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Country Music Hall Of Fame Inductees: Jim Ed Brown And The Browns, Grady Martin, Oak Ridge Boys

October 25, 2015 | Posted by mmanning

Mandy Barnett, Dierks Bentley, Garth Brooks, Jimmy Capps, Duane Eddy, Vince Gill, Ben Hall, Jeff Hanna, The Isaacs, Carolyn Martin, The Martin Family Circus, Buddy Miller, Chris Scruggs, Marty Stuart & The Fabulous Superlatives, Pete Wade, And Trisha Yearwood Among All-Star Cast Paying Tribute

Two groundbreaking vocal groups with drastically different styles joined a fabled studio session musician as the newest inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame during a star-studded, emotional Medallion Ceremony on October 25, 2015.

Jim Ed Brown and the Browns, the Oak Ridge Boys and studio session great Grady Martin were feted with heartfelt testimonials and memorable performances of songs they made famous or, in Martin’s case, that he provided signature instrumental parts for on countless classic songs. The artists paying tribute varied widely in ages, backgrounds, and styles, which underscored the eclectic nature and crossover appeal of the musical contributions of the artists being honored.

“These men and women distinguished themselves through virtuosity, harmony and heart,” said Jody Williams, BMI executive and trustee on the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Board of Officers and Trustees. Williams filled in for the ceremony’s usual host, museum CEO Kyle Young, whose mother died on October 13.

“They have made music that endures through decades,” Williams continued. “Tonight, we honor them—respectfully, formally, and enthusiastically—as country music masters.”

Last-minute substitutions popped up throughout the evening, due to illness, a family death and a Texas flood that interrupted travel plans. In each case, the person stepping in rose to the occasion, thereby underscoring the theme of the Medallion Ceremony being about family, about how country artists support each other and about the can-do nature of veteran stars who endure careers filled with bumps and unforeseen turns with an ability to respond and adapt to situations and surprises.

The inductions focus on paying tribute to the inductees, celebrating their stories with spoken and musical tributes and original videos that draw on photos, interviews and performances found in materials lovingly collected in the museum’s Frist Library and Archive. The result conveys the special talents, personalities and unique stories of each new Hall of Fame member and underscores why each inductee deserves the prestigious honor.

GRADY MARTIN

Williams opened Grady Martin’s tribute with a concise breakdown of the variety of tools and multitude of styles that made the master instrumentalist so special: “Guitar, fiddle, or six-string bass. Electric, acoustic. Thrusting rockabilly, delicate lead runs. Fuzz-tone, twang. If you were a song, he’d give you whatever you needed.”

Born on a Marshall County farm in Middle Tennessee on January 17, 1929, Martin became a dedicated fan of the Grand Ole Opry, listening at first on a homemade radio that his cousin built from a cigar box and coils scavenged from an old car. Martin found himself transfixed by the King of Country Music, Roy Acuff, and harmonica titan DeFord Bailey.

Martin left the family farm at age 15, heading to Nashville to play fiddle with local favorites Big Jeff Bess & the Radio Playboys, and in 1949 he joined Little Jimmy Dickens’ legendary band, the Country Boys. That same year, Martin played on his first huge hit, recording a distinctive solo on Red Foley’s thirteen-week #1 single, “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy.”

Before long, Martin became a fixture at the Quonset hut studio and at RCA’s Studio B—the busiest Nashville recording centers at the time. He appeared on numerous country recordings and spent the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s creating indelible musical parts on a good percentage of the best-loved country songs from those eras.

Williams cited the memorable acoustic guitar part Martin created for Marty Robbins’ 1959 hit “El Paso,” as well as the fuzzed-out electric solo on Robbins’ 1961 classic, “Don’t Worry.” Of the latter, Williams added, “A soundboard amplifier blew during a studio session, and Grady’s water-clean guitar suddenly sounded distorted and raucous. What to do? Some people in the room thought it sounded wrong. Grady knew it sounded just right. He played what became one of country music’s most famous solos, through malfunctioning equipment.”

Martin’s fuzzy guitar sound inspired Keith Richards to play a similar part on the Rolling Stones’ seminal rock hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” and soon an electronics company created a device that allowed guitarists to replicate the sound on functioning equipment.

