As we turn the calendar to March, it’s time again to consider who might be in the running for the precious few spots as the newest inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame. At about this time, a secret committee commissioned by the CMA is going over their final ballots and whittling down the precious names to the few who will make it, as those on the outside of the process do their best to promote who they believe should be picked. The names of the eventual inductees will likely be revealed in late March or early April in a press conference that will be held in the Hall of Fame rotunda.
Unlike other Halls of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame tries to keep the institution distinguished by letting only a few names in each year. This way a bad name never slips through the process, hypothetically. This has also caused a glut of good names being left out in recent years, stirring controversy in itself, especially when it comes to Veterans Era inductees. But it also keeps the honor exclusive and distinguished.
The Country Music Hall of Fame inductees are selected through a committee process appointed by the Country Music Association(CMA). 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 songwriter, Don Schlitz, selected in 2017, and a musician, Johnny Gimble, selected in 2018, it would be a non-performer’s turn up to bat in 2019. Non performers can be individuals who may have been performers during their careers as well, but are mostly recognized for their work behind-the-scenes, such as a label executive, producer, promoter, or journalist.
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 important rule 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 dying. In recent years, this has accelerated artists being inducted before they die to avoid the one year penalty, and to honor them while they’re still living.
Potential Modern Era Inductees
One of the biggest questions always looming over the Modern Era category is where you start the clock. By rule it is “20 years after you achieve national prominence,” but where that 20 years starts is the big question. This especially applies to artists such as Hank Williams Jr. and Tanya Tucker, since their careers had two tiers, and started when they were very young, though most now consider them candidates in the much more crowded Veterans Era.
2019 will be very interesting in the Modern Era category. For years there has been a sure bet gaggle of shoo-in’s such as Ricky Skaggs, Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, the Oak Ridge Boys, and so on at the top. Now the field feels a lot more wide open. Does Dwight Yoakam go in next due to his cultural significance, or is it Brooks & Dunn as the big commercial powerhouse sitting on the bubble? Could it perhaps be Keith Whitley’s year, or will Travis Tritt be the Dark Horse? Do they dare put Kenny Chesney in before the aforementioned names due to his massive touring capacity for so many years, or does Marty Stuart go in for his devotion to the music beyond a performer? This feels like it could go to any one of these in 2019. There’s more intrigue behind this pick than there’s been for years.
• Last Year’s Modern Era Inductee: Ricky Skaggs
• Saving Country Music Prediction: Brooks & Dunn
• Saving Country Music’s Final Ballot: Dwight Yoakam, Keith Whitley, and Brooks & Dunn (in that order).
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Dwight Yoakam: You’d think with 25 million records sold, Dwight Yoakam should definitely be considered for Hall of Fame distinction, but maybe Dwight’s considered a bit of a niche act by some in Nashville. Yoakam’s greatest contribution beyond 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, just like Hall of Famer Buck Owens and other Bakersfield legends did in their time. Dwight’s also not showing any signs of slowing down, and has earned additional stripes as a country music ambassador through his acting career. Now with Alan Jackson and Ricky Skaggs finally out of the way and a recently-launched SiriusXM station dedicated to Dwight, it feels like Yoakam has finally graduated from a future hopeful for the Hall of Fame to a bona fide front runner.
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, at least at the moment? And does the fact that they only operate as a duo part time now hurt them, or are they helped by the fact that Ronnie Dunn has a fairly successful solo career, and Kix Brooks has become one of the strongest voices in country radio through his American Country Countdown show?
Brooks & Dunn will also receive an additional boost this year from their Reboot project pairing them with a bunch of today’s stars in re-recordings of some of their biggest hits. This has put their name and legacy back in front of Hall of Fame voters right as final ballots are being cast. They will also be receiving a dedicated exhibit in the Hall museum come August, which is another good sign that voting members might be ready to give them a full induction.
Keith Whitley: 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 Whitley as someone he believed should have been inducted before him. 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 three 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.
Another good sign for Whitley in 2019 is that the Hall of Fame has announced they will open a special exhibit dedicated to Whitley on May 3rd as part of the Hall’s annual revolving exhibit schedule.
Travis Tritt – Now that two of his brethren from the “Class of ’89” are in (Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson), Travis Tritt will start to be much more heavily considered in the next few years. There’s probably still a few names ahead of him, and since his commercial career cooled off somewhat quickly—and he hasn’t kept completely free of controversy by speaking his mind on the ills of the industry—his induction ceremony may still be far off, but it’s inching closer. And why not consider Tritt, with two Grammys, four CMAs, five #1 singles, and 19 Top 10’s. Travis Tritt helped put the drive into country, both sonically and commercially. But Tritt still feels like one of those names that others must go in first before he could be considered, especially Hank Williams Jr.
