 1968.
Reed’s expert musicianship became another bankable skill. After moving to Nashville in 1961, he quickly gained entry into Nashville recording sessions and grew into a respected studio musician, playing on hundreds of hits by artists such as Bobby Bare and Connie Smith.
Eventually, the skills he honed came together in his solo work. Reed broke through by giving the world a string of one-of-a-kind favorites, such as “Amos Moses,” “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” “Lord, Mr. Ford,” “Eastbound and Down” and “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft).”
“His voice became as identifiable as his guitar work,” Young said. “His storytelling humor was as identifiable as either of those. That humor helped to make him a movie star, and he was as delightful on screen as on stage.”
Reed understood the value of entertaining a crowd as well as the important emotional connection between a performer and an audience. “The biggest thing you have to do is to go across the grooves and touch the people,” Reed said.
Brad Paisley—another country star who combines flashy guitar picking and sly wit—said of one of his idols: “Every move Jerry Reed made was to entertain and make the world more fun.”
On his deathbed, the victim of emphysema at age seventy-one, Reed told his friend Bobby Bare: “Everything I’ve ever dreamed came true.” Whether he dared dream it or not, Reed is now a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Musical tributes, performed by artists who aren’t revealed ahead of time to the audience or the inductees, are a highlight of the Medallion Ceremony. Reed’s first musical tribute featured three guitarists who were given the title “certified guitar player” by Chet Atkins, who created the designation to honor guitarists he admired. Of the six pickers named “C.G.P.”—including Reed, Paul Yandell, and Atkins himself—only three are living. Those certifiably outstanding guitarists—Tommy Emmanuel, John Knowles and Steve Wariner—showed their skills on a famously challenging Reed instrumental, “The Claw,” its title alluding to Reed’s unusual finger-picking style.
Grammy-winning performer and songwriter Ray Stevens met Reed when both were fledgling artists in Atlanta in the 1950s. Stevens celebrated his longtime friend’s wit and personality by performing “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot.”
Jamey Johnson is such a big fan of Reed’s that one of his tour buses is wrapped with a graphic of the famous eighteen-wheeler Reed drove as the character Snowman in the film Smokey and the Bandit. Johnson performed “East Bound and Down,” a hit from the Bandit soundtrack.
In the Medallion Ceremony, Hall of Fame members conduct the actual rite of induction of new members, as a way of welcoming them to the elite group. Reed’s family asked that Bobby Bare do the honors. Bare recalled that Atkins once told him that Reed was the better guitarist of the two. Bare challenged the assertion, citing Atkins’ reputation as “Mr. Guitar.” Atkins replied, “Jerry can play stuff that I can’t touch.”
Reed “was not the wild man you saw on TV, onstage and in the movies,” Bare said. “Jerry Reed was serious about everything he did.” Upon his death, Reed left all of his fishing gear to Bare, including a mounted, 13-pound large-mouth bass that hangs in Bare’s home.
Bare also recalled standing, in 1961 or 1962, with Reed and Roger Miller as they watched the biggest country stars of the era enter the hotel headquarters of the industry’s annual disc jockey convention. “Reed said, ‘One day that will be us.’ And he was right. Before the ’60s were over, we all had arrived.”
Charlotte “Lottie” Zavala, the inductee’s youngest daughter, recalled a reflection her father shared with her about his success: “Girl, if my life isn’t proof of the good Lord at work, then I don’t know what is. With the life I had growing up, I should’ve ended up anywhere but here. But the good Lord had another plan for me. When I found a guitar, that was it.”
Reed told his daughter that every dream he had eventually came true. “I hope I’ve entertained the folks, and helped them forget their worries for a little while, and left them feeling better than when they came through the door,” she said. “I hope I’ve made a difference, and I hope I’ve left your mama, and you girls, proud.”
Zavala ended by saying how proud she was to accept the Hall of Fame honor, along with her sister and her daughter. “Daddy,” she said, “always know you have made us so very proud.”
