Charlie Daniels, Fred Foster and Randy Travis Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame
TRACE ADKINS, GARTH BROOKS, BRANDY CLARK, ALAN JACKSON, JAMEY JOHNSON, KRIS KRISTOFFERSON, CHARLIE McCOY, BRAD PAISLEY, DOLLY PARTON, TRISHA YEARWOOD, AND ANDREA ZONN AMONG ALL-STAR CAST PAYING MUSICAL TRIBUTES TO INDUCTEES
Three visionary iconoclasts, whose creative skills altered the direction of commercial country music, were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame during a star-studded, profoundly emotional Medallion Ceremony on October 16, 2016.
Country rock pioneer Charlie Daniels; music producer, publisher and Monument Records founder Fred Foster; and neo-traditional singer Randy Travis were feted with heartfelt testimonials, tearful speeches and memorable performances of songs they helped make famous. The artists paying tribute crossed generations and styles, underscoring the eclectic nature and groundbreaking stature of the three men being inducted.
As different as the honorees’ music and backgrounds are, the night’s speakers repeatedly pointed out that they all emerged from the state of North Carolina. “These three Tar Heels came to Tennessee and created music that enriched our lives and enhanced our culture,” said Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “We are better for their presence and for their talents, and we are proud to hang their plaques in the Hall of Fame Rotunda.”
The annual Medallion Ceremony, held in the museum’s CMA Theater and produced by the staff of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, pays tribute to the inductees by celebrating their stories with speeches, live musical tributes and original video biographies that draw on historic photos, interviews and performances culled from materials lovingly collected, stored and digitized in the museum’s Frist Library and Archives. The ceremony conveys the unique talents, personalities, histories and stories of each new Hall of Fame member and highlights why each inductee deserves the prestigious honor.
The tribute to Foster emphasized the producer and music magnate’s support for distinctive songwriters, singers and musicians who wrote and performed in a manner wholly their own. He is responsible for bringing American music many one-of-a-kind talents who might never have been heard if not for his keen ear for remarkable artistry and his ability to bring out the best in them.
“Identifiable, understandable and original became his touchstones, his standards, and, taken together, his trademark,” Young said. “Ambiguity and replication are Fred’s mortal enemies. To him, virtuosity is attractive. But originality is gorgeous.”
Born on a farm in Rutherford County, North Carolina, Foster worked fields of corn, cotton and sorghum cane from childhood through most of his teen years. At age 10, Foster recalls hearing Ernest Tubb—one of country music’s most distinctive voices. A different kind of seed was planted, and eight years later Foster left the farm with the dream of working in the music business.
Residing in Washington, D.C., Foster founded Monument Records—named after the Washington Monument that pierced the sky in the city where he lived. Relocating to Nashville in 1960, two years after starting the label, Foster built a reputation for hearing talent where others did not. One example: Every record label in Nashville had passed on Dolly Parton; Foster heard her sing four songs in an audition and, convinced of her unique talent, immediately signed her to her first recording contract.
Similar stories abound: Roy Orbison was viewed in the music industry as a failed rockabilly singer, with a voice too tender to convey power and emotion. Foster devised an innovative method of isolating Orbison’s voice so that it soared with a thrilling effectiveness that resounded with incredible emotion.
Another example: All of Nashville thought of Kris Kristofferson as a songwriter, if they thought about him at all, as he had spent years in town with minimal success. When Kristofferson auditioned for Foster in hopes of getting more financial support from Combine Music, a publishing company Foster co-owned, the producer heard more than a special songwriter. He heard a recording artist whose limited but gruffly real voice provided the right kind of grit to communicate the groundbreaking themes and wordplay of his highly original songs.
Young recited a list of Foster’s contributions to the music world: Kristofferson, Orbison, and Parton; “Oh, Pretty Woman,” “Me and Bobby McGee” (on which Foster gets co-writing credit with Kristofferson) and “Polk Salad Annie.” And much, much more.
“Fred is a genius at identifying genius,” Young said. “He is among our greatest enablers of greatness.”
