Don Williams and Jimmy Dean, two vocalists who approached their public presence from very different angles, were officially inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame Sunday night in front of family, friends and a rather elite set of peers.
A singer, comic and television pioneer, Jimmy built his career as a multi-faceted entertainer. Don worked several detail-oriented jobs before his breakthrough — he was a co-partner in a furniture store and an office administrator — and he made his public mark in a workman-like manner, eschewing the party circuit and putting his efforts into finding and delivering well-constructed songs.
Neither singer was able to claim his medallion in person. Jimmy died in June, just a few months after he was told in a phone call that he would have a bronze plaque enshrined with his likeness in the Hall of Fame’s Rotunda alongside such fellow performers as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and Jimmy’s childhood idol, Gene Autry.
Hall of Famer Bill Anderson recalled during his induction speech that Jimmy phoned him in shock shortly after he’d been informed of his membership in the Hall: “He said, ‘Bill-o, I never thought I’d make it… I figured I’d pissed off too many people down there!’”
Don had planned to be on hand for Sunday’s ceremony. In fact, he put together a small concert tour and played Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium twice in the week leading up to the big day. But he “battled through” those shows, manager Robert Pratt told visitors at the induction, and was laid up with a mild case of bronchitis.
“He’ll be very proud and very honored when I give him this [medallion] tomorrow in Texarkana,” Robert said.
The induction was the first held in the Hall of Fame’s Ford Theater since it took in water during the Nashville flood in May. As a result, Sunday’s concluding number — the traditional induction finale, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” — held extra meaning. That same song was performed by a gaggle of stars when the Grand Ole Opry House reopened in September after nearly five months of closure. All the Hall of Famers who were on hand Sunday delivered an unkempt version of the song with Emmylou Harris and Charlie Louvin trading harmonies during one off-the-cuff moment.
But that song was preceded by some well-thought-out tributes. Don’s catalog was represented by Chris Young’s faithful version of his signature hit, “I Believe In You”; Alison Krauss’ delicate take on “I’m Just A Country Boy”; Joey + Rory’s reverent rendition of “Amanda”; and Del McCoury’s bluegrass rendering of “Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good.”
Don’s legacy is getting additional recognition these days. Keith Urban frequently cites his stomping arrangements as a major influence on the tone of his current recordings. And Josh Turner’s latest single, “I Wouldn’t Be A Man,” is a remake of one of Don’s 1980s ballads.
Jimmy was hailed by Trace Adkins and the Jordanaires teaming up on the million-selling “Big Bad John,” in which the house band’s musical director — Biff Watson, who played guitar on many of Don’s hits — recreated the trademark pick-axe sound by banging a hammer against a percussion block suspended from a hanger. That’s the same way the sound was generated by Hall of Famer Floyd Cramer in the original recording.
Dailey & Vincent turned in a version of Jimmy’s almost-Vaudevillian “Harvest Of Sunshine”; singer-songwriter Shawn Camp folded light swing and country-blues into “Bumming Around”; and Roy Clark botched a few lines — as he warned he might — while taking on the fistful of lyrics in “Little Black Book.” The performance was enhanced by Hall of Famer Charlie McCoy’s gliding harmonica solo.
“Well, I made it to the end,” Roy said, laughing off the challenging rhyme scheme. “If I had-a done it right, it wouldn’t make the papers tomorrow.”
As much cheer as the night encompassed, however, it had its touching moments. Bill Anderson, in particular, got choked up several times as he honored Jimmy with an eloquent speech. Jimmy was known as a strict, demanding character, but Bill recounted numerous acts of generosity the late singer extended to people without fanfare. Bill took note of the words in “Big Bad John,” a song in which a heroic miner is honored as “a big, big man.”
“He didn’t have a thing,” Bill whispered, “on Jimmy Dean.”