Three visionary iconoclasts, whose creative skills altered the direction of commercial country music, were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame during a star-studded, profoundly emotional Medallion Ceremony on October 16, 2016.
Hosted by Country Music Hall of and Museum CEO Kyle Young and held in the museum’s CMA Theater, the annual ceremony paid tribute to country rock pioneer Charlie Daniels; music producer, publisher and Monument Records founder Fred Foster; and neo-traditional singer Randy Travis with speeches, live musical tributes and original video biographies. The artists paying tribute crossed generations and styles, underscoring the eclectic nature and groundbreaking stature of the three men being inducted.
“These three Tar Heels came to Tennessee and created music that enriched our lives and enhanced our culture,” said Young. “We are better for their presence and for their talents, and we are proud to hang their plaques in the Hall of Fame Rotunda.”
Musical tributes, with surprise guests, are a highlight of the Medallion Ceremony. Foster’s celebration began with Dolly Parton performing her first hit, “Dumb Blonde,” produced by Foster and released on Monument Records.
“If anybody deserves one of these medallions, you do.” Parton said to Foster. “You gave me a shot, and you were a gentleman when Porter Wagoner stole me away. You saw things in me that nobody else did. I hope that I made you proud.”
Whenever she reflects on the blessings bestowed upon her, Parton said, “I thank God. I thank the fans. And I thank you.”
Grammy-winning songwriter Brandy Clark performed “Blue Bayou,” which Foster originally produced with Orbison. Linda Ronstadt later transformed the song into a pop classic.
Kris Kristofferson, the last of Foster’s tribute performers, walked out with harmonica specialist and fellow Country Music Hall of Fame member Charlie McCoy to perform a touching version of his famous song, “Me and Bobby McGee.” The song’s inspiration, former Music Row office worker Barbara McKee (now Barbara McKee Eden by marriage), was in the audience.
A Hall of Fame member always inducts the newcomers, as a way of welcoming them to the elite group. Foster requested that Hall of Fame member Vince Gill make his induction official.
To begin the musical tribute to Daniels, Young spoke of the important role producer and record executive Bob Johnston, who died in 2015, played in the new inductee’s career. Johnston and Daniels co-wrote “It Hurts Me,” and Daniels moved to Nashville in 1967 at Johnston’s invitation.
Trisha Yearwood began the musical tribute to Daniels with a soulful version of “It Hurts Me,” recorded by Elvis Presley in 1964. Getting a cut by Presley was the first major breakthrough in Daniels’s career.
Jamey Johnson performed Daniels’ 1980 hit “Long Haired Country Boy.” With his hair several inches beyond his shoulders and a beard that reached his chest, Johnson said, “I started singing this song when I was in the marines. I didn’t have long hair then.”
For the last of the musical tributes to Daniels, Grand Ole Opry star Trace Adkins and fiddler Andrea Zonn took the stage to perform “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” “I got the hardest song to do,” Adkins said with a wry smile, before nailing the vocals. Zonn played the difficult fiddle parts with stunning virtuosity, drawing an ovation from Daniels who pointed at her as she bowed toward him.
Hall of Fame member Brenda Lee inducted Daniels.
Alan Jackson began the musical tributes to Randy Travis by explaining that he moved to Nashville in 1985 with the goal of bringing real country music back to the airwaves. “Nobody was carrying it on,” he said, but shortly after he got to town, Jackson heard Travis on the radio. “You opened the doors for a lot of guys and girls who wanted to record real country music,” Jackson said. “You made it easier for us.” Jackson went on to perform “On the Other Hand.”
Brad Paisley followed Jackson with a performance of “Forever and Ever, Amen.” Paisley noted that, in previous generations, there were country artists who emulated Roy Acuff, Lefty Frizzell, George Jones, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. “And there’s Randy, for my generation.” Addressing Travis directly, he continued: “To this day, you are still one of the greatest singers we’ve ever had. I am honored to do this for you today, pal.”
For the final musical tribute of the evening, Garth Brooks performed Travis’ hit “Three Wooden Crosses.” Following his performance Brooks welcomed Travis into the Hall of Fame. Tribute performers don’t usually do the induction as well but the Hall of Fame honored Travis’s request that Brooks take that role.
To accept his induction, Travis took small steps up the four stairs, fighting the effects of his stroke with help from his wife Mary and from Paisley, who came out from backstage to assist him. At the podium, he stood next to his wife as she read what he wanted to say.
She recounted the tragic circumstances of Travis’s stroke, which nearly took his life in 2013. “The doctors suggested we pull the life support,” said Mary. “I went to his bedside and asked if he wanted to fight some more. I knew he did. He squeezed my hand, and a little tear fell down his cheek. He and God had other plans.”
Doctors told the couple that Travis would never walk again and would be bed-ridden. Standing onstage he accentuated how he beat the odds.
Despite Travis’s ongoing struggle to speak, Mary and her husband sing every day. “Sometimes we sing the greatest redemption song of all time, and it fills us with God’s grace,” she said. That song is ‘Amazing Grace.’”
Mary Travis said that, for the first time since his stroke, she wanted to share her husband’s voice with those gathered to celebrate this special occasion. Her voice breaking with emotion, she said, “Please join us in singing ‘Amazing Grace.’”
Travis leaned into the microphone, his baritone voice strained but instantly recognizable. As he sang the first verse to a stunned crowd, many were too overcome with emotion to sing along. Taking more effort to speak than to sing, “Thank you,” Travis said, and after pausing for a breath, “for everything you’ve done.”
A thunderous standing ovation lasted for minutes, longer than any of the numerous ovations of the night.
The audience at the private celebration was packed with Hall of Fame members, who welcomed the new inductees to their exclusive club. Hall of Famers in attendance were Alabama members Jeff Cook, Teddy Gentry and Randy Owen, Bobby Bare, Harold Bradley, Garth Brooks, Roy Clark, Ralph Emery, Vince Gill, Kris Kristofferson, Brenda Lee, Charlie McCoy, Oak Ridge Boys members Duane Allen, Joe Bonsall, William Lee Golden and Richard Sterban, Dolly Parton, Charley Pride and E. W. “Bud” Wendell.
The evening ended, as always, with a performance of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Museum employee, ace guitarist Ben Hall, and harmonica maestro Charlie McCoy started the song, performing a verse and chorus while Hall of Fame members gathered at the front of the stage. The Oak Ridge Boys and Charlie Daniels took turns singing the verses, with the audience, the night’s guest performers, and the Hall of Famers joining in on the choruses.