Musical tributes, with surprise guests, are a highlight of the Medallion Ceremony. Foster’s celebration began with Parton performing her first hit, “Dumb Blonde,” produced by Foster and released on Monument Records.
Parton recalled how Foster’s belief in her resulted in her first hit and her subsequent connection with duet partner Porter Wagoner, a starring role on his popular syndicated variety show, and her move from Monument to RCA Records—all crucial steps to Parton becoming the internationally revered celebrity she is today.
“If anybody deserves one of these medallions, you do.” Parton said to Foster. “You gave me a shot, and you were a gentleman when Porter Wagoner stole me away. You saw things in me that nobody else did. I hope that I made you proud.”
Whenever she reflects on the blessings bestowed upon her, Parton said, “I thank God. I thank the fans. And I thank you.”
Next up, Grammy-winning songwriter Brandy Clark performed “Blue Bayou,” which Foster originally produced with Orbison. Linda Ronstadt later transformed the song into a pop classic.
In introducing the last of the Foster tribute performers, Young recalled a song title Foster suggested to Kristofferson. Hall of Fame songwriter Boudleaux Bryant had an office assistant, Barbara McKee, whom everyone called Bobby. “You should write a song called ‘Me and Bobby McKee,’ and the catch is that Bobby is a girl,” Foster told Kristofferson. Kristofferson softened a consonant by changing the name to McGee, gave Foster a co-writing credit, and put the phrase “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” into the American lexicon.
Kristofferson, 80, walked out with harmonica specialist and fellow Country Music Hall of Fame member Charlie McCoy to perform a touching version of his famous song, with the song’s inspiration, Barbara McKee (now Barbara McKee Eden by marriage), in the audience.
A Hall of Fame member always inducts the newcomers, as a way of welcoming them to the elite group. Foster requested that Hall of Fame member Vince Gill make his induction official.
Gill recalled how Foster supported him early on, when few did. “He liked the way I sing,” Gill said, then drew on his self-deprecating wit. “I think he liked the way I sing, because I sing like a girl, and he was fond of girl singers.”
Gill values those times even more now, looking back and realizing how rare it was for a veteran of Foster’s stature to embrace a young artist with whom he had no business ties. They played golf together and went to University of Tennessee football games together, and Foster introduced Gill to important leaders in the Music City community.
“Fred Foster is a man who has been a champion of great artists all these years,” Gill said. “He champions great songwriters, champions great singers and great musicians.”
Gill also recalled that before his commercial breakthrough, he cut a few songs with Foster producing. Neither of them liked the results. Years later, RCA contacted Gill asking about those sessions, since they were recorded while Gill was under contract to RCA. By then the singer had moved to MCA Records, where he found success. His career was going well, and he didn’t want the older sessions released. He asked Foster to help keep them from being released, even though Foster would have benefited financially from the songs being made public. “Say no more,” Foster replied.
Gill paused for effect, then continued: “Whether those tapes are buried in his garden, whether they got dumped in the microwave, or maybe they’re in some of the fried pies Fred sends me, I don’t know. But for a friend to do that for me is about as good as it gets.”
Foster, after accepting his Hall of Fame medallion from Gill, said, “I’m seldom at a loss for words. But to be honest I cannot describe exactly how I feel. This is one of the most unbelievable things that has ever happened to me or ever will.”
He thanked the musicians, the songwriters and the engineers “who made me look somewhat like a producer at times.” He also thanked his children, who were all in attendance. “I just hope they’re a little bit proud of ol’ Dad.”
Tracing Daniels’s story, Young pointed out that the new inductee’s father worked in a timber mill, fortunate to have work in the Depression Era, but the family still struggled, as so many did at the time. Amid the hard work and drudgery, the Daniels family eagerly anticipated Saturday evenings, when they would gather around the radio and listen to broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry. Roy Acuff, the King of Country Music, especially excited Daniels with dynamic fiddle playing and a powerhouse band.
At 15, Daniels learned to play a cheap Stella acoustic guitar, thanks to a neighbor. “Daniels was off and running,” Young noted, “and he soon picked up the fiddle, like King Roy Acuff.”
