NASHVILLE, Tenn., October 27, 2014 – Hank Cochran, Ronnie Milsap, and Mac Wiseman each overcame extraordinarily difficult childhoods to put a distinctive footprint on American music history. Each now shares another accomplishment: they became the newest inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame on October 26, 2014.
In a star-studded Medallion Ceremony at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the three legendary figures were feted with heartfelt testimonials and stirring performances in a two-hour celebration in the museum’s 800-seat CMA Theater. In words and songs, the inductees’ triumphs were heralded, their legacies honored, and their achievements enshrined for all time.
Calling the three men “great Americans who have made country music history,” museum director Kyle Young briefly described the unique artistry of Cochran, Milsap, and Wiseman while encapsulating their backgrounds and achievements. Video tributes on each artist, featuring vintage footage taken from interviews and performances stored in the museum’s Frist Library and Archive, helped convey the talent and personalities of each new Hall of Fame member and underline why they deserve the prestigious honor.
The eighty-nine-year-old Wiseman—born in Crimora, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley—survived a debilitating bout of polio, contracted in his teens, to become a significant bluegrass and country artist who recorded more than eight hundred songs over a seven-decade career.
“Mac Wiseman has one of the great voices in American musical history,” Young said in discussing Wiseman’s career. “He is known as ‘the Voice with a Heart,’ and it’s hard to imagine a more accurate nickname.”
Young recounted how Wiseman’s mother, Neva, encouraged her son to develop his musical talent as a way to deal with the physical restrictions of polio. While in high school, Wiseman began performing on a local radio station. In his early twenties he was recruited to join the first band formed by Country Music Hall of Fame members Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and shortly afterward, as a guitarist and harmony singer with Bill Monroe as a member of his band, the Blue Grass Boys.
As a solo artist, Wiseman began recording with Dot Records in 1951, straddling bluegrass and country with songs that drew on folk, mountain, and pop influences. The influential singer was a founding member of the CMA in 1958 and served on its board for many years. “He actually did the work,” said Country Music Hall of Fame member Jo Walker-Meador, executive director of the CMA from 1962 to 1991. “He had ideas and suggestions that helped the organization become what it is today. He was such a great help to me.”
Performers celebrating the music of Wiseman were Jim Lauderdale, Charlie Daniels, and Vince Gill. “I’m so glad the CMA allowed me the chance to be here to honor this great man,” said Daniels, who performed “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy,” a nineteenth century song that Wiseman turned into a top country hit. “He’s been a hero of mine since I learned my first three chords.”
Lauderdale offered a spirited “Goin’ Like Wildfire,” and Gill sang a touching “’Tis Sweet to Be Remembered,” one of Wiseman’s signature hits. “It’s a great song,” Gill said, “by a great man.”
Wiseman accepted the award with characteristic humility. “I tried to be honest to myself and to the music,” he said. “I tried to give back as much as I could, but I could never give as much as the music business has given to me.”
Wiseman also noted the timeless quality of country music, saying that each generation returns to the same real-life themes that provide the foundation for what makes the genre special.
“They’re the same things that have been going on since the beginning of time,” Wiseman said. “Heartache. Disasters. Train wrecks and crashes of airplanes. Family. Home. People falling in love and falling out. It might sound trite, but I firmly believe people don’t change. We just get a new batch.”
To induct Cochran, Young explained that the native of Isola, Mississippi, arrived in Nashville at the time that Music City’s songwriting community was still in its infancy. He teamed up with a generation of professional songwriters who comprised “a select group of non-conformists who audaciously altered the form and content of country music.”
Cochran’s hits include “I Fall to Pieces,” “She’s Got You,” “Make the World Go Away,” “Don’t Touch Me,” “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me,” “That’s All That Matters to Me,” “Set ’Em Joe,” “Ocean Front Property,” and “The Chair.”
As Young explained, Cochran was put in an orphanage at age nine after his parents divorced. He hitchhiked to New Mexico in his mid-teens to work on oil rigs, and eventually he landed in Los Angeles, where he began his songwriting career. He moved to Nashville in January 1960 at the invitation of Pamper Music, which had signed him to a songwriting contract while he still lived in California.