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. Many of the artifacts in the museum portion of the Hall of Fame are owned by Marty Stuart, as well as more that are going into his soon-to-be-opened Congress of Country Music in Mississippi. He’s a walking encyclopedia of the genre. That’s the reason Ken Burns chose him to be the primary commentator on the upcoming country music documentary on PBS. There are few if any helping to keep the roots of country music alive more at the moment than Marty Stuart. But the lack of commercial success in his career may keep Marty on the outside looking in for a Hall of Fame induction for the next few years.
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 25 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, 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, and Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan only recently reached the stadium level. 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, and in a close field, don’t be surprised if he’s 2019’s pick.
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 the other front runners. Instead, he seems like probably the last of the “Class of ’89” that can expect to get inducted.
- Toby Keith Officially eligible because his first success was in 1993, Kieth is probably on the outside-looking-in for the next few years since he didn’t start to peak until the 2000’s, and he remains a fairly controversial character.
- Tim McGraw – McGraw never had that consecutive string of years when he was the biggest thing in country music like many Hall of Fame inductees, but he has shown a longevity in his career and is well-liked into the industry to the point where in a few years, you can expect him to be bumped up to a front-runner.
- The Judds – Too bad their career only lasted six years, but it was a productive six years. 14 total #1 hits, eight CMA Awards, five Grammy Awards, and millions of records sold, they should, and probably will be in the Hall of Fame some day.
- Rosanne Cash- Folks sometimes forget just how big Rosanne Cash got in the 80’s with ten #1 hits, and a huge influence on the genre at the time. She’s not just Johnny Cash’s daughter, or an Americana icon. But don’t expect her to go in until the Hall of Fame can figure out how to induct another famous 2nd generations star, Hank Williams Jr.
- 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 in the industry, and expect her name to be bandied about for the Hall of Fame in the coming years.
- Lorrie Morgan – With 6 millions records sold worldwide and 40 charting singles, she’s a contender for the future for sure. But she will like have to wait until her former husband Keith Whitley gets in before she has a shot.
- Gene Watson – With five #1’s and 76 total charted singles, Gene Watson was an understated superstar, and the fact that he continues to remain active in trying to keep both is own legacy and the legacy of country music alive makes him a name worth considering.
Potential Veterans Era Inductees
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. However what this rule has done is front-loaded inductees who may be suffering from health concerns in recent years. Jim Ed Brown was inducted right before he passed away. So was “Cowboy” Jack Clement a few years back. Mac Wiseman was also inducted in the midst of health concerns, and recently passed away. 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 in 2019 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, and there’s such an incredible backlog. But here are some ideas.
• Last Year’s Inductee: Dottie West
• Saving Country Music Prediction: Hank Williams Jr. or Jerry Lee Lewis
• Saving Country Music’s Final Ballot: The Maddox Brothers & Rose, Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Williams Jr., Gram Parsons
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Hank Williams Jr.: At this point, Hank Williams Jr. not residing in the Hall of Fame calls into question the entire legitimacy of the institution. 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 or not, but there is still lots of strong lobbying behind him. A movement started a few years called Bocephus Belongs is hoping to help push Hank Jr. over the top and get him into the rotunda. Right now, Hank Jr. feels like the guy most on the Hall of Fame bubble to go in, while anyone who goes in before him feels like they’re taking his spot. The voters just need to get this done.
Jerry Lee Lewis: Jerry Lee may be held back some since he came from rock & roll, and because of 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 overstated. If Elvis is in the Country Hall (and he is), then his old Sun Studios buddy can’t be counted out. Jerry Lee Lewis is the last man standing from the Million Dollar Quartet, and is now 83-years-old. Jerry Lee’s name has been rumored to have been in contention and on final ballots for many years. Maybe 2019 will be his time, especially after a recent minor stroke underscores that he’s not getting any younger, and these Hall of Fame inductions are best done when the performers are still around to enjoy them. Just like Hank Williams Jr., Jerry Lee Lewis is part of the backlog of performers who must go in ASAP. An online petition has been started trying to push Jerry Lee over the top.