In 1958, Daniels quit his job at a creosote factory so that an older black father of three, Louis Frost, would not be laid off. (Frost worked at the factory until he retired). Daniels decided to devote himself to music, and he moved to Washington, D.C., playing jazz in nightclubs until forming an instrumental band, the Jaguars, and scoring a regional hit, “Jaguar,” produced by a new friend, Bob Johnston.
Johnston became a record executive for Columbia Records and relocated to Nashville. At Johnston’s behest, Daniels moved to Nashville in 1967, arriving with his wife and son, a car with a busted clutch and $20 in his wallet. Before long, Daniels was playing on recording sessions with Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Flatt & Scruggs and Ringo Starr.
Daniels signed a recording contract in 1970, formed the Charlie Daniels Band, and found his own style by blending bluegrass, blues, country, gospel, jazz, and rock. In 1974, Daniels launched his famous Volunteer Jam, bringing together musicians from musical traditions he loved for a charitable cause. He performed at President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, with Carter thanking Daniels for the role he played in helping him get elected.
“Charlie, you posed a question at many Volunteer Jams that I’d like to ask of you now, as we welcome you into country music’s most honored and exclusive family,” Young said. “Ain’t it great to be alive and be in Tennessee?”
To begin the musical tribute to Daniels, Young spoke of the important role Johnston, who died in 2015, played in the new inductee’s early career. Johnston and Daniels co-wrote “It Hurts Me,” which Elvis Presley recorded and released in 1964. Getting a cut by Presley was the first major breakthrough in Daniels’s career.
Trisha Yearwood’s simmering, soulful performance of “It Hurts Me” showed her tasteful restraint as well as the power and feeling of her voice. She drew a standing ovation from the industry crowd.
To introduce the next singer, Young noted that Daniels doesn’t put labels on his music. “When Charlie Daniels was asked how he does what he does, he answered, ‘I just try to play like me, and to sing like I talk.’ Lately, an Alabama man has come to embody that ethic. Here to sing Charlie’s 1980 hit, ‘Long Haired Country Boy,’ is the great Jamey Johnson!”
Johnson, with his hair several inches beyond his shoulders and a beard that reached his chest, said, “I started singing this song when I was in the marines. I didn’t have long hair then.” Johnson’s version caught the combination of personal statement, laid-back values and a hint of menace toward anyone who would interfere with the freedom to live as he wishes.
For the last of the musical tributes to Daniels, Young cited Daniels’s love for the poet Stephen Vincent Benét, especially the poem “The Mountain Whippoorwill,” about a fiddle contest in Georgia. “In 1979, Charlie re-imagined that poem,” Young said. “He and his band added a musical interplay that brought to life a tale about the Devil’s defeat.”
Grand Ole Opry star Trace Adkins and fiddler Andrea Zonn took the stage to perform “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” “I got the hardest song to do,” Adkins said with a wry smile, before nailing the vocals. Zonn played the difficult fiddle parts with stunning virtuosity, drawing an ovation from Daniels who pointed at her as she bowed toward him.
Hall of Fame member Brenda Lee inducted Daniels, at his request. Lee ditched the speech on the teleprompter, written with help from the Hall of Fame staff. Looking at Daniels, who sat with his wife Hazel and son Charles Daniels Jr., she tearfully told him how proud she was of him and how she loved him and his family.“The first time I met Charlie was in 100 Oaks shopping mall,” Lee said, noting that Daniels had a cast on his arm as they made introductions. “I had my 15-year-old daughter with me, and I’ll never forget what he said. He looked at my daughter, who had a body cast at the time, and he said, ‘You know, I’ve complained about this arm long enough. I’ll never complain again.’”
Lee said that was the beginning of an enduring and important friendship. She and Daniels became such good friends that he named one of his horses after her. “It’s a little bitty horse,” said the four-foot, 11-inch Lee. “Thanks Charlie.”
She grew serious again. “Most of all, what Charlie loves, he loves America,” Lee said. “He shows it in every move he makes and in every word he says. He’s one of the few of us in the spotlight who will say those words. And we thank you for that Charlie. We really do.”
