By Vernell Hackett
It’s not often that I get to attend two of my favorite events in Nashville’s music community back to back, but it happened recently with the Country Music Hall of Fame Medallion Ceremony and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. These ceremonies honor the best of the best and are amazing evenings to be a part of.
COUNTRY MUSIC HALL OF FAME MEDALLION CEREMONY
Jerry Reed, Alan Jackson and Don Schlitz became the latest inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and what a program it was to honor these great singers and songwriters. It started off with the red carpet arrivals, including the honorees and current Hall of Fame members including Bobby Bare, Kris Kristofferson, the Oak Ridge Boys, Charlie Daniels, Bobby Braddock, Bill Anderson and Charlie McCoy. (I have to say that Charlie McCoy’s recording of “Shenandoah” is still one of my favorite renditions of this song ever)
Bare and Kristofferson walked the carpet together. Bare welcomed Reed into the hallowed Hall later in the evening. He also sang “Come Sundown” when Kristofferson was inducted into the Hall. The two concurred that their friendship goes back to the 60’s, when Kristofferson arrived in town. “I love talented people. I love songwriters. I knew Kris had that talent when I first heard his songs,” Bare said. The two were introduced by the late Jack “Cowboy” Clement, also a member of the Hall of Fame.
Reed’s daughters, Lottie Zavala and Seidina Hubbard, asked that Bare do the induction of their father into the Hall of Fame. Reed and Bare were fishing buddies, as well as peers with their music, so it was a very appropriate choice. Zavala and Hubbard said after the announcement that their father was to become a member of the Hall of Fame, people called and started sharing their stories about the singer, actor and musician. “We’ve learned even more about Dad and Mom from all that,” said. “We didn’t really know what a celebrity our dad was, because when he was home he was just dad. We knew he went out and sang, but when ‘Smokey and the Bandit (movie) happened, that was when it really hit us. And then I learned so much from his friends, and anyone he met he really touched, and so we’ve heard such beautiful stories about him.”
As to what her father might have said, she quoted something he told her before he passed away. “I hope I’ve entertained the folks, and helped them forget their worries for a little while, and left them feeling better than when they came through the door. I hope I’ve made a difference, and I hope I’ve left your mama, and you girls, proud.”
Part of what makes the evening so special are the performers who honor the new inductees by playing some of their songs. Tommy Emmanuel, John Knowles and Steve Wariner performed Reed’s instrumental, “The Claw,” with the name indicating his finger-picking style of playing guitar. Ray Stevens, who first met Reed in Atlanta when they were young artists, then took to the stage to sing “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot.” Jamey Johnson, who has his tour bus wrapped with a graphic of the famous 18-wheeler Reed drove in “Smokey and the Bandit,” performed “East Bound and Down,” a hit from the movie soundtrack.
Schlitz, who wrote hits including Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler,” Randy Travis’ “On The Other Hand” and Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “I Feel Lucky,” was honored later with Chapin singing “When You Say Nothing At All,” a hit for the late Keith Whitley in 1988 and again with Alison Krauss & Union Station in 2002. Schlitz’s pals, Fred Knobloch and Thom Schuyler were joined by Jelly Roll Johnson and one of country music’s most awesome newcomers, Charlie Worsham, who performed “Oscar the Angel,” a song that written by Schlitz about a homeless man he knew back in his hometown. Aloe Blacc and Hall of Famer Vince Gill performed “The Gambler,” followed by Gill officially welcoming Schlitz into the Hall of Fame.
Schlitz had his grandsons to pay attention to what he was going to say next, and by asking all the people in the room who had written with him, or cut one of his songs, or played one of his songs, or listened to one of his songs, he had the entire audience on their feet. “This is an unbroken circle. Each and every one of you who represented me in some way, this is my turn to represent you. This honor is not for me alone. It is for all of us.” Turning to his grandchildren, he told them, “No one does this alone. In your life, be a part of something bigger than yourself.”
Jackson, who has sold more than 60 million albums and had 34 number one hit singles, was serenaded with his tunes by Lee Ann Womack, who performed “Here in the Real World,” and Alison Krauss, who sang “Some Day.” George Strait performed the final song for Jackson, “Remember When.”
Jackson had a very special person he wanted to bring him into the Hall of Fame – Loretta Lynn. Although the singer is recovering from a stroke, she said she would most certainly be there. “You know, I wouldn’t do this for anyone else,” Lynn said to Jackson when she came on stage, escorted by George Strait. It was the first time she had left her home since she had the stroke. She added, “When I first met Alan, he looked like a scared little boy. He was backstage going through his songs. And I remember looking at him and saying, ‘You’re going to be one of the greatest singers in country music.’ He hasn’t let me down.” Later in the presentation, she told Jackson, “You should be Here (Hall of Fame.)”
