Two country singers who started off with record-breaking success, only to set aside their careers to raise families, and a blind piano player who became a studio luminary even though he couldn’t read charts, were welcomed into the Country Music Hall of Fame in the annual Medallion Ceremony on October 21, 2012.
Garth Brooks and Connie Smith both exploded onto the country music scene with their first recordings. Brooks broke all sales records for a solo artist within a decade, and Smith became the first female vocalist to score a #1 song with her debut release. Yet both stepped away from the limelight at the height of their fame to focus on raising children.
Hargus “Pig” Robbins overcame blindness to become known as one of the most essential and inventive instrumentalists in the Nashville studio system. Even though his disability kept him from reading studio charts, he adapted so well that he gained a reputation as a lightning-fast learner with a knack for adding brilliant keyboard embellishments to a countless number of hit country and rock recordings.
“Each of these performers is a gifted individual considered among the best in the world at what they do,” said Kyle Young, director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “Yet they share humility and a personal generosity. They are known as remarkable human beings as well as remarkable talents.”
The three artists shared the spotlight in accepting country music’s highest honor in an emotional ceremony filled with moving speeches and powerful performances by some of the biggest names in country, pop and rock music.
Considered country music’s most prestigious event, the Medallion Ceremony represents the official induction of new Hall of Fame members. After a red-carpet arrival before a vocal crowd of hundreds of fans, the ceremony moved inside the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum to the 213-seat Ford Theater.
Country star Vince Gill, president of the museum’s board of officers and trustees, opened with a performance of his original song “All Prayed Up,” a bluegrass-style gospel roof-raiser with Gill on mandolin and vocals, accompanied by guitarist and harmony singer Jeff White.
The audience at the private celebration was packed with fellow Hall of Fame members, who came to welcome the new inductees to their exclusive club. Hall of Famers in attendance were Bobby Braddock, Harold Bradley, Roy Clark, Ralph Emery, Jim Foglesong, Jimmy Fortune of the Statler Brothers, Gill, Merle Haggard, Emmylou Harris, Sonny James, Brenda Lee, Barbara Mandrell, Charlie McCoy, George Strait, Jo Walker-Meador, E.W. “Bud” Wendell and Ray Walker and Curtis Young of the Jordanaires.
Young also acknowledged the passing of three Hall of Fame members—Frances Preston, Earl Scruggs and Kitty Wells—in the last year. “Country music lost three of its greatest architects,” Young said. “And this institution mourns a trio of its best friends.” He then led the crowd in a moment of silence in their memory.
The performers for the Medallion Ceremony aren’t announced ahead of time, so each was a surprise to those in attendance. Ronnie Dunn, formerly of Brooks & Dunn, kicked things off with a rollicking take on the 1959 George Jones classic, “White Lightning,” the first country hit to feature Robbins on piano.
Playing off the song’s theme, Dunn came out carrying two Mason jars of clear liquid that he said was moonshine—or white lightning—passing one to bandleader John Hobbs and opening the lid on the other. “I’m going to try and set a record by drinking this much moonshine in a three-minute song,” Dunn cracked. He did take a few long sips from the jar during vocal breaks; more importantly, he sang the song with a rocking gusto.
Other performances honoring Robbins included Crystal Gayle singing her signature hit, “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” with Gordon Mote recreating Robbins’s great piano part. “Your magical touch to this song has been with me forever,” Gayle said. “You have meant so much to my career—my whole career.”
Following Gayle, Gene Watson perfectly intoned his honky-tonk standard “Fourteen Carat Mind” with Dirk Johnson taking the piano bench for the rendition. In his introduction, Watson emphasized the importance of Robbins in his musical career.
“Every #3, every #2, every #1 song I ever had, Pig Robbins played the piano on it,” Watson said. He told of recently working on an album where he re-recorded twenty-five of his biggest hits, with his producer Dirk Johnson taking Pig’s role on the songs. “Pig, you ain’t got no idea what we went through trying to duplicate some of those sessions. As much as I love you, I’m sure Dirk learned to hate you a little too.”
Johnson, from his piano bench, also spoke about Robbins’s influence on him as a country piano player. “The records I fell in love with in the country genre were Gene Watson, Ronnie Milsap, and Charlie Rich,” Johnson said. “I heard this piano on there, and to me it was the definition of what a great country piano was. I later found out, when I started buying records, that it was all the same guy.”
Hall of Fame member Charlie McCoy, who played alongside Robbins for decades in Music Row sessions, officially inducted his friend and fellow studio musician. He talked about the qualities that made Robbins stand out, including an amazing memory. “Before we started writing numbers down on sessions, many, many times, musicians—myself included—would go to Pig and say, ‘How did that bridge go?’ And he knew.”