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 95-year-old Don Maddox, is still around. Now that Mac Wiseman, Harold Bradley, and so many other oldtimers are gone, Don Maddox is the last living link to country music’s past—someone who saw people such as Elvis and George Jones open for him early in his career. There has been some additional chatter about The Maddox Brothers and Rose the last few years due to Don’s age. 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 early on.
Ralph Stanley or The Stanley Brothers – After passing away in 2016, Ralph Stanley all-of-a-sudden emerges as a glaring omission in the ranks of Hall of Fame members. A seminal figure in the emergence of bluegrass in both the original era, and during its second wind after the success of O Brother Where Art Thou, he’s the type of influencer and ambassador the Hall of Fame rotunda was built for. Universally beloved inside Nashville and beyond, a former Grand Ole Opry member, and a powerful name to represent the bluegrass side of country, Ralph Stanley would be a strong pick few would quibble with.
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. But it wasn’t meant to be, and it may be many years before it is, especially with the current backlog in the Veterans Era. 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.
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. Also the major exhibit at the Hall of Fame at the moment covers the Outlaw era, of which Tompall was arguably one of the most important figures in. Now would be a good time to consider him for the Hall of Fame.
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—especially in the current political climate—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. Patience mixed with persistence is what Coe and Paycheck fans need to see their heroes inducted. One positive sign for these two in the coming years is that the Hall of Fame’s current featured exhibit is on the Outlaw era. What better time than to feature these important figures in country music history than with an induction.
- Tanya Tucker – Recently moved from a Modern Era candidate to a Veterans Era candidate because her first big commercial success was in 1972, with ten #1’s hits and a diverse, long-lasting career, she should get good consideration. It also might help that Tanya has a comeback record on the way produced by Brandi Carlile. If the record is a success, it could put Tanya’s name squarely in the hat for 2020.
- Vern Gosdin (sign the petition) “The Voice” has to be considered a strong candidate, but the log jam in front of him may have to break before he’s given serious consideration.
- Lynn Anderson: Lynn Anderson and Dottie West were the two ladies that lead the field for female veteran inductees for many years. Now that Dottie is in, it moves Lynn one step closer. It’s only the strong backlog in front of Lynn that makes it seem difficult for her to get the nod in 2019. But with the continued movement to be inclusive to women, Lynn and other women will benefit from elevated consideration.
- Mickey Gilley – With his first big hit in 1974, Mickey Gilley has (hypothetically) been moved to the Veterans Era category this year. Once you slip into the Veteran’s Era, it’s seen as a harder task to get in among a much more crowded field. But with 42 Top 40 singles and the role he played during the Urban Cowboy era, Mickey should be considered a contender.
- John Hartford – The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum 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 you come to the John Hartford display, he is the first in the timeline to have a display, but no Hall of Fame induction date. He may not be a flashy name, but he’s a name who should be considered.
- Jimmy Martin – You probably have to put Ralph Stanley and the Stanley Brothers in before Jimmy Martin gets considered. His personal antics might also hold him back. But Jimmy Martin should be in.
- Johnny Horton
- June Carter Cash
- John Denver
- Jack Greene
- Slim Whitman
- Wynn Stewart
- Jimmy C. Newman
- Jeannie Seely
The non-performer inductee is likely to be an industry personality like a label head, a producer, or some other individual who made a significant impact on country music behind-the-scenes. But if Saving Country Music had a vote, it would be for country music writer Chet Flippo.
Along with writing the liner notes to many of country music’s most iconic albums, including Wanted: The Outlaws and Red Headed Stranger, Chet’s work with Rolling Stone in the 70’s exposed country music to entirely new crowd and generation. Chet Flippo helped make country music cool, and continued in a journalistic capacity to become an elder statesman and one of the most respected opinion makers in the business.
Flippo was an editor and writer for Rolling Stone until 1980 when he left to write a biography of Hank Williams, but continued to contribute to the magazine over the years. From 1991 to 1994 Flippo was a lecturer in journalism at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, before moving to Nashville. From 1995 until 2000, he was the Nashville Bureau Chief for Billboard, leaving in 2000 to become the Country Music Editor for Sonicnet.com.
Flippo was known more recently for his work on CMT.com in his always-enlightening Nashville Skyline columns. For 12 years he oversaw editorial content for CMT. A writer who had seen it all with the courage to say what he believed, Flippo had the ability to stimulate discussion like none other in his field. Though he never seemed exactly at home on CMT with his more traditional country mindset, Flippo’s air brought a sense of legitimacy to the whole CMT operation. If there ever was a music writer who deserved Hall of Fame induction, it is Chet Flippo. He passed away in 2013.