Obviously moved that Lynn could come out for the Hall of Fame ceremony, Jackson gave her a big hug after the induction, then said to the audience, “Loretta Lynn said I should be here. That’s all I needed to hear. Now it’s official.”
The evening ended as it always does, with a performance of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” led by Connie Smith, joined by Jackson, Lynn and Strait.
NASHVILLE SONGWRITERS HALL OF FAME INDUCTION CEREMONY
Songwriters are some of my favorite people. It’s all Bobby Bare’s fault, really, because he told me I should interview songwriters because they were a lot of fun. I took his advice to heart and years later, I’m still glad that I did.
The Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame introduced five new members into its Hall of Fame – Jim McBride, Walt Aldridge, Dewayne Blackwell, the late Vern Gosdin and Tim Nichols. It was a night of great respect for the talent in the ballroom at the Nashville Convention Center, as most of the people who spoke commented on how much creativity and talent could be felt in the room that probably had more songwriters in it at one time than gather at any other time in Nashville.
Mac McAnally inducted Aldridge into the Hall of Fame, citing the numerous hits he has written, including Earl Thomas Conley’s “Holding Her and Loving You,” Travis Tritt’s “Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde” and Ronnie Milsap’s “(There’s) No Getting Over Me.” As might be expected, Aldridge was in his studio working when he got the news that he would be of the new inductees. “It’s the best for a songwriter, it’s what you dream of as a songwriter, being recognized by the people that you respect the very most.” Aldredge said the class of 2017 inductees were very special for him, because he had written with the guys who were being inducted alongside of him, and had a song recorded by Vern Gosdin.
“It really is a community here in Nashville. I’m a Muscle Shoals, Alabama guy, but they’ve never been exclusionary in that way. They’ve always let us come up here, bring songs and try to be a part of the community here. I lived here for ten years, but other than that I was a commuter. Seeing these guys, knowing we have a past, that makes it that much more special that you’re not in a room with a group of strangers.”
In accepting his award, Aldridge said he wondered when he moved back to Muscle Shoals if he would be forgotten, but the honor answered that for him. “Not only did you punctuate my career, you ended it with an exclamation point.”
Performing songs that Aldridge wrote were James LeBlanc and Earl Thomas Conley. LeBlanc performed the Tritt tune, “Modern Day Bonnie and Clyde,” to a rousing round of applause. Before Conley sang “Holding Her and Loving You,” his guitar player noted that of all the songs they do in concert, this is the one that gets the most applause and reaction. Conley received a standing ovation for his performance.
Blackwell was unable to attend because of his health, and his son, Gentry, accepted for him. Craig Campbell performed the Garth Brooks hit, “Friends in Low Places,” encouraging the audience to sing along with him, which they did with enthusiasm. The Bundys performed one of Blackwell’s older copyrights, “Mr. Blue.”
Gentry recalled to the audience that his dad was insistent that each word have a perfect rhyme, and there were very few exceptions to that rule in his songs. He cited “I’m Gonna Hire A Wino,” where he finally had to leave the lines alone that went, “And for you I’ll always keep in stock those soft aluminum cans … and when you’re feeling macho you can crush them like a man.” He added that his father was heartbroken that he could not be there to accept the award in person, and that he wanted to thank everyone responsible for making his induction in to the Hall of Fame possible.
McBride has a catalog of songs that have been cut by everyone from Conway Twitty giving him his first cut with “A Bridge That Just Won’t Burn” to Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee.” His friend and fellow songwriter, Jerry Salley, had the honor of welcoming McBride into the elite organization. Salley painted a picture of the man who was a mail carrier in Alabama before he got that first cut, “but it didn’t take him long to make the move to Nashville once there was an interest in his songs.” To date, he went on to say, McBride’s songs have sold 70 million records.
McBride was having lunch with a friend with plans to go out to a cemetery and look at old graves. He got a call from friend and fellow songwriter Pat Alger, who told him he would be among the 2017 inductees into the Hall of Fame. “I thought I was gonna cry,” McBride says. “There’s nothing left to prove at this point … and to know that the writers that you respect so much feel that you should be part of that is really special.”
McBride had been nominated last year but didn’t make the final inductees. “I resigned myself that my time had passed, so this was a real surprise, I still can’t believe it. There are people like Curly Putnam, Bill Rice and Jerry Foster, Bobby Bare, all who encouraged me early on. I think I was the last writer that Buddy Killen signed to Tree before he left. Keith Whitley was there, and he and I were writing, and Curly said I should sign with them, so I went over there.”
