By Bob Doerschuk
© 2009 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.
It was the kind of day that invites lingering outside: abundant sun, just enough breeze to keep the air fresh. But on this late afternoon of May 17, the place to be was past the red carpet that stretched from Demonbreun Street up the steps and inside its destination: the lobby of Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, where an Olympian assembly of music industry notables had gathered for the inductions of Roy Clark, Barbara Mandrell and Charlie McCoy as members of the Hall.
No greater distinction exists in the world of Country Music than membership in the Hall, founded by CMA in 1961 to honor the artists, songwriters and industry executives who had done the most to preserve and further this beloved genre.
These Medallion Ceremonies serve as rites of induction into the Hall. They represent a mixture of sometimes contradictory elements: Respect for tradition and even a hint of solemnity before the mantel of history coexist with the humor and informality that have established Country as a distinctively American genre. Just as saloon songs and hymns live together in the Country catalog, so does this temple open to a diverse congregation.
Shortly before 7 PM, as guitarist David Andersen brought another soothing, jazz-inflected treatment of a Country standard to its close, WSM Nashville radio host and GAC personality Bill Cody invited guests to file into the Ford Theater, where the special events began with a recording of Jerry Reed’s “The Claw” and a welcoming address from Steve Turner, Chairman, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The Museum’s Director, Kyle Young, promising an evening of “fellowship, incredible music, at least two fibs, tall tales and other stories,” introduced CMA CEO Tammy Genovese.
While noting that the honorees had each won multiple CMA Awards, Genovese focused on their contributions to Country Music on television. Observing that Clark and Buck Owens had co-hosted “Hee Haw” for 23 years, McCoy had served the same series for 18 years as Music Director and Mandrell had starred on her own variety show “Barbara Mandrell and The Mandrell Sisters,” she said “all three of tonight’s inductees looked at the way Country Music was presented on television and said, ‘We can make this even better. We can present Country Music to a mainstream audience with respect, love and even humor.’”
“That’s the example we at CMA try to follow each year when we produce the Festival TV special and present ‘Country Music’s Biggest Night’ – the CMA Awards,” Genovese continued. “It all boils down to the lessons we have learned from Barbara, Charlie and Roy.”
Each Medallion Ceremony includes memorable performances, and this one began with one that will not soon be forgotten. Much of that owes to the Medallion All-Star Band, featuring Eddie Bayers on drums, Paul Franklin on steel guitar and dobro, Brent Mason on electric guitar, Michael Rhodes on bass, Deanie Richardson on fiddle and mandolin and Jeff White on acoustic guitar and vocals, with keyboardist John Hobbs as music director. Dawn Sears, who joined the group as a backup singer through most of the evening, sang lead on their opening number, “The Old Rugged Cross,” beginning quietly with just voice and electric piano, building gradually through a crescendo and key change and peaking with a finish that triggered the first of the night’s many ovations.
Four more performances then set the stage for McCoy’s introduction. Rodney Crowell, backed by Sam Levine on tenor saxophone, sang a version of “Candy Man” that rooted into the roadhouse blues tradition; as Jim Hoke wrapped up his harmonica part at the end, he and McCoy, seated with Clark, Mandrell and their guests in the first row, pointed appreciatively to each other. This led to another exhibition of mouth-harp artistry, as Jelly Roll Johnson played “Today I Started Loving You Again” to a classic Country ballad feel; as soon as he hit the first notes of the tune, artfully and elegantly, McCoy smiled and bobbed his head to the groove.
The next performers held musical as well as sentimental value for McCoy, as Russ Hicks and Wayne Moss took to the stage. Both had played with McCoy in Barefoot Jerry, whose members represented some of the best young studio talent in Nashville. McCoy grinned again and flashed a “thumbs-up” sign as they delivered “Summit Ridge Drive” over a mean shuffle beat, with PT Gazell sitting in on harmonica.
