It’s that time of year once 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 names to the few who will make it. The names of the eventual inductees will be revealed likely in late March in a press conference that will be held in the Hall of Fame rotunda in Nashville.
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 non performer, Jerry Bradley, selected in 2019, and a musician, Johnny Gimble, selected in 2018, it would be songwriter’s turn up to bat in 2020. Songwriters may have been performers during their careers as well, but are mostly recognized for their work in composition.
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
This is one of the first years in a while where the Modern Era inductee feels like a wide open field. Though Keith Whitley could finally be poised to take his place in the rotunda with a special display in the museum unveiled in his honor in 2019, there also seems to be a groundswell of interest in The Judds, or perhaps Tanya Tucker who was rumored to be on the Modern Era Final ballot last year. With the emphasis on women by many of these institutions, the women in the field have to be considered strong contenders. Marty Stuart or Larry Gatlin and The Gatlin Brothers should be considered serious dark horses as well.
• Last Year’s Modern Era Inductee: Brooks & Dunn
• Saving Country Music Prediction: The Judds, Keith Whitley, or Tanya Tucker.
• Saving Country Music’s Final Ballot: Dwight Yoakam, Keith Whitley, The Judds, and Tanya Tucker.
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Tanya Tucker: Earning her first big commercial success in 1972, Tanya could also go in via the Veteran’s Era. Saving Country Music considered her a Veteran’s Era nominee last year, but rumors had her on the final in the Modern Era, meaning she might have been close to induction already. But whatever era you want to categorize her in, with ten #1’s hits and a diverse, long-lasting career, she should get in some way. Though hypothetically the selection committee is supposed to be agnostic on current events when making this decision, often a resurgence in an artist’s career can coincide with an induction. Tanya Tucker would certainly meet that distinction with a comeback record in 2019 that received multiple Grammy nominations and great critical acclaim.
The Judds: Too bad the heart of 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 someday, and that day could be in 2020. With the tenuous health of Naomi Judd who suffers from hepatitis, and the resurgence of interest in 80’s country that The Judds were such a significant part of, they would be a smart and timely pick at a time when institutions are looking to put more emphasis on women. There are definitely candidates with more daunting sales and chart numbers, but few had as big of an impact to a specific era than The Judds, despite it being short lived. The duo also gets extra consideration due to Wynonna’s successful solo career.
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. With major commercial stars like Brooks & Dunn and Alan Jackson 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.
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 33-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. 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 is that the Hall of Fame opened a special exhibit dedicated to Whitley on May 3rd, 2019 as part of the Hall’s annual revolving exhibit schedule. This definitely helped put his legacy back in the spotlight.
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.
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.
Though Hall of Fame stalwarts will swear it doesn’t matter, being named the Hall’s Artist-in-Residence has been a precursor to induction previously. Marty Stuart happened to be the 2019 Country Hall of Fame Artist-in-Residence.
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 2020’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.
- Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers –Larry Gatlin definitely accrued the numbers throughout the 70’s and the 80’s to be a Hall of Famer, but he’s also one of these “men about town” type of performers that seems to be at every function and gala, is active in the community, and is willing to help keep the legacy of country music alive, which the Hall of Fame selection committee often rewards. He’s hard to forget, and rumors had his name on the final ballot in 2019.
- 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.
- Steve Wariner – A surprising nine #1 singles throughout the 80’s, Wariner is not one of those flashy characters that immediately jumps out at you as a Hall of Fame contender, but he quietly put together a Hall of Fame-caliber career. He’s also a guy who hangs around the right places in Nashville to make sure selection committee members don’t forget about him, so don’t be surprised if his name pops up as an inductee in the coming years.
- 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.
- Lorrie Morgan – With 6 millions records sold worldwide and 40 charting singles, she’s a contender for the future for sure. But she might 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
At this point, the Veterans Era category for Hall of Fame induction is such a mess, they could induct six performers this year, and still be egregiously behind schedule. Where the Modern Era feels well-ordered and intuitive, The Veterans Era seems to regularly overlook the most qualified, and those artists near death that deserve their accolades before they pass. And unlike the Modern Era, who the committee picks for the Veterans category is wildly unpredictable, aside from trying to read who most has the committee’s ear in a given year. Let’s just hope in 2020 that actually induct a top contender that the people of country music want to see inducted instead of putting us yet another year behind.
• Last Year’s Inductee: Ray Stevens
• Saving Country Music Prediction: Jerry Lee Lewis, Linda Ronstadt, or The Stanley Brothers
• Saving Country Music’s Final Ballot: The Maddox Brothers & Rose, Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Williams Jr., Linda Ronstadt, 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 84-years-old. Jerry Lee’s name has been rumored to have been in contention and on final ballots for many years. Maybe 2020 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 set the very foundations for both The Bakersfield Sound, and California Country at large that would become wildly influential in the future. Their flamboyant stage dress inspired by the cowboys of the silver screen directly sparked the Nudie Suit craze in country music that is still en vogue today. And Rose Maddox was one of the very first successful women in country music, and opened up the role of women as country entertainers for generations to come.
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 96-year-old Don Maddox, who was the comedian and fiddler for the band—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 The Maddox Brothers & Rose early in their career.
Their worthiness for the Hall of Fame was underscored recently in the Ken Burns country music documentary, where the group was featured prominently. Don Maddox was the oldest person interviewed in the documentary who is still alive.
Ralph Stanley / The Stanley Brothers: After passing away in 2016, Ralph Stanley and The Stanley Brothers 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, The Stanley Brothers would be a strong pick few would quibble with.
Linda Ronstadt: Of course it could be easy to criticize Linda Ronstadt herself for being a country artist who eventually crossed over into pop and rock. But few paid their dues as much as Linda did early in her career, including her years in the Stone Poneys, her debut solo album in 1969, Hand Sown…Home Grown, 1970’s Silk Purse that included cover songs of “Lovesick Blues” and “Mental Revenge,” and her 1972 self-titled album where she recorded “Crazy Arms” and “I Fall To Pieces.” Even when she achieved her breakout pop rock success, she was always honest about the genre and approach of her music, and then returned to country in the groundbreaking “Trio” project with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris.
With the recent biopic released on her life in 2019 and Kennedy Center Honors recognition, Linda Ronstadt is seeing a resurgence of interest in her career. Other Veterans Era-eligible artists probably deserve it more than her at the moment due to the crowded field, but with the wild way the Veterans Era is picked, don’t be surprised if she ends up as the 2020 inductee.
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.
- 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 2020. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The Wilburn Brothers
- Johnny Horton
- June Carter Cash
- John Denver
- Jack Greene
- Slim Whitman
- Wynn Stewart
- Jimmy C. Newman
- Jeannie Seely
Potential Songwriter Inductees
With a non performer, Jerry Bradley, selected in 2019, and a musician, Johnny Gimble, selected in 2018, it would be songwriter’s turn up to bat in 2020 for the revolving 3rd category for Hall of Fame induction in 2020.
• Last Songwriters Inducted: Don Schlitz (2017), Hank Cochran (2014)
• Saving Country Music’s Prediction: Too Open to Predict
• Saving Country Music’s Final Ballot: Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Dean Dillon, Larry Cordle.
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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.
Guy Clark – Guy was ineligible the last time the songwriters came up in the rotation in 2017 since he has passed away the year previous, banning him under the Hall’s rule to meant to stave of sympathy votes. And even though to some Guy Clark will always be an original performer, his catalog of works recorded by superstars like George Strait, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kenny Chesney, Jerry Jeff Walker, and so many more means that as even as a pure songwriter, he deserves his shot at Hall of Fame recognition.
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 biggest 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.