Martin is among the few musicians to record with both Hank Williams and Elvis Presley. He worked with Joan Baez, J.J. Cale, Patsy Cline, Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard, Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Conway Twitty and so many others. His guitar is heard on the country standards “The Battle of New Orleans,” “For the Good Times,” Satin Sheets,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and countless others.

Williams concluded by emphasizing that a musician of Martin’s caliber and breadth of contributions deserves his “rightful and righteous place as a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.”

Musical tributes, with surprise guests, are always a highpoint of the Medallion Ceremony. Martin’s celebration began with a performance of “El Paso” by Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives, with Country Music Hall of Fame member Vince Gill playing Grady Martin’s masterful guitar part.

Stuart joked that he readily agreed to perform the song when invited, but the next day realized he took on the task of learning a song with “469 words and about 2,000 guitar licks.” Stuart added, “I don’t know who gets the worst job, me or Vince.”

The singer also apologized, saying he left his high vocal register in Virginia the previous night, so Gill would help out with Robbins’ beautiful high tenor at the dramatic ending of some verses. Afterward, the group got the first of many standing ovations.

Up next, Williams introduced vocalist Mandy Barnett, with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Duane Eddy on guitar, to perform another Robbins hit, “Don’t Worry.” Barnett performed a sultry, soaring interpretation while Eddy drew cheers for his reverberating, lowdown-dirty guitar sound performed on a six-string electric bass.

In a poignant moment, Williams introduced guitarist Pete Wade, a longtime friend and colleague of Martin’s, who brought with him a guitar Martin gave him, a Gibson 335 electric famously known as “Big Red.” Wade was joined by Buddy Miller, Americana music stalwart and musical director of the hit TV show Nashville. Miller sang a soul-stirring version of the heartbreaking Conway Twitty hit “Fifteen Years Ago,” with Wade’s emotional guitar support. Wade’s solo got a huge cheering response from the audience.

A Hall of Fame member always inducts the newcomers, officially welcoming them to the elite group. Brenda Lee quickly established her ties to Martin in her opening statement. Her voice quivering with emotion, the 71-year-old member of both the country and rock halls of fame said, “I started recording with Grady when I was 10 years old. Grady meant the world to me, and he played on every one of my hits.”

Lee described Martin as her mentor, friend and surrogate father. “What Grady played is a part of the fabric of what we all do,” Lee said. “So often, what we all do, he did it first. So often, what we do, he did it best.”

People still turn to Martin for inspiration, Lee said, as each generation of guitarists studies and learns from his technique and musical feel. “If it was a ballad, Grady would bring beauty to it. If it was rockabilly, he would bring power to it. If a song needed some uptown sophistication, he could do that too.”

In a city sometimes called “Guitar Town,” Martin was the top guitar player. “Grady Martin is in the songs we write, and he’s in the records we make, and he’s in the air we breathe,” Lee continued. “He’s in the cranes we see around town, building skyscrapers, because people want to live and work here, and they want to make music here. Grady Martin is a big part of the reason why.”

Joshua Martin, Grady’s son, accepted the Hall of Fame medallion on behalf of his family. Joshua acknowledged that his father often skipped evenings designed to honor him, but he thought his father would be here tonight if he was alive, “I know he’d want to be here, if he was still with us, because this is the highest honor you can achieve in country music. This is it.”

He also knew people wondered what his father would do had he been alive to accept his award. “I have an idea of what he might do,” his son said. “He would tell you all about Jesus, and how your walk with God is the most important thing in this life. That’s the best thing that he taught me.”

He ended by saying, “May the name of Grady Martin live on forever in the Country Music Hall of Fame.”

JIM ED BROWN AND THE BROWNS

Williams opened the tribute to vocal trio the Browns (siblings Jim Ed, Maxine and Bonnie), as well as Jim Ed Brown for his long-running solo career, by addressing their special place in the country music pantheon.

“In country music, we sometimes pontificate about who was the greatest, who was the best, who was the most important,” Williams said. “We don’t argue, though, about who was the smoothest. There’s only one correct answer: the Browns. Jim Ed, Maxine, and Bonnie: the smoothest, most elegant vocal sound in country music, ever.”

The Browns emerged from Arkansas, children of a lumberman and his wife. In 1954, Jim Ed and Maxine scored a Top 10 country hit with “Looking Back to See,” and the duo hit the road. But the Browns sound wasn’t complete until 1955, when younger sister Bonnie turned the duo into a trio.