And then the master himself stepped forward to perform “Shenandoah” with the taste and exquisite phrasing that would justify studio guitar giant Harold Bradley’s subsequent introduction of McCoy as, quite simply, “the greatest harmonica player in the world.” After Bradley inducted his longtime friend into the Hall of Fame, McCoy reminisced about highlights of his career, beginning with his move as a young man to Nashville. He hoped at the time for a break as an entertainer but changed his mind after Owen Bradley, Harold’s brother, brought him to his first recording session.
“I watched a 13-year-old girl recording a great record called ‘Sweet Nothings.’ She’s here tonight, a Hall of Fame member,” he noted, as Brenda Lee beamed in the audience. “And when I watched those Nashville A-Team musicians at work, I said to myself, ‘To heck with singing. I want to do this.’”
Three memorable performances followed, to set the stage for Clark. Duane Eddy filled the theater with his famous heavy-tremolo, low-note guitar sound in a galloping rendition of “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” Josh Turner interpreted “Thank God and Greyhound” impeccably, from the heart-tugging opening to the sudden swerve into a hilarious chorus. Garth Brooks spoke briefly about how Clark had inspired him personally as well as musically and then, with eyes closed and reaching deep down for inspiration, sang “Come Live with Me,” backed by the Carol Lee Singers.
A rousing welcome met Little Jimmy Dickens, back in action after surviving his recent ailment. His storytelling skills were razor-sharp as he regaled the room with a tale involving himself, Clark, their bands and a Volkswagen that met its watery end in a Las Vegas motel pool. And then he called his friend forward to accept his medallion; they held fast to a long handshake as cheers and applause washed over the stage.
Clark showed that he could also spin a yarn or two. But after delivering several punch lines, he became reflective as he looked back on his long run on “Hee Haw,” his many friends in the music industry and on what this evening would ultimately mean to him: “To be included with Barbara Mandrell and Charlie McCoy as the 2009 inductees, that in itself is worth the price.” He closed by strapping on his guitar for a performance of “Yesterday, When I Was Young,” practically speaking the vocals in the depth of his emotion and demonstrating with his solo that his fluid, melodic and jazz-inflected style as an instrumentalist is fully intact.
Tributes to Mandrell came in the form of a dramatic performance of “The Midnight Oil” by Alison Krauss, animated by extraordinary control of dynamics and interpretive intensity; a rollicking version of “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed” by Louise Mandrell, who subsequently blew a kiss and mouthed “I love you” to her sister from the stage; a smoky, soulful rendering of “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right” by Michael McDonald; and a commanding reading by Reba McEntire of “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool,” with McCoy joining the band on harmonica and George Jones making a surprise entrance to sing the last stanza, as he does on Mandrell’s original recording.
With dignity and eloquence, Ralph Emery eulogized Mandrell, recalled being introduced to her through Merle Travis and humorously summed up both her enthusiasm and commitment to faith with what he described as her favorite prayer: “God give me patience – and could you please hurry?”
After her induction, Mandrell spoke affectionately of the many who had shared her journey. At times she wiped away tears while sharing her love for her family and colleagues; when recalling her recently deceased father Irby Mandrell, she struggled not to succumb to the poignancy of the moment. Noting that he had managed her for 38 years, she said, “I’m deeply grateful to my Lord God Almighty that he allowed my daddy to be here at the press conference where it was announced that I was going to be inducted into the revered Country Music Hall of Fame, before he took my daddy to holy Heaven. I thank you with my entire being for putting me – and my daddy’s name – into the Hall of Fame.”
The traditional closing followed, as members of the Hall of Fame came to the stage to sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” This finale is always a reminder of how deep the well has been, with so many who have contributed so much brought together again. But signs were there as well that this story is far from over. This was clear hours before, among the fans who had cheered each dignitary’s arrival by the red carpet. A young boy stood there, a ball cap on his head, flicking a yo-yo while watching as his heroes arrived. When Dickens emerged from his limousine, he turned to his parents and said, with a smile, “Jimmy’s here. Now the party begins.”
In the hands of these fans, young and old, this party will continue through years to come.
The Country Music Hall of Fame Medallion and Induction Ceremony, underwritten by CMA, was taped for future broadcast by WSM/Nashville and GAC, which also provided simulcast and video support.