Election into the Country Music Hall of Fame is the peak of the country music mountain. Since 1961, when Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and songwriter Fred Rose were the inaugural Hall inductees (even before a permanent home for their bronze plaques had been built), more than 125 members have been enshrined, with artists, songwriters, studio musicians and other key industry figures now represented in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s spectacular rotunda. As the next inductees are set to be revealed tomorrow, Tuesday, March 29th, we look at 10 of the most likely — and worthy — candidates for Hall of Fame membership.
With 1990’s “Here in the Real World,” the soft-spoken Newnan, Georgia, native began a streak of major hits that rocked country jukeboxes for the next two decades. A three-time CMA Entertainer of the Year, Jackson kicked off his 25th Anniversary Keeping It Country Tour in 2015 and he’s been doing just that since moving to Music City in the late Eighties. He was elected to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2001 and, in what is probably the highlight of his career, responded to the September 11th terrorist attacks with the simple yet profoundly eloquent “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).”
With a heart-stopping voice and pure country songs to match, Randy Travis cut through country music’s post-Urban Cowboy malaise of the mid-Eighties and scored honky-tonk hit after honky-tonk hit, notching 11 memorable chart-toppers in just five years. Leading the charge for the neo-traditional boom of the mid-Eighties, Travis’s baritone voice carried with it a surfeit of personal baggage, a checkered past that gave him just that much more credibility. He is nothing less than a touchstone for country music of the Eighties and Nineties and could have been acknowledged years ago with Hall of Fame membership.
Hank Williams Jr.
The son of an American musical icon, the music business was nevertheless riddled with challenges for Randall Hank Williams. In 1975, he nearly lost his life in a fall off the side of a Montana mountain. That same year, he finally emerged from his famous father’s shadow with a breakthrough LP, Hank Williams Jr. and Friends, establishing himself as one of country’s early “outlaw” artists with a mix of country music and Southern rock. In 1987 and ’88, he became the first solo male artist to win the CMA Entertainer of the Year honor two years in a row. Rebellious and outspoken, he is living proof that a country boy can survive.
Where her sister Loretta Lynn’s songs conjured a hardscrabble, backwoods existence, Crystal Gayle (born Brenda Gail Webb) sang with a lush voice that exuded sophistication. Like Loretta, she was born in Kentucky, but Crystal was raised in Indiana. Although she first signed to Decca, the same label as her sister, her breakthrough came at United Artists, where her records were now produced by Allen Reynolds. Bathed in light, often jazz-tinged arrangements (especially 1977’s pop-country smash “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”), her many crossover hits were followed by forays into the Hoagy Carmichael songbook and the unlikely teaming with Tom Waits for 1982’s One From the Heart soundtrack. Her global success has undoubtedly helped raised the profile of country music.
As session musician he played bass on Bob Dylan’s landmark Nashville Skyline LP and early Leonard Cohen recordings. On his way to country-rock icon status, the versatile North Carolina-born musician has become a Grand Ole Opry member (in 2008) and staged several of his genre-defying Volunteer Jam concerts in Nashville and elsewhere. Politically, his 1973 pop hit “Uneasy Rider” and 1989’s “Simple Man” couldn’t be farther apart, but in between the two, Daniels’ crossover appeal coalesced with 1979’s fiddle-heavy “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” featured in Urban Cowboy. He joined the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 1999. He may no longer be a “Long Haired Country Boy,” but a generation of them no doubt owes Daniels some credit.
A precocious, hard-working teenager with an impossibly mature voice, Tanya Tucker graced the cover of Rolling Stone in 1974, noting that her great ambition was to be the female Elvis. Tucker’s material belied her tender years and her version of “Delta Dawn” roared into country’s Top Ten, the first of dozens of chart-scaling hits during a career that withstood greater challenges than impending adulthood. After years of high-profile romances and hard partying, she enjoyed a late-Eighties resurgence capped off by a CMA Female Vocalist trophy. She may not have ascended to rock royalty, but her reign as one of country music’s most distinctive, independent-minded artists kept the genre all shook up.
If Gram Parsons had done nothing other than provide an early showcase for the vocal talents of Emmylou Harris, his place in country-music history would be secure. While his support of Harris’s gift was a key factor in her early career, Parsons was, in spite of how Nashville’s old guard may have perceived him at the time, a dedicated disciple of Merle Haggard, George Jones and Buck Owens. His famous tenure with folk-rock pioneers the Byrds was brief, but his contributions, especially where country music was concerned, were pivotal. Although his life and career were short and deeply troubled, Parsons is now regarded as godfather to country’s burgeoning Americana movement.
Although she is often seen as a tragic figure in country music (earning that reputation having survived sexual abuse in childhood and financial ruin in the Eighties, only to perish in a 1991 car crash on her way to the Grand Ole Opry), the fact remains that West was a trailblazing singer-songwriter and performer. In 1965, she was the first woman in country music to win a Grammy, and in 1973, she turned a Coca-Cola jingle (“Country Sunshine,” which she co-wrote) into a hit single. Sure, other women have had more (and bigger) hits with longer-lasting, more illustrious careers, but few have packed them with as tough an emotional punch as West.
A seasoned pianist who toured with J.D. Sumner and the Stamps Quartet and the Oak Ridge Boys, among others, Brown went on to play with Elvis Presley’s TCB Band before joining Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band. His knack for spotting talent and finding and recording hits made him one of Music Row’s most respected producers and label chiefs. An architect of what Steve Earle would dub country’s “Great Credibility Scare” of the mid-Eighties, he signed and produced such left-of-center artists as Earle, Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith while at MCA Records. He’s also been responsible for most of the hits cut by Hall of Famers Reba McEntire and George Strait.