“In a car bound for California, Jim Ed and Maxine were singing their song, ‘Here Today and Gone Tomorrow,’” Williams recalled. “Bonnie joined in—effortlessly, smoothly. Jim Ed Brown spoke out loud, saying, ‘That’s the sound we’re looking for.’ It was sibling harmony of the sort that can be instantly enjoyed, but never duplicated.”

In 1959, the trio recorded “The Three Bells,” and the single topped the Billboard country chart for ten consecutive weeks, setting a record for country groups that would stand for 56 years. The Browns recorded more beautiful, smooth hits, including “Scarlet Ribbons (for Her Hair),” “The Old Lamplighter” and “Then I’ll Stop Loving You.”

But the rigors of the road led Maxine and Bonnie to retire. Jim Ed forged ahead as a solo act, but struggled until he recorded the Nat Stuckey song “Pop a Top.”

In 1976, Brown formed an award-winning duo with Helen Cornelius, scoring nine Top Ten hits, including the classic chart-topper “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You.” The tall Arkansan remained a steadfast presence on stages, on television, and especially, as a Grand Ole Opry ambassador, for the rest of his life.

“When cancer took its toll on his magnificent voice, he knew that what he had sung was loved and honored,” Williams said, “and that he and his sisters had been elected into this Hall of Fame.”

To celebrate the Browns’ music, Williams introduced Texas swing specialist Carolyn Martin and Nashville roots-music favorite Chris Scruggs, who performed a rousing “Looking Back to See.”

Other performances included contemporary gospel music stalwarts the Isaacs, presenting a stunningly beautiful version of the Browns’ staple “The Three Bells.” The family band has recorded “The Three Bells” and performed it at Jim Ed Brown’s memorial service earlier this year.

Dierks Bentley toasted his fellow Grand Ole Opry member Jim Ed Brown with a colorful take on Brown’s best known single, “Pop a Top.” The contemporary country star referred to Brown as his “Opry dad,” adding, “He really took me under his wing and made me feel comfortable and welcome.”

Bobby Bare, a 2013 Hall of Fame inductee, filled in for fellow Hall of Fame member Bill Anderson, who had planned to give the induction speech for the Browns, but had to cancel because of illness.

“I met the Browns in the summer of 1961 at a big fair up in Iowa,” Bare said. “They were big stars. I had just seen them the week before on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Bare shared dinners at the Brown family home in Arkansas in the 1960s, and decades later recalled gourmet dinners and a fish fry prepared by Jim Ed Brown at his Nashville residence. As for the Brown sisters, Bare said, “Maxine has a mouth on her,” drawing a burst of laughter from the crowd. “If you don’t really want to know the answer to a question, don’t ever ask Maxine. She’s going to give you the full answer. That’s why we love her.”

He also said he, like Elvis Presley and many others, fell in love with Bonnie Brown back in the early days. Bare also recalled how Chet Atkins, who produced early albums for the Browns and for Bare, “really loved the Browns.” Atkins told Bare that the Browns had the greatest sibling harmony he had ever heard. “That’s really saying a lot,” Bare said, “because Chet produced the Everly Brothers.”

Becky Brown, representing Jim Ed Brown, said her husband of 54 years didn’t look at success in terms of wealth and fame, but in terms of happiness. “He was happy,” she said. “He spent his whole life doing what he wanted to do, with people he loved, and for people he loved. He felt so blessed every day.”

Bonnie Brown spoke next, noting that it was the late Hall of Fame member Minnie Pearl’s birthday, so she quoted her famous saying, “I’m just so proud to be here.” Bonnie noted that she and her sister left the road in the 1960s to raise their families, then introduced her husband, daughters and extended family.

Bonnie ended by saying, “I hate to turn this over to Maxine,” a joke about her sister’s reputation for colorful comments. Maxine began by noting that Bonnie only joined the group because they were touring with Elvis Presley. More seriously, Maxine noted that their children made the biggest sacrifice because they were gone so much.

She introduced the band’s longtime manager, Tom Perryman and his wife, Billie, who traveled from Texas for the ceremony. The couple were pushing 90, Maxine said, “and still have their hair and teeth,” which drew uproarious laughter. Then revealing why Bare and her sister commented about her penchant for flamboyancy, Maxine said she once asked Billie, “How old do you have to be before you stop enjoying sex? And she told me, ‘Honey, you’ve got to ask somebody older than me.’”

