As we near the end of February and look forward to spring every year, it becomes time for the annual exercise to pontificate on who perhaps the CMA will deem worthy for induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. About this time the secret CMA-approved committee is going over their final ballots and whittling down the precious names to the few who will make it.
Unlike other Halls of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame tries to keep the institution distinguished by letting so few names in each year, a bad one never slips through. This has also caused a glut of good names being left out in recent years, always stirring controversy in itself. But it is very likely three more names will get in. Who could they be? We will probably find out in about a month or so. Until then, here are some ideas.
The Country Music Hall of Fame inductees are selected through a committee process appointed by the Country Music Association. Since 2010, the selection process has been split up into three categories. 1) Modern Era – Eligible for induction 20 years after they first achieve “national prominence.” 2) Veterans Era – Eligible for induction 45 years after they first achieve “national prominence.” 3) Non-Performer, Songwriter, and Recording and/or Touring Musician active prior to 1980 – Rotates every 3 years. With a Non-Performer, Fred Foster, selected in 2016, and a musician, Grady Martin, selected in 2015, it would be a songwriter’s turn up to bat in 2017. Songwriters can also be performers, but the spirit of the rule is to induct a songwriter who would otherwise not be considered for the Hall of Fame.
Since 2001, anywhere from 2 to 4 names have been added to the Hall of Fame each year. Usually one name from the above mentioned categories makes it per year, but if no name gets enough of a majority vote, a category may not be represented in a given year. Or, if two names get enough votes from a category, then both may come from that category.
Another rule worth mentioning, especially after all of the high-profile deaths in country music in 2016, is that no candidate is eligible for the Hall of Fame a year after they pass away. This is to avoid sympathy votes in the aftermath of an artist passing away, though in recent years this has also accelerated artists being inducted before they die to avoid the one year penalty.
Potential Modern Era Inductees
One of the biggest questions always looming over the Modern Era category is where you start the clock. Artists like Alan Jackson and Ricky Skaggs who seem like shoo-in’s eventually are most certainly Modern Era nominees. But how about Hank Williams Jr.? He could be either a Modern or Veterans era nominee. Last year Charlie Daniels was inducted into the Hall of Fame, but in the Veterans Era category, even though Saving Country Music and others had him as a Modern Era candidate.
• Last Year’s Modern Era Inductee: Randy Travis
• Saving Country Music Prediction: Alan Jackson (for the third year in a row)
• Saving Country Music’s Final Ballot: Alan Jackson, Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, Dwight Yoakam, Hank Williams Jr. if he’s considered Modern Era.
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Alan Jackson: Jackson was first eligible in 2013. A huge commercial success, Jackson has sold 80 million records and amassed 35 #1 singles, and has always payed homage to the roots of the genre and the artists who came before him. Jackson is a guarantee for The Hall eventually, and should be considered a strong candidate for this year. He’s well-liked, and has a total of 16 CMA Awards, including 3 Entertainer of the Year wins. Though being named the Hall’s “Artist-in-Residence” is in no way associated with induction, it sometimes has been a precursor to the distinction, and Jackson was named to the residence post in 2014. One possibly hiccup might be Jackson’s propensity to not play nice at awards shows, including when he performed George Jones’ “Choices” in protest at the 1999 CMA Awards, his 1994 ACM Awards protest when he was asked to play to a backing track, and even last year at the CMA’s when he walked out on Beyoncé. But all of this will eventually be water under the bridge. Jackson will get in. The question is, will 2017 finally be his year?
Ricky Skaggs: Ricky Skaggs is the artist that has felt like he’s been right on the bubble of being inducted over the last few years. Skaggs has bookended his career as a mandolin maestro, he studied under Bill Monroe, and is now firmly ensconcing himself as a country music elder. In between he had tremendous commercial success in the 80’s when country was searching for its next superstar. Few could argue with this pick and Skaggs is very well liked across country music. And Skaggs has been named a Hall of Fame “Artist in Residence” previously. Though he felt like a frontrunner in previous years, now that the Modern Era is so front loaded, it may be difficult for voters to select Skaggs ahead of some of the commercial powerhouses like Alan Jackson or Brooks & Dunn. But you don’t just need success to get into The Hall, you need allies. And Ricky Skaggs has plenty of those.