“Hank Cochran helped create the template for the professional Nashville songwriter,” Young said. “He set the standard for pithy lyrics that carry a world of meaning, many of which became the soundtrack for our lives.”
Alison Krauss and Gene Watson paid tribute to Cochran’s artistry by performing three of his best-loved songs. Krauss beautifully presented two sumptuous ballads, “Make the World Go Away” and “Don’t Touch Me.” Krauss recalled how she performed Cochran’s song “She’s Got You” at a 1995 celebration of the Grand Ole Opry at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Nervous about singing a song associated with the great Patsy Cline, Krauss was relieved and honored when a letter arrived from Cochran thanking her for singing his song and telling her how much he enjoyed her version.
“I couldn’t believe he’d take the time to write us and tell us we did a good job,” Krauss said. “It made me feel real good. I’m so happy to be here to help honor him.”
Watson pointed out that he admired Cochran’s recordings, which often get overlooked because of his impact as a songwriter. “He’s one of the greatest songwriters ever, but I don’t have to tell you that,” Watson said. “I loved him as an artist before I ever knew what a great songwriter he was.”
Whenever he recorded a Cochran song, Watson said he felt a special pressure to do it justice, because the songs were so well written. “I feel the same way tonight,” Watson said before performing “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me.” “I hope I can do it justice.”
Country Music Hall of Fame member Bobby Bare officially inducted his friend, saying he first met Hank Cochran in 1954 in Southern California. Bare joked about Cochran’s penchant for falling in love and getting married, but that the marriages never lasted long. That ended when he married Suzi Cochran in 1981, with whom he spent twenty-nine years.
Bare also heralded Cochran’s tenacity as a song-plugger. He had an uncanny knack for knowing when an artist was going to be successful, Bare said, and would go as far as moving in with the singer in order to get one of his songs recorded.
“Hank could feel things nobody else could feel,” Bare said. “He was a brave man, because he wasn’t afraid to fall in love … and when it all went south, he wasn’t afraid to throw it out there and tell people how it felt.”
Suzi Cochran, in accepting the award for her late husband, said, “It breaks my heart that it’s me standing here and not Hank.”
She thanked the CMA for making two of Cochran’s dreams come true. “One of course was to become a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame,” she said. “The other was to hear Alison Krauss sing one of his songs.”
Suzi also read a letter Cochran wrote to his first wife, Shirley, in 1960, when he despaired about a lack of success and how he was ready to give up. A year later, he had written a #1 song, “I Fall to Pieces,” for Patsy Cline. His advice to young songwriters, she said, was that if you believe in a song, never give up.
Young, in introducing the segment of the program honoring Milsap, told of the hardships facing a young boy born into harsh poverty and nearly blind—he lost his eyesight completely after a beating by an instructor at a school for the blind. His parents had left him at the school in hopes he could be taught the skills to survive on his own. His induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame proved that he succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
“Although raised poor in Appalachia,” Young said, “Ronnie Milsap busted country stereotypes when he came to Nashville in 1972 with a musical background steeped in classical, pop, and rhythm-and-blues music.”
Despite having previously recorded R&B and pop, country music embraced his talents in ways other genres hadn’t. “Nashville proved to be the right place,” Young said, “for a singer and pianist possessed of a soulful tone and a broad vocal range.”
Having scored forty-nine Top Ten hits from the 1970s through the 1990s, Milsap “has been a country music superstar for decades now,” Young said. “Tonight, he takes his rightful place with other legends, for all time.”
For the musical tribute, soul legend Sam Moore, of the Memphis duo Sam & Dave, drew a thunderous crowd reaction when he came out to perform Milsap’s #1 hit “Lost in the Fifties (In the Still of the Night),” with Gill on harmony vocals.
Moore recounted a night in 1965, in Washington, D.C., when he first encountered the pianist and singer. Hearing him from the wings, he walked to the stage and was shocked to find that such a soulful artist was white. The two have been friends ever since, Moore said.
Contemporary country star Hunter Hayes followed Moore, citing the song he performed, “(There’s) No Gettin’ Over Me,” as one of his longtime favorites. “There’s something about Ronnie Milsap music—there’s no part you don’t want to sing along with,” Hayes said. “I’ve sung this song a million times. I’m so nervous that I might miss it up, but I don’t care, it’s an honor to be able to sing it here for Ronnie.”