OAK RIDGE BOYS

Williams introduced each member of the Oak Ridge Boys and cited their hometowns: Duane Allen from Taylortown, Texas; Richard Sterban from Camden, New Jersey; Joe Bonsall from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and William Lee Golden from Brewton, Alabama.

“Without music, these men would never have known each other,” Williams said. “They would have led separate lives, in separate places. But with music, they are bound permanently, unforgettably.”

Drawn together by a love of gospel quartet singing, the four members all remember particularly loving the exuberant sound of the Oak Ridge Quartet, as the group was known from 1945 to the mid-1960s.

Golden joined the group in 1965, and Allen joined the following year. Sterban came aboard in 1972, and within a year, Bonsall completed the quartet’s long-running, most famous lineup.

Encouraged by manager Jim Halsey, the quartet began thinking beyond gospel. At first, Music Row was reluctant, believing the Statler Brothers already accounted for a country group that performed in the style of a gospel quartet.

But Country Music Hall of Fame member Jim Foglesong “figured the Oak Ridge Boys were too good to fail” and signed the group to ABC/Dot Records, Williams said. “And Jim Foglesong was right.”

In 1977, the Oak Ridge Boys hit the Top Five with “Y’all Come Back Saloon.” A year later, they topped the country chart with “I’ll Be True to You.” In all, they achieved 17 #1 singles and 37 Top 20 country hits, including such high water marks as “Fancy Free,” “Bobbie Sue,” Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight” and “Elvira.”

Over the years, the Oak Ridge Boys earned one double-platinum album, three platinum, and 12 gold albums. The group also became fan favorites for their high-production, arena-ready stage shows.

“Always that harmony, that fifth famous voice, rooted in gospel, positive in perspective, bringing joy, bringing excitement,” Williams said. “Whether singing songs of faith, or love songs, or the national anthem at hundreds of sporting events, or the giddy-ups that precede the ‘oom papa mow-mow’s,’ they brought harmony to a world that’s rife with dissonance.”

For the musical portion of the tribute, Williams brought out Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, an emergency replacement for Chris and Morgane Stapleton, whose travel plans were interrupted by flooding in Texas. Calling the Oak Ridge Boys “brothers of the road,” Hanna performed “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight.” The Rodney Crowell song had been a #1 hit in 1980 for the Oak Ridge Boys. 

Next, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood performed a delicate, touching version of the love song “I’ll Be True to You,” the Oak Ridge Boys’ first #1 hit, in 1978. With Brooks on acoustic guitar as the only musical accompaniment, Yearwood sang two verses, with her husband on harmony. Brooks took the last verse, and Yearwood joined in for the final chorus. 

In a surprise to the Oak Ridge Boys, the Martin Family Circus bounded onstage. Featuring Duane Allen’s daughter Jamie Allen on vocals with support from her husband, Paul Martin, and their four children, the group delighted Allen, his vocal partners and the rest of the audience with an animated version of “Elvira.” The children—March, 17; Kell, 14; Texas, 10; and Tallant, 8—proved to be experienced stage performers as they drew out the celebratory, whimsical nature of the singalong hit.  

Kenny Rogers, a 2013 Hall of Fame inductee like Bare, inducted the Oak Ridge Boys, saying, “There’s nowhere I’d rather be than right here tonight.” Rogers and the vocal group often toured together in the 1970s, and Rogers recalled a quote from his father, who told him to be friendly to everyone, but to become friends with only a few.

“I chose the Oak Ridge Boys to be friends with,” Rogers said. “Friendship doesn’t come without strings. You have to do what your friends ask you. They would be ready for you, if they’re good friends. You guys have been that to me. I have to tell you, I’m so, so proud of you.”

Each member of the band spoke about what the induction meant to him. “In a lifetime and career of incredible things, this is the most incredible thing that has ever happened to the Oak Ridge Boys,” Joe Bonsall said in opening the remarks.

“The Oak Ridge Boys are family,” he continued. “We’ve always been family. Family is what’s most important. We tried to run our group that way. Trying to do what’s right. Trying to be honest always, like our parents taught us. Treat people right. I really think that’s why we’re here today.”