Dwight Yoakam: You’d think with 25 million records sold, his name would be more associated with Hall of Fame distinction, or maybe he’s considered a niche act by those in Nashville. Yoakam’s contributions, despite the gaudy sales numbers, comes in the influence he had in country music in his time, and that he still wields today over generations of performers. Dwight Yoakam made country music cool to millions on the West Coast and beyond, just like Hall of Fame Buck Owens and other Bakersfield legends did. Dwight’s also not showing any signs of slowing down, and has earned additional stripes as a country music ambassador through his acting career. As top heavy as the Modern Era is at the moment, Dwight remains a long shot, but someone to consider for future years.
Brooks & Dunn: The duo was a commercial powerhouse if there ever was one, though their career was somewhat overshadowed by the success of Garth during the “Class of ’89” era. Their first album Brand New Man sold 6 million copies, and they won the CMA for Vocal Duo of the Year every year but one between 1992 and 2006—a pretty incredible feat. Their success is not debatable, but did they have the type of influence to be considered over others in such a crowded field? And does the fact that they’re no longer a functioning act hurt them, or are they helped by the fact that they’ve had a few reunion shows lately, Ronnie Dunn has a fairly successful solo career, and Kix Brooks has become one of the strongest voices in country radio through his Countdown show? A few more names may have to tick off the list before its their turn, but they have to be considered serious contenders.
Keith Whitley: To get into the Hall of Fame, you don’t just need a good resume, you need a good, dedicated push and a promotional campaign that can get the attention of the right people on the committee and make a strong case for the induction. That is what fans of Keith Whitley have put together over the last two years. A group named “Induct Keith Whitley into The Country Music Hall of Fame” has started a campaign to try and get the Kentucky-born singer and songwriter who died tragically in 1989 into country music’s most elite class. It has set up an online petition and is asking Keith Whitley fans to add their voices and signatures in support of the effort. Keith Whitley started in country music as a member of Ralph Stanley’s bluegrass band. In 1988, Whitley had two #1 singles “When You Say Nothing At All” and “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” off the album Don’t Close Your Eyes, and was expected to become a superstar in country music in the coming years. However on May 9th, 1989, Keith Whitley died of what was ruled as alcohol poisoning, and never got to reap the rewards of the career he’d worked to build. He was 34-years-old. Garth Brooks specifically named Keith as someone he believed should have been inducted before him.
Kenny Chesney As weird as it may seem Kenny Chesney was officially eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2015. He released his first major label album with BNA 22 years ago and had two Top 10 singles, “Fall In Love” and “All I Need to Know.” It’s hard to see him as a serious contender until a few other names tick off the list, principally Alan Jackson, but stranger things have happened. Consider this: Chesney has been country music’s only active and consistent stadium draw for the last decade. Taylor Swift and George Strait have moved on, Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan only recently reached the stadium level, and even the returning Garth Brooks is settling for arenas (though in fairness, usually on multiple nights.) Chesney’s sold 30 million albums and had 30 Top 10 singles. Get ready for a reality where Kenny is a serious contender for Hall of Fame every year.
Other Potential Modern Era Inductees:
- Clint Black If it wasn’t for his career’s disappearing act, his name would be right up there with Travis, Jackson, and Brooks & Dunn. Unfortunately his new album didn’t make lots of noise.
- Toby Keith Officially eligible because he had his first success in 1993, but probably on the outside-looking-in for the next few years since he didn’t start to peak until the 2000’s.
- Marty Stuart With all Marty has done and continues to do for the music, it’s time to start considering him to join his wife Connie Smith in The Hall.
- Travis Tritt – Another who will have to wait for some bigger names to tick off before he’s considered a major threat for induction.
- Tim McGraw – McGraw never amassed the major CMA hardware as some of the other potential inductees, but he has a strong advocate in Scott Borchetta and Big Machine Records. It will be a while, but there’s a good chance he gets in.
- The Judds – Too bad their career only lasted six years, but it was a productive six years.
- Crystal Gayle – Her recent induction into the Grand Ole Opry proves that Hall of Famer Loretta Lynn’s sister and “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” Singer has fans and allies.
- Tayna Tucker
- Travis Tritt
- Rosanne Cash
- Gene Watson
- Lorrie Morgan
- Mickey Gilley
Potential Veterans Era Inductees
As stated above, a rule in the Hall of Fame bylaws states that artists cannot be inducted the year after they pass away. Call it the sympathy clause that is put in place to make sure someone isn’t inducted just because voter’s hearts are heavy from a recent passing. Because of this, all of the artists who passed away in 2016 are not eligible this year, including Ralph Stanley, Red Simpson, and others. However what this rule has done is front-loaded inductees who there may be health concerns for in recent years. Jim Ed Brown was inducted last year right before he passed away. So was “Cowboy” Jack Clement a couple of years back. Mac Wiseman was also inducted in the midst of health concerns. Because of this, artists who may be getting long in years or poor in heath have to be considered at the front of the pack. Two such artists who may receive extra consideration are The Maddox Brothers & Rose since the final member Don Maddox is now well into his 90’s, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Predicting the Veterans Era nominees is notoriously foolhardy because they pull from such a wide field of potential inductees.
