The 83-year-old Jerry Lee Lewis recently suffering a stroke, and who knows how long we’ll remain graced by his presence on earth. The most decorated and successful artist in country music still not in the Hall of Fame remains Hank Williams Jr., calling into question the entire legitimacy of the institution’s charter by refusing to induct him. The last living link to country music’s historic past in the form of Don Maddox of the Maddox Brothers & Rose sits in a humble abode in Oregon feeling forgotten, yet remembering fondly the important role his sister Rose played for women in country music. Yet in 2019, the Country Music Association passes over these names and many other deserving candidates for its only slot in the extremely crowded Veterans category for Country Music Hall of Fame induction to give the distinction to an artist who began his career as a pop star, and is best known for performing songs about streakers and berserker squirrels.
What a joke.
This is no offense to Ray Stevens specifically. At all. Repeat, this is no offense to Ray Stevens, who was announced as the Veterans Era inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame on Monday (3-18) as one of only three inductees that make it in each year. As a country music character, there are few like Ray. Along with all the joke songs, he had a career as a session musician and a successful pop career that has gone under-appreciated for decades, and these resume points were likely reasons he won the nomination. Ray Stevens was seminal in setting up Branson, Missouri as an important country music enclave in the Midwest. Ray Stevens is one of country music’s funniest, and well-beloved entertainers in history, and in a genre that many forget just how much comedy played a role in its formation.
But few, if any expected Ray Stevens to be inducted before the litany of other much more worthy names. Even by the most liberal estimates, Ray Stevens should have been half a decade out from even being considered for this honor as the Hall of Fame works to clear an incredible backlog in the Veterans Era category, including a dozen or more entertainers who it now makes significantly less likely will be living when they finally receive their deserved Hall of Fame distinction, if they ever do at this pace.
The other 2019 Hall of Fame inductees were fair picks, and are hard to quibble with. Brooks & Dunn was a commercial powerhouse for over a decade, and if anything were overdue themselves as Modern Era inductees. Though you will find some traditionalists who will proclaim their music as mall country, the Brooks & Dunn legacy has aged very well. Of course it’s not coincidence their induction coincides with the upcoming release of a new Reboot album re-recording some of their biggest hits with today’s stars. But that doesn’t make their induction any less deserving.
Jerry Bradley as the Non-Performer inductee will have some citing the nepotism in the process, since both his father, Owen Bradley, and his uncle, Harold Bradley, are both also Hall of Fame inductees. But the Bradley family played an indelible role in the formation of country music as a viable industry in Nashville, even if they also helped put in place a system that commonly stifles creativity—the same system which is still in place today. But this was a solid pick, and you would be hard pressed to pour over the resume of Jerry Bradley and say he doesn’t belong. And in this case, his advanced age makes it a timely pick as opposed to a curious one.
But what’s the payoff here for picking Ray Stevens? Are we highlighting him just because he recently constructed a Branson-style theater west of Nashville on a bluff overlooking a Wal-Mart called “CabaRay”? How does this forward the legacy of country music? How does this engage the public in the Hall of Fame process, which has become such an annual snooze fest, even a site called “Saving Country Music” can barely get anyone to pay attention to it? It just smacks of some behind-the-scenes lobbying and payoffs to the people in the ear of the CMA’s secret committee who makes these decisions and appear to be too institutionalized to take more global view of what’s happening in the genre, what the will of the general country music fan is, and whose legacy deserves to be highlighted in a given moment.
When Dottie West was selected last year, it seemed like there were others more deserving as well. But the pick made sense in a myriad of ways. She was well-deserving and had waited well past her time too (RIP). The pick came as the effort to highlight the contributions of women in country music and beyond was being pushed to the forefront. If The Maddox Brothers & Rose, Tanya Tucker, or Lynn Anderson had been picked this year, there would have been a few gripes, but it would have been understood. Now a whole host of fans and artists feel hopscotched, and disenfranchised by the process.
What does the Country Music Hall of Fame want to be? A host of names barely anyone has heard of are in there, including Jerry Bradley. Meanwhile Hank Williams Jr. and Jerry Lee Lewis stand on the outside looking in. This also smacks of the continued failure of the CMA as country music’s only true governing body to enact any semblance of scene control in what is going on in country music, from the continued incursions of pop and hip hop into the genre, to the lack of women being represented. The CMA just doesn’t seem to be paying attention.
Congratulations to Ray Stevens who was deserving of this distinction, eventually. But the CMA and the Country Music Hall of Fame need to take a good, long look in the mirror after a group of individuals entrusted with this incredibly important task perused over a list of names that included artists like Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Williams Jr., Ralph Stanley, The “Voice” Vern Gosdin, Gram Parson, and so on and so forth as worthy inductees, and instead inducted “Ahab the Arab.”
Everyone has an opinion of who should be in the Hall of Fame. But few held the opinion it should be Ray Stevens. Sorry Hall of Fame. Love you, but this was a bad, bad pick.