Zavala’s sister, Seidina Hubbard, talked about the emotions she experienced as she prepared for the induction ceremony. She recited her father’s early hardships, then noted that the renowned Berklee School of Music in Boston offers a class devoted to teaching Reed’s difficult guitar technique. Furthermore, an annual gathering in Nashville celebrates Reed’s music with a concert that draws guitarists from across the world. For the first time in his life, Hubbard said in closing, “My father would be truly speechless if he were here.”
In tracing the journey of Don Schlitz, Young read a poem by Schlitz’s second cousin, Tom House, Schlitz’s first musical hero. “West Durham Sundays” vividly recalls life for working men and women in Durham, North Carolina, where Schlitz and House were raised.
“Tom House performed his own original songs in public, and those performances inspired Don,” Young said. “But then, most everything inspires Don—love and struggle, baseball and virtue, children and old folks.”
Schlitz moved to Nashville in 1973, at age 20, with $80 and a guitar he bought from House. Don Schlitz Sr. dropped his son off at the bus station that day and said, “Don’t forget to write.”
The senior Schlitz died the following year, but as Young said, “Somehow I hope he knows that Don never forgot to write. He wrote down his life in verse and rhyme.”
Schlitz’s first cut as a songwriter won a Grammy and CMA award as the best country song of the year and is now a standard in the American songbook. “The Gambler,” has been quoted over and over again since Kenny Rogers recorded it in 1978, Young said.
“The Gambler” is about a chance meeting between an older, experienced man and a young upstart. They’re riding separately on the same train, and when they start talking, the older man offers to give the younger fellow some advice, in exchange for a drink. “The old man holds the wisdom, and the wisdom is the key to the song,” Young said. “And the wisdom is about discretion, about knowing when and where to do what, and why.”
Schlitz later would say that his father inspired the sage advice from the older man.
“What Don learned in Durham from his parents and his community, and in Nashville from mentors such as Bare and Bob McDill, involved discretion and decency, kindness and compassion, and the value of combining intellectual curiosity with empathy,” Young said. “These things are valuable tools for those who write songs, and likely for those of us who don’t.”
Schlitz’s compassion and decency can be heard in songs recorded by Alabama, Bare, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Johnny Cash, the Judds, Alison Krauss, Reba McEntire, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Randy Travis, Keith Whitley and so many more. His fifty Top Ten singles—including 24 #1s—include “On the Other Hand,” “Forever and Ever, Amen,” “When You Say Nothing at All,” ‘One Promise Too Late,” “Houston Solution,” “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” and “The Greatest.” His hit-filled catalog earned Schlitz four consecutive ASCAP Country Songwriter of the Year trophies.
The musical tributes for Schlitz began with an award-winning co-writer, Mary Chapin Carpenter. Together, Carpenter and Schlitz wrote her hits “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” “I Take My Chances” and “I Feel Lucky.” For this occasion, Carpenter performed another Schlitz classic, “When You Say Nothing at All,” a hit for Keith Whitley in 1988 and Alison Krauss & Union Station in 2002.
Next up, several of Schlitz’s songwriting colleagues honored a Nashville tradition he helped found: the songwriters-in-the-round performances at the Bluebird Café. Fred Knobloch and Thom Schuyler were part of the original rounds with Schlitz. They were joined by Jelly Roll Johnson, a harmonica specialist and a Bluebird veteran, and Charlie Worsham, a newcomer whose talent led to a friendship with Schlitz.
The four artists performed “Oscar the Angel,” a song about a homeless man. Schlitz and Worsham, are regular performers at Clancey’s Crossroads Cafe, a musical outreach program at Nashville’s Room in the Inn, which provides beds and rooms for the homeless.
Schlitz’s musical tributes ended with a surprise: pop star (and Los Angeles resident) Aloe Blacc and Hall of Fame member Vince Gill found a fresh way to interpret “The Gambler,” with Blacc taking the parts of the younger man and Gill assuming the role of the older gentleman.