To wrap up, Lee pointed out that she and Daniels shared the experience of coming from poverty to grand success. “We know what it is to want and to need,” Lee said. “The odds of coming from where we came from and being here, in this room tonight with all of you, well if there’s a machine that can calculate those odds, I don’t know of one.”
Daniels, after bending down to let Lee put the Hall of Fame medallion around his neck, signifying his induction, said: “The grandiose words to adequately describe the gratitude and the fountain of honor I’m feeling tonight simply do not exist in my vocabulary.”
From there, Daniels demonstrated once again that he truly has a knack for storytelling and for putting the right words together. “When I look around at the images of those I’ve admired, respected and emulated, whose very shoulders I stand on, and to think I will be represented in that same manner, on these same walls, is a great, humbling honor to me. A plaque on these walls is not just an award or an accolade. It is a page in a history book, an unending history book, a story that will go on and on as long as young men and women have a desire in their hearts and a fire in their belly to write and record the songs, to travel the miles and pay the dues.
“The faces on these walls laid the foundation that established the infrastructure for those of us who would follow in their footsteps,” Daniels continued. “Through the Depression and wars, they sang their songs about lonesome train whistles and love gone wrong and played the hoedowns and helped America know that no matter how dark the days of war became, there’s a star-spangled banner waving somewhere.”
Daniels also thanked his family and staff. “I’ve often been asked what is my most cherished accomplishment is, and my answer never varies. It’s keeping 25 people steadily and gainfully employed for more than 40 years. We’re still in the saddle, and it ain’t over by a long shot. Bring it on!”
For Randy Travis, Young began by recalling the impact the singer had as soon as his first album came out. “Country music was dying,” Young said. “At least that’s what the New York Times said, in a 1985 article. Traditional artists were out of radio favor.”
Young recalled how George Jones worried that, with the dominating popularity of pop-country sounds at the time, no young artist was emerging to fill his shoes and those of such country heroes as Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Lefty Frizzell, and Roy Acuff.
An answer to Jones’s hit, “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” surfaced when Warner Bros. Records executive Martha Sharp signed Travis to her label. Less than a year after the New York Times article, Warner Bros. issued “On the Other Hand,” a stone-cold, traditional country ballad. Travis’s Storms of Life, became the first debut album in country music to sell a million copies within a year. It sparked a revival of interest in country music—real country music—that proved the genre was not only alive, but as popular and as culturally viable as ever.
“It was special,” Young said of Travis’s first album. “Randy Travis came without flash or bombast, without posturing or affectation. He traded on simplicity, sincerity, and depth of emotion—just like his heroes.”
Travis’s heroes took notice, Young said, quoting Merle Haggard: “’Down the road, somebody’s going to idolize Randy Travis.’ We’re a long way down that road now, and time has proven Merle Haggard right.”
Young acknowledged the difficulties Travis has faced in recent years. “You may have heard that Randy lost his voice due to a devastating stroke, in 2013,” Young said. “You may have heard that he’s struggling to get that voice back. But Randy Travis’s voice is indelible, and what is indelible cannot be lost. Randy Travis speaks to us at our will, in a voice that’s deeper than the holler and stronger than the river. His voice carries with it the lessons of the honky-tonk heroes who helped him find good in himself. His voice sings through the ages, rich and warm, dipped in molasses, and shaded by Carolina pines—forever and ever, amen.”
Young noted how Travis opened doors for other tradition-minded country singers, including a lanky Georgian, Alan Jackson, who became friends and co-writers. He brought out Jackson to sing “On the Other Hand,” written by Paul Overstreet and Travis’s fellow North Carolinian Don Schlitz.
Jackson explained that he moved to Nashville in 1985 with the goal of bringing real country music back to the airwaves. “Nobody was carrying it on,” he said, but shortly after he got to town, Jackson heard Travis on the radio. “You opened the doors for a lot of guys and girls who wanted to record real country music,” Jackson said. “You made it easier for us.”