• Last Year’s Inductee: Charlie Daniels
• Saving Country Music Prediction: Jerry Lee Lewis, The Maddox Brothers & Rose
• Saving Country Music’s Final Ballot: The Maddox Brothers & Rose, Jerry Reed, Gram Parsons, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Paycheck, Hank Williams Jr.?
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The Maddox Brothers & Rose: The Maddox Brothers & Rose was a name that probably wasn’t on many people’s radar until the last couple of years. It is hard not to see how important their influence was on country, especially West Coast country, and the flashy dress of country performers that still influences the genre today. If groups like The Jordanaires and The Sons of the Pioneers are in The Hall, certainly The Maddox Brothers & Rose should be. And it would be great to see happen while the final member, the 93-year-old Don Maddox, is still around. There has been some additional chatter about The Maddox Brothers and Rose this year due to Don’s age. Don Maddox is arguably the oldest living country legend at the moment. Marty Stuart has been a friend of Don’s in recent years, and rumor has Marty working behind-the-scenes to at least get the family band considered. Rose Maddox as a sole inductee is also a possibility. She made great strides for women in country music.
Hank Williams Jr.: It’s somewhat hard to know if Hank Jr. should be considered a Veteran or Modern Era candidate because of the double-era aspect of his career, but he’s a contender either way. Two CMA Entertainer of the Year awards, three ACM Entertainer of the Year awards, 70 millions of albums sold, 13 #1 albums, and 10 #1 singles, Hank Williams Jr. has the resume and then some for the Hall of Fame. Hank Jr. has said himself in interviews that he doesn’t care if he’s inducted into the Hall of Fame, but there is still lots of strong lobbying behind him. A movement started last year called Bocephus Belongs is hoping to help push Hank Jr. over the top and into the Hall of Fame in the coming years.
Jerry Lee Lewis: Jerry Lee may be held back some since he came from rock & roll, and his antics on The Grand Ole Opry and other places over the years. But his contributions as one of country music’s preeminent piano players cannot be denied. If Elvis is in the Country Hall (and he is), his old Sun Studios buddy can’t be counted out. Jerry Lee Lewis now 81-years-old, possibly bringing him closer to consideration for induction. Meanwhile an online petition has just been started trying to push Jerry Lee over the top in 2017. Jerry Lee’s name has been rumored to have been in contention and on final ballots for many years. Maybe 2017 will be his time.
Jerry Reed: Such a great ambassador for country music over the years, but Jerry Reed should be inducted for his stellar and influential work as both a performer, songwriter, and a musician. There weren’t many better guitar pickers back in the day than Jerry Reed. And his work as a session musician with so many of country music’s big names made him a well-known and likable character throughout the genre. There’s also the possibility Jerry could be put in as a session musician when that distinction comes around again in the rotation. That may be the best way for Jerry Reed to get in with such a crowded field in the Veterans category.
Gram Parsons: Gram’s inclusion in Hall of Fame consideration is always a topic of great discussion. In 2013 there was a greater push than ever to induct him, with influential country music writer Chet Flippo personally making the case for him, and other chatter that 2013 might be his year. But it wasn’t, and it may be years before it is, but his name is always in the field for this accolade, and looking at the influence Gram had showing millions of rock and roll fans the beauty of country music, it always should be.
John Hartford: This is a long shot pick, but he deserves induction. As I said in my prognostications from a couple of years ago, “The Country Music Hall of Fame works like a timeline as you walk through the displays that weave around the massive archive in the center of the building. As you start from the beginning, each artist and their impact is displayed on a plaque that includes their Hall of Fame induction date. When I came to the John Hartford display on my last visit to The Hall this summer, he was the first to have a display, but no Hall of Fame induction date.”
Tompall Glaser & The Glaser Brothers: Probably another long shot, but one that has to be considered a more legitimate contender with the passing of Tompall a few of years ago that helped raise awareness in the influence of him and his brothers. It probably helps that his brothers-in-Outlaw-country-arms Bobby Bare and “Cowboy” Jack Clement were inducted in recent years, moving folks like Tompall and other Outlaw country personalities one step closer in the process.