Gill then took the podium for Schlitz’s official induction. He and Schlitz have been friends for 35 years, introduced by a business manager the two shared. He talked of the many times they closed the Bluebird Cafe, singing for small crowds way past closing time. Gill praised Schlitz for his monthly Bluebird performances, billed as “Don for a dollar,” where out-of-towners come “and bitch about him doing covers all night long.” When the laughter died down, Gill added, “Most people don’t know who wrote the damn songs.”
In a more serious tone, Gill praised Schlitz for earning his Hall of Fame induction without all the high-profile promotion and media available to star performers. “You don’t have your name plastered on records and on TV and video and all those things,” Gill said. “To accomplish this for writing songs is an amazing task, and I’m so proud of you.”
Ending, Gill emphasized the importance of their friendship. “That’s the best part —the relationships you make in doing this, and the friendships you forge are really the only important reason to do this. If we don’t have each other, we don’t have much at all.”
Schlitz, after cracking wise about how he was glad the artist making his Hall of Fame plaque didn’t leave the “l” out of his name, took a moment to compose himself before intoning his mother’s name, “Betty Schlitz Goodfellow.” Continuing, his voice breaking, he said: “I did nothing to deserve the honor of being your son.” He continued this theme, naming siblings, children, business partners, songwriting mentors and cowriters, and his wife Stacey, each time restating that he did nothing to deserve what they gave him.
He asked his young grandchildren to stand and pay attention to what was to follow. He asked that everyone who had written a song with him stand and remain standing. He then went through a list, asking those in each new category to stand: those who had performed one of his songs; those who had represented and promoted one of his songs; those who had played one of his songs by broadcasting it or playing a recording for others; those who had encouraged songwriters or who loved and supported songwriters; those who had sung one of his songs to themselves; and those who had sung or written a song at all, ever. By the end, nearly everyone in the CMA Theater was on their feet.
He asked his granddaughter Gia and grandson Roman to look around. “This is what we call a circle,” he said. “This is an unbroken circle. Each and every one of you who represented me in some way, this is my turn to represent for you. This honor is not for me alone. It is for all of us.”
Continuing to address Roman and Gia, Schlitz said:“Here’s what I want to say to you about posterity. No one does this alone. In your life, be a part of something bigger than yourself.”
Schlitz ended by saying that, as a songwriter, “I have lived for 40 years within parentheses,” referring to the way songwriters are credited on records. “It’s a safe place to pursue the process of making up songs my collaborators and I wanted to hear.”
Schlitz pondered the idea that his plaque will hang in the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Rotunda, with all the other Hall of Fame members. “People will look at it and wonder where Elvis or Reba or Alan is,” he said with a laugh. “But maybe they’ll read, I hope, the names of certain songs that might bring back memories, that might make them happy.”
Even as one of America’s most successful songwriters, Schlitz acknowledges that he will never be a household name and never be a person recognized by the millions of people who love his songs, “That is just fine with me,” Schlitz said. “This is an honor beyond my comprehension. I remain overwhelmed, and humbled, and embarrassed. But I’m proud. I’m proud to represent. I’m so proud to represent.”
As Young noted in the beginning of Alan Jackson’s induction, many of us know the Georgia native’s story because so many of his songs offer detailed scenes from his life, from growing up in Newnan, Georgia, to remaining devoted to his wife, Denise, whom he started dating in high school.
“Jackson even told us—and sang to us—about how his interest in music started,” Young said, and he quoted Jackson’s “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow”: “Daddy won a radio, he tuned it to a country show. I was rocking in the cradle to the crying of a steel guitar.”
Like Reed and Schlitz, Young said, Jackson “was a child bent on discovery motivated by the wider world that came to his humble home through the radio waves.”
Unlike many stars, however, Jackson didn’t spend his early years practicing guitar or singing on stages. Instead, Jackson worked menial jobs starting at age 12, including stints as a forklift operator, a construction worker, an auto mechanic and a car salesman.