He also noted how Pig memorized the floor plan “to a hundred studios,” and he told of a time when an electrical storm knocked out the power to the Quonset Hut studio, leaving everyone in the dark. When Pig found out what had occurred, he said, “OK, anyone who wants to go to the restroom, I’ll take you there for a dollar.”
McCoy then noted the endless number of recordings Pig played on, explaining that for all the hits that bear his piano, there were scores more that never became well-known. “With Pig, it didn’t matter if it was Tammy wannabe or Tammy Wynette, or Tex nobody or George Jones, he approached every song and every session with an excellence and passion and great taste,” McCoy said. “That was a role model for me to follow, I can tell you that for sure. The track record speaks for itself.”
Robbins came to the stage, assisted by his son David Robbins, to have McCoy place the medallion on his neck, signifying his official entry into the Hall of Fame. Reaching the podium, he quipped with typical humor, “Man, I’ll never get Charlie paid off for all that!”
Getting more serious, Robbins also showed his soft-spoken humility. “I’m so honored to become a member of this organization,” he said. “I can’t come up with the words to express myself. It’s really an honor to join in the musician category.” He thanked the producers who invited him to play on sessions and who “had confidence in me to get a good feel on a session or add a lick that would help them express a line better. I appreciate all of them.”
After his speech, Robbins called country star Ronnie Milsap to the stage. With Robbins on piano and Milsap on vocals, the two performed the Charlie Rich hit “Behind Closed Doors,” which includes a famed piano introduction originally created by Robbins.
Milsap recalled his first sessions, saying he demanded that Robbins play on his recordings. When his producer, Tom Collins, told Milsap that Robbins wouldn’t be available until the next week, Milsap retorted that they would have to put off the sessions for a week until Robbins could participate.
“He was always on my records, until I worked up the nerve to play on my own records,” Robbins said. “Pig, you had it all. You made me look so good.”
For Smith’s induction, Young recalled how the petite singer grew up as one of fourteen children in a sharecropping family that often struggled to get by. Yet she escaped those hardships through music, making a quick impression shortly after arriving in Nashville in 1963.
“You only need to hear Connie Smith once to realize why she is considered one of the great vocalists of her generation,” Young said. “But it takes listening through Connie’s deep catalog, or hearing her sing on stage night after night, to realize what a supreme interpreter of country music she has been throughout her career.”
The performances honoring the singer opened with Fort Worth’s Quebe Sisters Band, a personal favorite of Smith’s. The young sisters harmonized on a swinging version of Smith’s 1964 debut hit, “Once a Day.”
“I remember hearing ‘Once a Day’ for the first time and thinking, ‘If we could sing like that, our lives would be made,” said Sophia Quebe, who was joined by her sisters Grace and Hulda, all on fiddle and vocals, as well as guitarist Joey McKenzie and bassist Gavin Kelso.
Another family band, the Whites, joined voices on Smith’s “If It Ain’t Love (Let’s Leave It Alone),” which the trio recorded and had a hit with in 1985. Sharon White of the Whites remembered how regularly Smith’s songs were played on radio when they were growing up, and how they learned many of them. Cheryl White cited not only Smith’s standing as a singer who paved the way for all female country vocalists, but also her friendship and the support she has shown the White family. “You’ve loved us, you’ve coached us about how to be on the road and how to be on stage, and how to take care of our babies,” Cheryl said.
Then Smith acolyte Lee Ann Womack sang her idol’s “You’ve Got Me (Right Where You Want Me),” a song Smith co-wrote that was a favorite of Womack’s father, a former Texas country radio DJ. “All the girl singers want to sing like Connie,” Womack said. “Connie has it all. She has the great songs and the voice and the beauty. And I think what impressed me the most is she delivered all those things with such class.”
Smith accepted her honor from Country Music Hall of Fame member Merle Haggard, who came from California to personally induct Smith. “There’s a real close kinship between Connie and I,” Haggard said. “We’ve recorded each other’s songs over the years. We’ve come to know each other.”
Referring to her great voice, as everyone who spoke did, Haggard added, “I’ve admired her sincerity, and her spirit, and her commitment to traditional country music. If you’re talking country singing, there ain’t no better.”
Smith stood at the podium with characteristic poise and dignity, and started by saying that her sister Carolyn wore their mother’s ring to the ceremony. “So my mama’s here tonight as well,” Smith said.