Johnny Paycheck and David Allan Coe: These names come up every year from hard country fans, and are names regularly held up as evidence of the Hall of Fame’s illegitimacy. The simple truth is that with these two performer’s shady pasts, Hall of Fame induction is going to be difficult. Johnny Paycheck has a more distinct possibility than David Allan Coe, because Coe could create a public relations nightmare for the Hall of Fame from people (correct or not) who label Coe a racist, sexist, etc. etc. Patience mixed with persistence is what Coe and Paycheck fans need to see their heroes inducted, as time heals all wounds. One positive sign for them was the induction of Bobby Bare and “Cowboy” Jack Clement in 2013. This means the CMA committee is willing to pick Outlaw artists and personalities for the Hall, and those two inductions move Paycheck and Coe two steps closer. Also, David Allan Coe recently received a high-profile endorsement from Loretta Lynn.
- Jimmy Martin
- Vern Gosdin (sign the petition)
- Dottie West
- Ralph Stanley – NOT eligible after passing away in 2016.
- Johnny Horton
- June Carter Cash
- John Denver
- Wynn Stewart
- Jimmy C. Newman
- Lynn Anderson – Eligible again after passing away in 2015.
• Last Songwriters Inducted: Hank Cochran (2014), Bobby Braddock (2011)
• Saving Country Music’s Prediction: Too Open to Predict
• Saving Country Music’s Final Ballot: Shel Silverstein, Dean Dillon, Larry Cordle, Townes Van Zandt.
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Though there may be some artists that would technically qualify for induction under this category like Guy Clark (not eligible this year), Townes Van Zandt, Billy Joe Shaver, or any number of other artists that have extensive songwriting credits, this category is meant for behind-the-scenes songwriters who would never be inducted if not for this category. In 2014, it seemed pretty obvious that Hank Cochran would earn the distinction. Jamey Johnson had just released a tribute album to him, and his name and contributions were top of mind. This year, the field feels much more wide open. Here are some possibilities.
Townes Van Zandt: There is no more revered and mythical name in songwriting than Townes Van Zandt. His life was like a song itself—so touching yet so fleeting. No other songwriter has made people feel as much emotion as Townes Van Zandt. The question is will the Hall of Fame committee consider Van Zandt more of a performer than a pure songwriter? Townes’ best friend Guy Clark is not eligible this year since he passed away in 2016.
Dean Dillon – Towering contributions from this mostly behind-the-scenes songwriter, especially contributions to George Strait which include “The Chair,” “Nobody in His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her,” “It Ain’t Cool to Be Crazy About You,” “Ocean Front Property,” “Famous Last Words of a Fool,” and others. He also wrote “Tennessee Whiskey.” Every George Strait album except for one has a Dean Dillon song on it.
John D. Loudermilk – A cousin to The Louvin Brothers that had great commercial success as a songwriter in the 60’s and 70’s, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1976, and certainly deserves consideration for this distinction.
Shel Silverstein – That’s right, he didn’t just write A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends. He also wrote “A Boy Named Sue” and other strong country offerings, making Shel one of the quintessential behind-the-scenes songwriting stars.
Larry Cordle – The writer of “Against The Grain,” “Highway 40 Blues,” and hits for George Strait, Kathy Mattea, and Trisha Yearwood. But Larry Cordle really made his mark when he penned “Murder on Music Row” with Larry Shell. The song went on to be the 2001 CMA Song of the Year.
Paul Overstreet – Writer of “Forever and Ever, Amen” and “When You Say Nothing At All” with Don Schlitz, and performer/writer of “Daddy’s Come Around.” Discounted slightly because he’s also the writer of “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” and other unfortunate hits, but still a significant country music songwriter in history.
Max D. Barnes – Writer of “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” “Drinkin’ & Dreamin” (Waylon), “Look At Us” (Vince Gill), and many more. He won a total of 42 songwriter awards during his decorated career.
Sonny Throckmorton – Wrote more than 1,000 songs that were recorded by artists, including songs for Merle Haggard, The Oak Ridge Boys, John Conlee, and others. Sonny was named Songwriter of the Year by the Nashville Songwriters Association in 1978, 1979, and 1980.
Jimmy Webb – Songwriter for “Wichita Lineman”, “Galveston,” “MacArthur Park,” and many more, including many non country songs for artists such as Frank Sinatra, James Taylor, and R.E.M. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1990.
Kostas – Greek-born songwriter for Dwight Yoakam, George Strait, Travis Tritt, The Dixie Chicks, Marty Stuart, and many more.