While others helped him, McBride had a good run with a young man from Georgia that he agreed to write before hardly anyone knew his name. He and Alan Jackson wrote a good run of hits, including “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow,” “(Who Says) You Can’t Have It All,” and of course “Chattahoochee.”
“Alan was writing with Charlie Craig, who was signed to the same company where I was signed. I would come in the office and there was this tall guy with a white cowboy hat and cheap boots … I bet he doesn’t have cheap boots anymore! So we would speak and I thought this guy looked like he might be a star. Alan was a big Keith Whitley fan, he knew that song and he knew my other cuts, and one day he called and asked if I would write with him. I sure am glad I said yes. I like to think I helped him some and he helped me. It was a good combination. It was great having the experience of working with someone and watch them go from a songwriter drawing $50 a week to a superstar.”
Jackson performed a medley of McBride’s hits, and The Lonesome River Boys performed “Rose in Paradise,” a which was recorded by them, Waylon Jennings, and numerous other performers. During his performance, Jackson took the time to talk about writing with McBride, saying, “Jim was kind to share his talent with me. We hit it off pretty good, we had similar backgrounds, and I’m sure glad Jim took the time to write with me.”
Jackson went on to say he and Jim never dreamed “Chattahoochee” would be the hit it became, but “I discovered that just about everybody has a river they could identify the song with.” Then Jackson performed a song he and Jim wrote that he said was one of his favorites, and one of the coolest songs the two wrote together, “Hole in the Wall.”
Nichols’ hits include Trace Adkins’ “This Ain’t No Thinkin’ Thing,” Jackson’s “That’d Be Alright,” and Tim McGraw’s “Living Like You Were Dying.” Rusty Gaston lauded Nichols, saying that his songs have had 45 million performances on radio, meaning that if they were played back to back, it would take 270 years to listen to them.
Nichols was walking alone in Armstrong Woods, a redwood forest in northern California with 300 feet tall and a thousand years old. The call was from Pat Alger, who told him the great news. He will be joining Mike Reid, who was and continues to be one of his heroes, in the Hall of Fame. Other he listed as heroes are Tony Arata, Gary Burr, then buddies Craig Wiseman, Bob DiPiero and Jeffrey Steel, who he has been writing with for years. “I have to pinch myself and ask if it’s really happening.”
As he made his acceptance speech, Nichols turned around the phrase about opportunities coming along when doors open, into the opportunities that happened for him when doors closed when he thought he was on the right track. Thankfully, those opportunities took him to being one of the most sought after songwriters in Nashville.
Performing his hits songs were Lee Ann Womack, who sang an awesome version of “I’m Over You,” and Dustin Lynch, who sang his hit written with Nichols, “Cowboys and Angels.” He talked about going to see Nichols perform at the Bluebird Café and actually getting to shake his hand. “I never dreamed I’d get to write with him one day,” Lynch said. Then he performed the McGraw hit, “Live Like You Were Dying.”
Buddy Cannon welcomed his friend and co-writer, Gosdin, into the Hall of Fame. He recalled a neighbor telling him that some singer named Vern Gosdin had moved just a couple doors down from him. “The next morning I was knocking on his door,” Cannon remembered. The two became friends, and they spend a lot of time at Cannon’s house writing songs and hanging out. “He and Melanie (Cannon’s daughter) and I would sit around and sing “Golden Rings” for hours and hours, and Vern would rearrange the harmonies and we’d sing it again. We did the same thing with “If I Needed You,” that Emmylou and Don Williams recorded. That was during the “Chiseled in Stone” time, and he was popular on the radio, and we were writing some of the songs in my basement, some at his house and some at Hank Cochran’s cabin in Gatlinburg. Then he and Max D. Barnes were writing. It was just a nucleus of activity going on there.”
A video of Vern singing “Chiseled in Stone” on the Grand Ole Opry was played before Luke Bryan took to the stage. “Now I’m not going to sound like that,” Bryan cautioned the audience before recalling the first time he heard Gosdin’s name. “My sister and her boyfriend pulled up in the driveway, cigarette smoke billowing out of the car, and I thought to myself, ‘You are gonna be in so much trouble.’ So I asked her where she had been, and she said they had been riding around listening to Vern Gosdin. I remembered that name, thinking if my 16-year old sister liked him, he must be pretty cool.” Bryan then launched into a great rendition of “Set ‘Em Up Joe,” much to the delight of the audience.
What a great time it is when you can join others in celebrating the talent and creativity of the people in country music who have helped build the foundation of the music and those who carry it forward. Attending the events back to back made me appreciate these great artists and songwriters even more.