13 November 2007 — As night falls in Nashville, the skyline as seen from the lobby of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum transforms slowly, its silhouette flecked by lights in the deepening dark.
So it was on Oct. 8, as the Museum welcomed guests to the annual Medallion Ceremony to witness the inductions of Ralph Emery, Vince Gill and Mel Tillis into the Hall of Fame.
2007 Country Music Hall of Fame inductees Mel Tillis, Ralph Emery and Vince Gill at the Medallion Ceremony on Oct. 8, 2007, at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. Photo: John Russell / CMA
Founded by CMA in 1961, the Hall honors the individuals whose contributions to Country Music have been judged most significant by their peers. All inductees are chosen by CMA’s Hall of Fame Panel of Electors, consisting of more than 300 anonymous voters appointed by the CMA Board of Directors. Hall of Fame members were easy to spot among those who gathered in the vast, glass-roofed Curb Conservatory. Whether in formal or Western attire, each wore a black ribbon from which a handsome brass medallion hung.
There were 98 in this august group as the day dawned; by evening’s end, there would be 101.
A festive feeling took hold as the crowd filed into the Museum’s Ford Theater. Harold Bradley, Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers, Jim Foglesong, Sonny James, the Jordanaires’ Louis Nunley, Gordon Stoker, Ray Walker and Curtis Young, Charlie Louvin and former CMA Executive Director Jo Walker-Meador were among the previous inductees whose presence makes this annual event, in the words of Hall of Fame member E. W. “Bud” Wendell, Chairman of the Museum’s Board of Officers and Trustees, a “reunion.”
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell perform at the Medallion Ceremony on Oct. 8, 2007, at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. Photo: John Russell / CMA
It started with Boots Randolph’s “Yakety Sax” blasting into the room. As the tune faded, Museum Director Kyle Young stated, simply, “We miss Boots,” and the crowd cheered for the late A-Team mainstay.
Wendell commenced the cavalcade of music and memories by comparing Country Music to the legacy of Michelangelo – an audacious proposition that rang truer as the proceedings continued. Following this, Randy Scruggs performed his Grammy-winning rendition of “Amazing Grace,” which prompted Wendell to observe, “That’s what happens when Maybelle Carter was your babysitter.”
CMA CEO Tammy Genovese then shared her thoughts. “Induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame is the greatest honor bestowed on a Country Music artist,” she observed. “This is an appropriate and meaningful place for these gentlemen to receive the honor and accolades they deserve.”
Young responded by thanking CMA “for this honor and for the underwriting of staff support that made tonight a reality.” Then he noted that “the great Porter Wagoner had planned to be with us tonight. … Please keep the Wagonmaster and his family close to your heart and in your prayers. Let’s hear it for Porter,” he concluded, leading the room in an ovation for the beloved entertainer who, ironically, was in his last moments of life in hospice care, not far away.
Emery, Gill and Tillis, Young continued, had all “used the specifics of their life experiences to create a body of work that reflects an understanding of the cares and woes of their audiences as well as sympathy and solidarity with the need of all people to feel free from care, from want and from need, at least on a Saturday night. Who can count the numbers of people who’ve been comforted and uplifted, amused and relieved, or inspired and ready for another hard day, by the music and stories these men made available for so long? We recognize ourselves in this music and in these stories. That’s why we love them and why millions like us keep coming back for more.”
This message underscored every word spoken and note played over the next several hours. Artists performed songs honoring the careers of the new Hall of Fame members. Backing the performers were music director John Hobbs on piano and the Medallion All-Star Band, featuring drummer Eddie Bayers, steel guitarist Paul Franklin, harmony singers Tania Hancheroff and Wes Hightower, guitarists Brent Mason and Russ Pahl and bassist Michael Rhodes. The Great American Country television network taped the event, portions of which can be seen on upcoming episodes of GAC’s “Master Series.” The event was also taped for future broadcast by WSM-AM 650.
Tribute was paid first to Emery, through “You Gave Me a Mountain,” delivered as a chilling solo piece by Raul Malo. The Gaither Vocal Band then romped through “Yes, I Know,” and Con Hunley extolled Emery’s interview technique by recalling one night on his show at WSM.