Jackson turned 23 before he began writing songs, and with all of his life experiences, he was able to reflect on the way real people live their lives. “He could write songs like ‘Home’ and ‘Small Town Southern Man’ about his parents,” Young said. “He could write ‘Chattahoochee’ about spending young days at the river. He could write songs that were relatable to all of us, but from a perspective and experience that was distinctly his own.”
Roger Murrah, a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, said Jackson didn’t follow the established formulas and practices of most Music Row professional songwriters. But, Murrah added, “You know what? It’s not like we do it, but it’s right. Man, that’s what’s going to separate him from the pack.”
Separating from the pack was exactly what Jackson did. “In an era when the safest way to keep a job as a recording artist is to replicate what everyone else is doing on the radio, Alan’s songs are marvels of distinctiveness and individuality,” Young said. “He is among the most original of traditionalists: Like Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn, Alan wrote and sang traditional country music songs that no one else could have written.”
By writing his specific story, Jackson tapped into emotions familiar to everyone, Young said: “the tug of family, the passage of time, the bittersweet changing of life’s circumstances.”
Young used the song “Drive” as an example. “Try to explain that song to someone, and you’ll say it’s about parents who let their kids drive,” Young said. “Play that song for someone, and they’ll likely wipe tears as they ponder the times when someone they loved put faith and trust in them.”
Young quickly summarized Jackson’s remarkable achievements: With more than 60 million albums sold, he is among the ten best-selling solo artists of all time, in any genre. He has recorded 50 Top Ten hits, and 35 #1 hits. He has won numerous Academy of Country Music awards, Country Music Association awards and Grammy awards. He is the most-performed country music songwriter-artist of ASCAP’s first 100 years.
“Alan accomplished all of this in spite of his discomfort with the spotlight, and his mistrust of the limelight,” Young said. “He didn’t want to be a star. He wanted to tell his stories, in ways that might enhance our own stories. He wanted to tell us his truth, and that’s exactly what he did.”
Jackson’s musical tribute began with Lee Ann Womack, who performed “Here in the Real World,” his first Top Ten hit, from 1990. Alison Krauss followed, offering a delicately powerful version of Jackson’s “Someday,” his third #1 hit, from 1991. Krauss was accompanied by guitarist Tommy Emmanuel.
To end Jackson’s tribute, his friend and one-time duet partner, George Strait, performed “Remember When,” a #1 hit from 2003, and a romantic tribute to Jackson’s wife, Denise.
For his formal induction, Jackson had asked that Hall of Fame member Loretta Lynn do the honors. “When he requested that she present him his medallion on this night, he did so knowing that she was working to recover from a debilitating stroke,” Young said. “When Loretta learned of the request, she offered up an enthusiastic ‘yes,’ though we all wondered if she would indeed be able to make it here to place a medallion around the neck of a tall troubadour from Newnan, Georgia.”
Young then introduced Lynn, to a thunderous ovation. Lynn walked to the podium with the assistance of Strait and her daughter Patsy Lynn Russell.
“Alan, I love you,” Lynn started. “The first time I ever met Alan, he looked like a scared little boy. He was backstage going through his songs. And I remember looking at him and saying, ‘You’re going to be one of the greatest singers in country music.’ He hasn’t let me down.”
Lynn, who has been recuperating from a stroke since May, has appeared only once in public, briefly walking onstage at a music festival on her property in Hurricane Mills. “This is the first time I’ve been out of the house,” she said. “You’re the only thing that would’ve brought me here.”
At first, Lynn started into a conventional statement about her love for Jackson’s music and how he deserves such an accolade. But mid-sentence, she stopped and cut to the chase: “Hey, you should be here.”
When Jackson got to the podium, after several hugs and private words from Lynn, he said, “Loretta Lynn said I should be here. That’s all I needed to hear. Now it’s official.”
Jackson agreed with Young’s assessment that he writes songs about what he knows, the life he has lived, and the values that matter to him. He recalled that Nashville DJ Gerry House used to joke about how all of Jackson’s songs had a line about a car part or a food identified with the South.
