May 19, 2007

A conversation with Hargus "Pig" Robbins resembles his music: relaxed, soulful, and wholly distinctive.

The latest veteran musician honored in the Nashville Cats series, a regular program hosted by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Robbins spoke throughout the ninety-minute, multi-media presentation with humility and understated eloquence—two other qualities found in his music.

There also was an added element not apparent in his keyboard work but known to all those who've worked with him: The native of Spring City, Tenn., is a colorful storyteller with a hilariously dry wit.

Having played on countless country standards, Robbins helped the piano become a more prominent instrument as Nashville producers and record labels moved country music toward a sophisticated style that relied more on smoother, less down-home sounds. Robbins’s distinct style can be heard on the memorable introductions of Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors” and Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue,” and he also played on classic hits by Country Music Hall of Fame members Patsy Cline, George Jones, Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn, Roger Miller, Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty, Porter Wagoner, and Tammy Wynette, among others.

The May 21 program, attended by a rapt crowd in the museum’s Ford Theater, opened with a clip from Robert Altman’s famed film Nashville. In it, actor Henry Gibson, playing a rhinestoned country music star, struggles with a new, longhaired pianist named Frog who can’t get the musical passage right. Gibson’s character pitches a fit and demandsd that the producer get rid of Frog and find the pianist he had initially requested, bellowing, “When I ask for Pig, I want Pig!”

The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s curator of stringed instruments and host of the event, Bill Lloyd, followed the clip by telling the crowd that they were in luck, “because we’ve got Pig.”

In introducing the legendary Robbins, Lloyd touched on why he has remained in demand for several decades as Nashville’s first-call pianist for sessions in country music and beyond. “First, he’s a pleasure to work with,” Lloyd said. “Secondly, his musical instincts are unerringly on the mark.”

Robbins began by explaining how he’d lost his sight at age three, when he accidentally jabbed his father’s knife into an eye. After the eye was removed by a doctor, “the other one went out from what they call ‘sympathetic infection,’” Robbins related.

Attending the Tennessee School for the Blind in Nashville, Robbins began taking classical music lessons. A fan of the Grand Ole Opry and stars like Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, and Eddy Arnold, Robbins would sneak into the practice rooms during off hours to play country songs, boogie woogie, and Dixieland music.

He also picked up his memorable nickname at the school. He enjoyed climbing through an old, barrel-type fire escape in the school’s building. A school supervisor found him at the bottom of the fire escape one day, covered with the soot and grime of the barrel on his skin and clothes. “You’re as dirty as a little pig,” the supervisor told him. Other kids picked up on the name, and Robbins gained a new name. “It never has bothered me,” Robbins said.

As his talent grew, Robbins met some music business operatives, including record executive Murray Nash, who got him a musician’s union membership and began getting him session work. Lloyd played for the crowd some rockabilly recordings from the 1950s that the pianist recorded as “Mel Robbins,” but Robbins eventually focused his time on studio work. “I figured out I could make more money doing sessions than singing,” he said.

Music publisher and bassist Buddy Killen secured Robbins an invitation to play on a George Jones session in 1959, which led to the musician providing percussive piano figures on “White Lightning,” the first of many #1’s to benefit from Robbins’s contributions.

About that time, Nashville A-Team session pianist Floyd Cramer began a solo career, leaving an opening for Robbins’s talents. Before long, Robbins, too, became a member of the A-Team, working on songs around the clock with such regular session players as guitarists Harold Bradley, Ray Edenton and Grady Martin, drummer Buddy Harman, fiddler Tommy Jackson, and bassist Bob Moore, among others.

“It got to be crazy,” Robbins said, noting that daily sessions would take place from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., then 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., then 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., and sometimes again from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Because of Robbins’s blindness, he had to rely on cabs or personal drivers, making his schedule even trickier than that of his peers.

Robbins also periodically recorded solo albums, from 1960s albums like A Bit of Country Piano and Hully Gully to the Hits to a trio of albums in the 1970s. He also played on rock and pop albums by Paul Anka, Joan Baez, J.J. Cale, John Denver, Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler, Del Shannon, Neil Young, and others.

Robbins recalled that the rock sessions were often run more loosely than the tightly scheduled country recording work. Robbins characterized his work on Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde as “a lesson,” saying the session would be booked to begin at 6 p.m., but Dylan often didn’t arrive until 9 p.m., at which time he’d clear out the studio, and the musicians would walk the halls while the singer finished writing a song. Sometimes they wouldn’t begin recording until well after midnight.

Lloyd then introduced one of the hit songs from the session, “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” which included the chorus lyric, “Everybody must get stoned,” As the recording finished playing, Robbins chimed in, “And we were.”

Similarly, Robbins recalled going on tour with Neil Young in 1998 as a member of his band at the time, the International Harvesters. “We had some parties on that tour,” Robbins quipped. “I always considered myself a pretty good partier, but after two weeks with that crew, I wanted to go home.”

It wasn’t just the rockers who were wild, though. Robbins smiled when speaking of working with the late Roger Miller, for whom he recorded such hits as “King of the Road” and “Chug-a-Lug.” “With Roger, it was always fun,” the pianist said. “He was swinging from the rafters all the time. He’d come in, and we just hung on.”

Robbins also recalled the night he drove a fellow musician’s car down a Music Row alleyway. “Bob (Moore) and Ray (Edenton) got me stoned,” Robbins said to a burst of laughter from the crowd.  “I talked Willie Ackerman into letting me drive his car. I felt like I could do it.”

As Robbins eased the car down the narrow alley, he recalled how Ackerman said, “Maybe you should turn on the lights,” which also drew a round of laughter. Robbins began pushing buttons, he said, one of which sent the convertible drawing back, before finding the lights. He got to the end of the alley and into the street before Ackerman suggested that maybe he should pull over. “I didn’t hit any telephone poles or any cars,” Robbins said, “so I guess I did all right.”

One of Robbins’s great honors was being asked to play piano on sessions for other outstanding pianists, such as Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Charlie Rich. Robbins spoke of playing in a studio with Rich, saying, “He’s a great piano player. With him standing five feet behind me, there’s a real pucker factor, I’ll tell you.”

Lloyd recited the many awards Robbins has won over the years, showing a video clip of him accepting the 1976 CMA Instrumentalist of the Year Award, an honor he won again in 2000. For his part, Robbins explained his long-running status as one of Nashville’s leading musicians as having a knack for listening closely and fitting in. “If you’re going to be a good player, you have to come up with something that will complement the song and the singer,” Robbins explained.

At the end of the program, veteran bassist Dave Pomeroy presented Robbins with a special plaque from the Recording Musicians Association. “I’ve been lucky enough to hook up with Pig’s left hand a few times,” Pomeroy said. “It’s like riding in a Cadillac.”

The ninety-minute interview ended with Robbins getting a standing ovation and with an announcement that the Nashville Cats program will honor the great Nashville A-Team drummer, Buddy Harman, on August 18.

—Michael McCall