At the start of his Music Row career, Jackson went on tour with Travis as his opening act. “That was my first big tour,” Jackson said. “He was like Elvis! He sold 12 million albums in four years, and when he sang, women were screaming and fainting, and it was crazy. I loved it. Someone was singing real country music, and having that effect on people, and it just made me so happy.”
Jackson then got serious. “I don’t think another country singer, since Randy, has been as authentic as he was at that time,” he said. “When I listen to country music today, I think it’s time for a new Randy Travis to come along.”
Continuing the tribute, Young made the next introduction: “As a teenager, he heard Randy Travis sing on the radio, and Randy became his North Star.”
Once again citing the songwriting team of Overstreet and Schlitz, Young said this next song cemented Travis’s place as a pillar of country music. “That song is an ode to the power of abiding love through imperfect times. It’s called ‘Forever and Ever, Amen,’ and here to sing it in Randy’s honor is the great Brad Paisley.”
Paisley noted that, in previous generations, there were country artists who emulated Roy Acuff, or Lefty Frizzell, or George Jones, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. “And there’s Randy, for my generation.” Addressing Travis directly, he continued: “To this day, you are still one of the greatest singers we’ve ever had. I am honored to do this for you today, pal. By the way, what took the Hall of Fame so long?”
For the final musical tribute of the evening, Young brought out one more Travis disciple. “Another artist who made real-deal country music for the masses on the way to the Country Music Hall of Fame is no less than the biggest selling artist in the history of our music,” Young said. “But when he is around Randy Travis, he remains a fan, an admirer, and an acolyte. Here with us tonight to sing Randy’s gospel classic, ‘Three Wooden Crosses’—written by Doug Johnson and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Famer Kim Williams—is Garth Brooks!”
Brooks walked to stage left to look at Daniels and nod his appreciation, then did the same with Foster at stage right. From center stage he looked to Travis, took off his cowboy hat, tipped it to him, and put it over his heart.
Following his performance Brooks welcomed Travis into the Hall of Fame. Tribute performers don’t usually turn around and do the inductions. But the Hall of Fame honored Travis’s request that Brooks take that role.
Brooks’s articulate speech proved why he was such a good choice, as he mixed personal, emotional commentary with cultural perspective on Travis’s achievements. He emphasized that country music’s boom period of the 1990s, which he led, and country’s continuing success decades later, wouldn’t have happened if Travis hadn’t shown Music Row that young, traditional artists could sell records and tickets in enormous numbers.
Because of that assertion, Brooks said the Hall of Fame got things upside down. Travis should have been inducted before him, he said. “There’s a saying in this industry that everyone before you is a god, and everyone after you is a punk,” Brooks said, pausing and raising his palms upward, making clear which side of the spectrum he belongs to in relation to Travis.
He explained how and why Travis was so important to him. “I remember where I was, on Duck Street, pulling out of a driveway in my ’65 Ford pickup, looking over my left shoulder, and I hear ‘1982’ for the first time,” Brooks recalled. “When that song was over, I was still sitting in the same place . . . That’s what you do when you hear something for the first time that moves you.”
He then posed a question: “Name me any artist, from any genre, in the history of music, who took a format and turned it 180 degrees, back to where it came from, and made it bigger than it had ever been before.”
Brooks then avowed that, if it wasn’t for Travis, he wouldn’t be at the podium, he wouldn’t be married to Trisha Yearwood, and he wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame.
He also stipulated that it isn’t the plaques on the walls that make the Hall of Fame special. It’s the people who are on those plaques and on those walls. “There are a handful of people in the Hall of Fame who make the Hall of Fame the Hall of Fame,” he said. “There are very few of them, and I’m not one of them. Randy Travis is one of them. You just made this place a million times more significant.”
To accept his induction, Travis took small, feeble steps up the four stairs, fighting the effects of his stroke with help from his wife Mary and from Paisley, who came out from backstage to assist him. At the podium, he stood next to his wife as she read what he wanted to say.
She told of Travis moving to Nashville 35 years earlier, and how he realized he was “too country” for country music at the time. “He wasn’t sure he belonged here, he would say,” Mary Travis said, turning to look at her husband. “Tonight is proof you belong here.”