Continuing, she added, “It is such an honor to be here. I feel like I deserve it the least because I didn’t aim for it. I wanted to sing and to feed my kids. I love my music, and I love my family. I believe with all my heart this was God’s destiny for me, to be a girl country singer. I will continue to be until he tells me otherwise.”
Smith then joined the band to sing “When I Need Jesus, He’s There,” a gospel song she recorded but has rarely performed. The spiritually rousing song, supported by harmony vocalists Dawn Sears and Jeff White, drew a long and loud standing ovation.
In discussing the immense impact of Garth Brooks, Young said, “He proved that there were no barriers to how many hearts and souls country music could touch. He proved that unprecedented numbers of people would hurry to buy a country album, line up for a country concert ticket, and tune into a country music TV special, whether it was broadcast from a football stadium in Texas or a park in New York City. By singing country music with passion, with conviction, and with emotion, Garth tapped into the music’s potential to move and inspire people the world over.”
For the performances, George Strait was the first to honor Brooks’s musical career, singing the Oklahoman’s first hit, “Much Too Young (to Feel This Damn Old),” a song about an aging rodeo cowboy struggling with the road and the bone-jarring demands of the profession.
Introducing the song, Strait said he had learned Brooks had “Much Too Young” when he came to town, and wanted to get it to Strait. “You just didn’t try hard enough,” Strait cracked, looking at Brooks in the front row. “I need songs like this. I’m honored to be able to sing it for you tonight.”
Next up, James Taylor surprised the crowd, who reacted loudly to his walking on stage after an introduction by Young. Joined by harmony singers Robert Bailey, Vicki Hampton and Brooks’s wife, Trisha Yearwood, Taylor performed “The River,” a #1 hit written by Brooks and Victoria Shaw.
“Garth, it’s a great honor to be here,” Taylor said before starting the song. When Yearwood contacted him to ask if he would perform at the ceremony, Taylor said he replied, “God, I wouldn’t miss it.”
The surprises continued when Bob Seger, another key influence for Brooks, emerged to sing “That Summer,” also co-written by Brooks and supported by the trio of background vocalists.
“What I admire about Garth is his passion,” Seger said. “He’s just never afraid to be passionate. I also love the fact that with his enormous success, his historic success, he’s still a really good guy. He wears it well.”
To induct Brooks into the Hall of Fame, Strait returned to the stage and echoed Seger’s comments. “I think passion best describes him,” Strait said. “He’s got it. You see it when he sings on TV or at concerts, and you’ll see it tonight when he speaks. I remember hearing about him on stage swinging on ropes and throwing things, and I said, ‘This is country music. Can you do that?’ He blew it up, man. Yes he could do that. And you can see it today in all the young acts that were influenced by you. It’s amazing.”
Wrapping up, Strait said, “I’ve always felt a connection to you, singing about rodeos and what not. And you just brought so many new fans to our music. It helped all of us.”
After Strait put the medallion around Brooks’s neck, the new Hall of Fame member stood at the podium, emotion already showing in his face. Brooks started by thanking God, and then his parents. “They were great, great people,” he said. “My mom believed you could fly, and my dad would pull you over right after and say, ‘If you’re going to do it, it’s going to take a hell of a lot of damn work.’”
He talked about the oil-field toughness that ran through his family, and how they often fought hard, yet he is thankful for it. But the fighting stopped when James Taylor’s music came into the house, giving the family a peaceful center to rally around. He also said that his parents worshipped Merle Haggard and George Jones, and Brooks said he looks at Haggard as “the greatest all around singer-songwriter, musician, entertainer, for me it’s Merle Haggard.”
He went on to credit Jones as “the greatest voice to grace country music,” and he recalled Bob Seger as offering the songs that helped move him from confused adolescence to mature adulthood. He remembered being back home during a break after his freshman year at Oklahoma State University, riding in a car with his father, and hearing Strait for the first time, singing his first hit, “Unwound.” “From that point forward, I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I wanted to be George Strait so bad.”
He raised up the “three musketeers” who handle the business side of his career—manager Bob Doyle, business manager Kerry O’Neill and attorney Rusty Jones. Brooks also talked of his producer and “best friend,” Allen Reynolds, engineer Mark Miller and the seven core musicians he uses in the studio on his sessions.
He ended by addressing his daughters—Taylor, August and Allie—as well as his wife and “soulmate” Trisha Yearwood. “You are the greatest things in my life,” he said. He then spoke of a Bible passage that says a man makes it to heaven through his wife. “I’ve got to say, Miss Yearwood, you’re my only shot.”
The evening ended, as always, with the Hall of Fame members and the evening’s performers going to the stage to sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”