Duane Allen followed, citing three points behind the Oak Ridge Boys success. “The first one is luck,” he said. He recalled how he walked into talent agent Don Light’s office just as the gospel-based quartet were about to give up looking for him. They knew Allen had been in the army, and they weren’t sure they could find him. If they couldn’t track him down within days, they were going to break up the act.

“I joined the Oak Ridge Boys that day, and in April that would have been 50 years ago,” he said. “Don Light told me the luckier you are, the harder you work. We still work 150 days a year.”

His second point was “fortunate.” Allen noted how fortunate the band had been to work with Jim Halsey as a manager, with Country Music Hall of Fame member Jim Foglesong as the record label head who signed the group, and with producer Ron Chancey, among others.

His third point was “blessings.” Raised on a farm without running water, “I dreamed of singing in a group that sang harmony,” Allen said. “There’s no way I could have dreamed what has happened tonight. I thank God for his many blessings.”

Bass singer Richard Sterban was next. “I want to thank the good Lord above for making this evening possible,” he said. “I want to thank Him for giving the four of us the ability to sing, and to harmonize together. Without harmony, the four of us would not be here tonight.”

Sterban recalled that before he joined the Oak Ridge Boys in 1972, he spent two years with J.D. Sumner & the Stamps, who often toured as background singers for Elvis Presley. “It never entered my mind, when I was onstage singing with Elvis, that someday I would be in the same Hall of Fame as him. But here I am tonight, going into the Country Music Hall of Fame. This is a night we’ll never forget, and I don’t think we’ll ever be the same.”

William Lee Golden started by thanking his partners and detailing his rise from a poor child on a cotton and peanut farm without power or water to a singer in a Hall of Fame country group. “This has been a wonderful journey, and I hope it’s not over,” Golden said. “We’re all healthy and feeling good.”

He concluded by saying, “I wouldn’t take anything for this moment right now!”

MEDALLION CEREMONY

Considered country music’s most prestigious event, the Medallion Ceremony is the official induction of new Hall of Fame members.

A private celebration, the Medallion Ceremony features a guest list that focuses on family members and colleagues of the inductees, allowing them to share the exalted occasion with those they love and those they worked closest 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 Larry Paxton, mandolinist and fiddler Deanie Richardson, keyboardist Matt Rollings, 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 into their exclusive club. Hall of Famers in attendance were Bobby Bare, Harold Bradley, Garth Brooks, Roy Clark, Ralph Emery, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Ray Walker of The Jordanaires, Brenda Lee, Charlie McCoy, Randy Owen of Alabama, Kenny Rogers, Connie Smith, and E.W. “Bud” Wendell.

The audience also offered a moment of silence in memory of Hall of Fame members lost in 2015: Jimmy Dickens, Billy Sherrill, and Jim Ed Brown.

Steve Turner, chairman of the museum’s board, noted that it was appropriate that the Hall of Fame induction ceremony occurred in the CMA Theater—built thanks to a $10 million contribution from the CMA—and inside the walls of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “It is fitting that these rites of induction take place in this music museum,” Turner said.

Sarah Trahern, CMA chief executive officer, recalled tracking down the Hall of Fame inductees—or in Martin’s case, finding his family with help from Brenda Lee—and how emotionally each one reacted to the news of their election to the Hall of Fame. She recalled how she gave Jim Ed Brown the news while sitting in her office, after luring him and his daughter Kim there under the guise of doing an interview.

Brown at first paused and asked Trahern to “please repeat” what she had said. “I obliged, and I will never forget what happened next,” Trahern said. “He threw his arms back over his head, knocking his ball cap end-over-end onto the floor. He smiled ear-to-ear, and exclaimed, ‘I wondered if this would ever happen while I was alive!’”

After a pause, Trahern added, “In June, he was smiling again as Bill Anderson slipped the Hall of Fame Medallion around his neck as he was formally inducted just days before he succumbed to cancer.”

The evening ended, as always, with a performance of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Museum employee and ace guitarist Ben Hall, started the song off, performing an instrumental verse and chorus as the Hall of Fame members gathered at the front of the stage. The Oak Ridge Boys took turns singing the verses, with all the Hall of Famers present—and the theater audience—joining in on the choruses.

—Michael McCall