She noted that Harold Traywick, Travis’s father and the person responsible for getting him started as a musician, died on Wednesday, four days prior to the ceremony. “I think he wanted to watch this ceremony tonight from heaven with his wife,” Mary said.
She then recounted the tragic circumstances that began in July 2013. “Randy was silenced by a stroke,” she said. “His heart function fell to less than five percent. He flat-lined. They approved him for a heart transplant. He was put on life support. He had a massive stroke. He had two bouts of double pneumonia. Collapsed lungs. Two separate comas. Two brain surgeries. Three hospital-borne bacterial infections. Breathing tubes, chest tubes, 38 IVs at one time. Blood transfusions. Three tracheotomies. On a respirator and intubated.
“The doctors suggested we pull the life support. I went to his bedside and asked if he wanted to fight some more. I knew he did. He squeezed my hand, and a little tear fell down his cheek. He and God had other plans.”
The couple spent five and a half months in the hospital. “Prayer and a song called ‘The Dance’ were the staples for me,” Mary said. “Hearing that song, ‘I could’ve missed the pain, but I would’ve missed the dance.’ That is what got me through.”
Doctors told the couple that Travis would never walk again and would be bed-ridden. Standing onstage he accentuated how he beat the odds. “They say you can see God’s reflection in the rearview mirror,” Mary said. “Indeed we do.”
With her husband unable to hold back his tears, she said, “Today, God’s proof of miracles stands before you . . . Life is good.”
Despite Travis’s ongoing struggle to speak, Mary and her husband sing every day. “Sometimes we sing the greatest redemption song of all time, and it fills us with God’s grace,” she said. That song is ‘Amazing Grace.’”
Mary Travis said that tonight, for the first time since his stroke, she wanted to share her husband’s voice with those gathered to celebrate this special occasion. Her voice breaking with emotion, she said, “Please join us in singing ‘Amazing Grace.’”
Travis leaned into the microphone, his baritone voice strained but instantly recognizable. As he sang the first verse to a stunned crowd, many were too overcome with emotion to sing along. As he finished, the crowd broke out in exhilarated cheers. Taking more effort to speak than to sing, “Thank you,” Travis said, and after pausing for a breath, “for everything you’ve done.”
A thunderous standing ovation lasted for minutes, longer than any of the numerous ovations of the night.
Considered country music’s most prestigious event, the Medallion Ceremony represents the official induction of new Hall of Fame members. The guest list focuses on family members and colleagues of the inductees, allowing them to share this exalted occasion with those they love and those they worked most closely with in their careers.
The performers were backed by the Medallion All-Star Band, led by guitarist and musical director Biff Watson. The band included drummer Eddie Bayers Jr., pedal steel guitarist Paul Franklin, electric guitarist Steve Gibson, bassist Michael Rhodes, mandolinist and fiddler Deanie Richardson, keyboardist Matt Rollings, guitarist Jeff White, and harmony vocalists Thom Flora, Tania Hancheroff and Carmella Ramsey.
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 Alabama members Jeff Cook, Teddy Gentry and Randy Owen, Bobby Bare, Harold Bradley, Garth Brooks, Roy Clark, Ralph Emery, Vince Gill, Kris Kristofferson, Brenda Lee, Charlie McCoy, Oak Ridge Boys members Duane Allen, Joe Bonsall, William Lee Golden and Richard Sterban, Dolly Parton, Charley Pride, Jo Walker-Meador, and E. W. “Bud” Wendell.
The audience observed a moment of silence in memory of Hall of Fame members lost in the year since the last Medallion Ceremony: Bonnie Brown, Merle Haggard, Sonny James, and Jean Shepard.
The evening ended, as always, with a performance of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Museum employee, ace guitarist Ben Hall, and harmonica maestro Charlie McCoy started the song, performing a verse and chorus while Hall of Fame members gathered at the front of the stage. The Oak Ridge Boys and Charlie Daniels took turns singing the verses, with the audience, the night’s guest performers, and the Hall of Famers joining in on the choruses.