Martina McBride provided the final Milsap tribute, testifying how effortlessly Milsap can use his broad vocal range. For her song, she chose “(I’d Be) a Legend in My Time.”—“because I’ve known it my whole life,” she said, “and I feel like it’s part of my soul.”
Brenda Lee provided the rite of induction for Milsap, filling in at the last minute for Reba McEntire, whose father died Thursday. Lee proved an appropriate choice, as she told of getting an invitation to hear Milsap sing when he first arrived in Nashville in 1970. She recognized right away what a talent the blind artist was.
Although they have been friends for decades, Lee said, “I’ve never really had the opportunity to share with Ronnie what a true, true appreciation I have for his rise in this industry as a musician and artist.”
Lee also acknowledged the importance Milsap’s wife, Joyce, in his success, saying no tribute to the new Hall of Fame member “would be complete without honoring his wife.”
Milsap, in his acceptance speech, gratefully acknowledged how important family has been to him. “My wife was the one who, when we were living in Memphis, said, ‘We are going to move to Nashville.’ I said, ‘Why? We’re doing pretty good here in Memphis.’ She said, ‘You’re going to do a lot better.’”
He cited the importance of his manager Jack Johnson, music publisher and producer Tom Collins, RCA producer and label executive Jerry Bradley, producer Rob Galbraith, session musician Charlie McCoy, and fellow artist Charley Pride, all of whom helped him early in his career. “Thank you so much for having me in the Country Music Hall of Fame,” he concluded. “It’s a true honor.”
Considered country music’s most prestigious event, the Medallion Ceremony represents the official induction of new Hall of Fame members.
Sunday’s event started with a red-carpet arrival before a vocal crowd of more than a thousand fans, who snapped photos and gathered autographs on a sunny Sunday afternoon outside the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
The ceremony moved inside to the CMA Theater, the museum’s 800-seat theater. A private celebration, the Medallion 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 keyboardist John Hobbs. The band included drummer Eddie Bayers, pedal steel guitarist Paul Franklin, electric guitarist Steve Gibson, bassist Michael Rhodes, fiddler and mandolinist Deanie Richardson, guitarist Biff Watson, fiddler and harmony singer Laura Weber Cash, and guitarist and harmony vocalist Jeff White. Saxophonist Mark Douthit joined the band for Milsap’s musical tribute.
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, Ralph Emery, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Brenda Lee, Charlie McCoy, Jo Walker-Meador Randy Owen of Alabama, E.W. “Bud” Wendell, and Curtis Young and Ray Walker of the Jordanaires.
The audience also observed a moment of silence in memory of Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers and Ray Price, two Hall of Fame members who had died since the last Medallion Ceremony.
Steve Turner, chairman of the museum’s board, noted that it was appropriate that the Hall of Fame induction ceremony take place in the CMA Theater—built thanks to a $10 million donation 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, “where the bronze likenesses of Mac,
Hank, and Ronnie will be forever enshrined, and where their stories and songs will be archived in perpetuity.”
Sarah Trahern, CMA chief executive officer, noted that country music has changed over the fifty-three-year history of the Country Music Hall of Fame honor’s existence. However, she added, “ the foundational truths have remained untouched by time” and that entry into the Hall of Fame continues to be “forged by innovation, creativity, and a fearless commitment to excellence.”
The evening ended, as always, with a performance of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” led by Milsap on vocals and piano, and featuring Wiseman, the evening’s performers, and all of the Hall of Famers in attendance. For the first time, the singers were joined by the Bethlehem United Methodist Church Chancel Choir, led by director Joe Smyth.
Accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum is operated by the Country Music Foundation, a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) educational organization chartered by the state of Tennessee in 1964. The museum’s mission is the preservation of the history of country and related vernacular music rooted in southern culture. With the same educational mission, the foundation also operates CMF Records, the museum’s Frist Library and Archive, CMF Press, Historic RCA Studio B and Hatch Show Print®.
More information about the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum is available at countrymusichalloffame.org or by calling (615) 416-2001.