“I wrote about what I knew,” he said. “My daddy was a mechanic. I grew up in a garage. That’s all I cared about.”
Then he paused, and flashed some of the wit found in his songs, but rarely in his public statements: “That’s the reason I came to Nashville to be a singer, because I loved cars, and I couldn’t really buy any.”
He recalled how, in his 20s, he didn’t feel he had any direction in life, especially any that would allow him to buy a lot of cars. “Being a singing star seemed like the only shot I had,” he said. “That’s just about the truth.”
He came to Nashville “so naïve,” he said. He thought all singers wrote their own songs. He didn’t know what a record producer was. Nonetheless, he said, “God gave me a talent to throw some words together with some melodies, and it seems to have worked.”
Acknowledging that many people helped him along the way, Jackson cited connecting with producer and songwriter Keith Stegall as the most important relationship he formed. Shortly after Jackson arrived in Nashville, he heard Randy Travis’ hit “On the Other Hand” on the radio—a tune co-written by fellow inductee Don Schlitz. If Travis could succeed recording the kind of material Jackson loved, maybe there was a chance for him to record traditional country songs, too. Still, Jackson said, it was hard to get the labels interested in a traditional country singer.”
Then he met Stegall, who produced part of Travis’ groundbreaking Storms of Life album, which Jackson loved. “I knew Keith was the only guy who could record me the way I wanted to be recorded,” he said. “As soon as I went into the studio with Keith, he let me record my own songs the way I wanted. That’s when I finally got a record deal.”
Jackson checked a written list of people he wanted to thank, then blurted, “Fans,” drawing a burst of laughter, adding, “I came to Nashville because I wanted to make country music and write songs and record the kind of songs I like and that I thought my fans would like.”
As he started to conclude, Jackson cited a lyric from his song “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” saying, “I am just a singer of simple songs. That’s all I am.”
He then expressed much the same sentiment as he did in his first interviews in 1989: “I just love real country music. I want to keep it country. George Jones told me that, the first time I met him, and it stuck with me. I would’ve done it anyway, but it meant so much to me. I hope there will be some young people come along and do the same thing I did. You don’t hear it on the radio anymore today, but there’s still a lot of people out there who want to hear what I call real country music.”
After expressing his gratitude for the Hall of Fame induction, he pledged that he will continue to make the kind of country music he loves.
Considered country music’s most prestigious event, the Medallion Ceremony represents the official induction of new Country Music Hall of Fame members. The guest list for the private Medallion celebration focuses on family members and colleagues of the inductees, allowing them to share this exalted occasion with those they love and those with whom they worked most closely in their careers.
The performers for the 2017 ceremony were backed by the Medallion All-Star Band, led by guitarist and musical director Biff Watson. All top-call session players, the other band members were drummer Eddie Bayers Jr., pedal steel guitarist Paul Franklin, electric guitarist Brent Mason, keyboardist Gary Prim, fiddler and vocalist Carmella Ramsey, mandolinist and fiddler Deanie Richardson, acoustic guitarist Jeff White, bassist Glenn Worf and harmony vocalists Thom Flora and Tania Hancheroff.
The audience at the private celebration was packed with Hall of Fame members, who welcomed the new inductees to their exclusive club. Hall of Famers in attendance were Bill Anderson; Bobby Bare; Bobby Braddock; Harold Bradley; Charlie Daniels; Jimmy Fortune of the Statler Brothers; Fred Foster; Vince Gill; Kris Kristofferson; Loretta Lynn; Charlie McCoy; Duane Allen, Joe Bonsall, William Lee Golden and Richard Sterban of the Oak Ridge Boys; Randy Owen of Alabama; Connie Smith; George Strait; and Randy Travis.
The audience observed a moment of silence in memory of Hall of Fame members lost in 2017: Glen Campbell, Jo Walker-Meador and Don Williams.
The evening ended, as always, with a performance of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” this year led by Hall of Fame member Connie Smith, with help from Alan Jackson, Loretta Lynn and George Strait.