“I’d invited this young lady over to dinner in my trailer,” Hunley said. “There was a place in the bathroom where the floor was rotted out, but the linoleum still covered it. All of a sudden, I heard this big scream … Anyway, I told Ralph about this when we were in the dressing room. We’d already discussed what we were going to talk about on the show – songs, my current single and all of that.
“Well, first pop out of the box,” Hunley said, “I sat down, and Ralph says, ‘What about that girl in the trailer?’” And as the laughter subsided, Hunley and the Medallion All-Star Band gave a steamy reading of “Since I Fell for You” that brought the room – not for the first or last time – to its feet.
Ray Stevens followed, with a story about an Emery radio contest that involved a chicken and a plane flight to Louisiana and an irresistible rendering of “Everything Is Beautiful.” Wendell then called Emery to the podium for his induction. Speaking with his customary dignity, Emery thanked his wife, Joy, for their 40 years of marriage and then quoted from a spiritual poem of gratitude, written by the late Hall of Fame member Tennessee Ernie Ford, whose final lines – “Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered / I am, among all men, most richly blessed” – touched something close to the heart of music as well as faith.
To open the next part of the ceremony, Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris sang “Some Things Never Get Old,” from Gill’s monumental These Days. Michael McDonald, joined by Gill’s band members Tom Britt, Dawn Sears, Billy Thomas, Pete Wasner and Jeff White, sang “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” his smoky vocal riding the slow gospel roll like a ship sailing home after too long at sea. Guy Clark walked onstage after that to perform “The Randall Knife” with a rugged eloquence that inspired Gill to leap from his seat and embrace his longtime mentor. And Al Anderson rocked Gill’s “Next Big Thing” with an energy that dared listeners not to party.
Introduced by Hall of Famer Whisperin’ Bill Anderson, mixing gentle humor with a profession of love for his wife Amy Grant, Gill confessed to still being surprised at his admission to the Hall. “Maybe it affirms the way I’ve tried to live my life, and that was trying to put everybody else first,” he mused. “I felt that’s the kindest way to live. And I enjoyed every role I was able to play in music. It never mattered if I was on the side; I just wanted to be in the band. I was just dumb enough to sing, and look at what happened.”
He did allow himself a flicker of satisfaction. “As I look around this room, I see so many fellow Hall of Famers,” he began. And then, after stopping for a moment, Gill beamed and said, “That felt … great!”
Tillis’ segment was preceded by Bobby Bare’s familiar yet powerful treatment of “Detroit City.” (“Here’s a song I never get tired of,” the denim-clad singer growled before Brent Mason hit the famous E-string opening lick.) Kenny Rogers then reminded listeners of the meaning behind another Tillis composition, “Ruby,Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” a meditation on the impact of the Vietnam War that still bears relevance. “Mel, I’ll just tell you this,” Rogers summed up. “A lot of people in this world can write great songs. Very few people can write important songs.”
Kenny Rogers performs at the Medallion Ceremony on Oct. 8, 2007, at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. Photo: John Russell / CMA
After performing, Rogers yielded the spotlight to Pam Tillis, who allowed that “so much of what I’ve done in my career has been an effort to make my Dad proud.” She performed “Coca Cola Cowboy,” Dierks Bentley followed by tearing through “I Ain’t Never,” and then it was time for Hall of Fame member Little Jimmy Dickens to come forward.
“You folks in our audience here tonight, if you’ve never seen Mel Tillis in concert, you’ve missed a lot,” the Opry legend said. “When he steps on the stage, he upgrades Country Music and the industry that we all love and stand for. Men like this are hard to come by, and I’m proud that Mel Tillis is my friend.”
With that, Dickens presented Tillis with his medallion. The newest member of the Hall spoke, with his impeccable comic timing, about his failure as a stuttering salesman for “Harrie’s Cookies” (“I wouldn’t eat a hairy cookie either,” he said), his appreciation for girlfriend Kathy DeMonaco and the other special people in his life, and finally for “this little angel on my shoulder” who had stayed with him through good and tougher times.
Country Music Hall of Fame members sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” at the Medallion Ceremony on Oct. 8, 2007, at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. Photo: John Russell / CMA
The inductions concluded with all Hall of Fame members in attendance joining in a performance of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and a promise to meet again next year, in harmony with the music that brings this circle together.