It’s that time of year 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. 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 into one of country music’s most hallowed institutions.
Unlike most years, the time and location of the revelation of the newest inductees remains a bit uncertain. Though usually the names of the eventual inductees are revealed early spring in a press conference held in the Hall of Fame rotunda in Nashville, COVID-19 restrictions have put a crimp in the Hall of Fame’s regular patterns. The announcement of 2020’s inductees was delayed until August, and was eventually done online via press release. The 2020 inductees have also still not received their Medallion Ceremony, which is the formal Hall of Fame induction.
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 Hall of Fame 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 40 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, Dean Dillon, selected in 2020, and a non performer, Jerry Bradley, selected in 2019, it would be a musician’s turn up to bat in 2020. Musicians may have been performers during their careers as well, but are mostly recognized for their work as side players and studio personnel.
Another important rule to note 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. With the large amount of country legends who passed away in 2020, this is an important rule to take into account. 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
With three men inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2020, don’t be surprised if there is a focus on a woman or women in 2021. And with so many good and eligible names especially in the Modern Era category, don’t be surprised if this is where it comes from. But there also a couple of very worthy men whose names have been rumored to be considered over the last couple of years, chiefly Keith Whitley.
• Last Year’s Modern Era Inductee: Marty Stuart
• 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 previously, but rumors have 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 two Grammy awards in 2020, 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 2021. 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 being based in California as opposed to Nashville may put him a bit out of the purview of voters—an always important factor. 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 where he’s hanging out with Post Malone, 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. But the question many bring up with with Whitley and the Hall of Fame is if he did enough before his death to be deemed Hall of Fame worthy?
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.
Travis Tritt – Now that two of his brethren from the “Class of ’89” are in (Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson), as well as his “No Hat” buddy in Marty Stuart, 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 (and politics)—his induction ceremony may still be some years away, 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. Also, with a new Dave Cobb-produced album on the way—Tritt’s first original album in 14 years—it would make for a good reason for a publicity push to try and put him in.
Larry Gatlin & The Gatlin Brothers –With 33 Top 40 singles and 15 Top 5’s and three 1’s, Larry Gatlin likely accrued the numbers throughout the 70’s and the 80’s to be a Hall of Fame contender, not to speak of the influence he wielded in country music through that period, both as a solo artist, and with brothers Steve and Rudy. But also bolstering Larry Gatlin’s case is he’s also one of these “men about town” types that seems to be at every function and gala in the country music realm, 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. Larry Gatlin is a name that is hard to forget, and rumors have had his name on the final ballot over the last couple of 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 in 1995, 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-plus. 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 2021’s pick.
Shania Twain – Make no mistake about it, Shania Twain will be in the Country Music Hall of Fame some day. During her era, nobody was a bigger commercial success than Garth Brooks. With over 100 million records sold, she is the best-selling female country artist of all time, and one of the best selling music artists in all of music, period. She is the undisputed queen of country pop, and though traditionalist love to shake their little angry fists at her for ushering in the pop era of country, her influence is undeniable.
Something to always consider when talking about the Hall of Fame is proximity to voters. As a Canadian—and one whose been less in the spotlight lately—Shania may not be in the best position to lobby for her spot in the rotunda. But make no mistake, it’s coming, and likely sooner than later.
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.
- Steve Wariner – With 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.
- 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 across country and Gospel 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.
- Earl Thomas Conley – (Petition)
- Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Martina McBride, Faith Hill, Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, The (Dixie) Chicks, and Alison Krauss are some other names that are officially eligible.
Potential Veterans Era Inductees
With the huge oversight of Hank Williams Jr. finally being inducted in 2020, it throws the always hard-to-predict field for Veterans wide open. There’s perhaps no Hall of Fame in any discipline that has a bigger backlog that the Veteran’s Era category of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Only one of these will get in.
• Last Year’s Inductee: Hank Williams Jr.
• Saving Country Music Prediction: Jerry Lee Lewis, Linda Ronstadt, Ray Charles, or The Stanley Brothers
• Saving Country Music’s Final Ballot: The Maddox Brothers & Rose, Jerry Lee Lewis, Linda Ronstadt, Ray Charles
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 85-years-old. Jerry Lee’s name has been rumored to have been in contention and on final ballots for many years. Maybe 2021 will be his time, especially after a recent health problems underscore 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. 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 97-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: Ralph Stanley and The Stanley Brothers continue to be 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, Ralph Stanley and his brother Carter are the type of influencers and ambassadors 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, and is well past due.
Linda Ronstadt: Of course it could be easy to cast off Linda Ronstadt as a legitimate candidate 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, Linda Ronstadt 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 backlog, but with the wild way the Veterans Era is picked, don’t be surprised if she ends up as the 2021 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 Parsons. 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 turning on millions of rock and roll fans the importance and coolness of country music, it always should be.
Tompall Glaser & The Glaser Brothers: Perhaps a 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. Hank Jr.’s induction in 2020 also moves these two closer to contention.
(Johnny Paycheck Petition)
Ray Charles: Though the contributions of Ray Charles to the canon of country music were not especially prolific in number, they were most certainly influential in a way that cannot be measured by mere stats. His two Modern Sounds in Country Music volumes in the early 60’s not only made pop hits and standards out of songs like “You Don’t Know Me” and “You Are My Sunshine,” they turned millions on to the beauty and importance of country music. And that’s not to mention the five country-oriented albums Ray Charles released in the 80’s, which resulted in a resurgence in his career, and further hits such as the #1 song “Seven Spanish Angels” with Willie Nelson, and the Top 10 song “We Didn’t See a Thing” with George Jones and Chet Atkins.
If country music is serious about setting the black influence in country music in the proper context, Ray Charles would be a proper inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and one both traditional and contemporary country fans would find hard to quibble with.
Other Potential Modern Era Inductees:
- 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 2021. 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 after being a Modern Era contender for years. Once you slip into the Veteran’s Era, it’s 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 as well. But Jimmy Martin should be put in eventually.
- The Wilburn Brothers
- Johnny Horton
- June Carter Cash
- John Denver
- Jack Greene
- Slim Whitman
- Wynn Stewart – (Petition)
- Jimmy C. Newman
- Sammi Smith
- Jeannie Seely
Potential Recording / Touring Musician Inductees
Last inductee – Johnny Gimble (2018)
Saving Country Music Prediction – ??? – Don Rich, Ralph Mooney
Saving Country Music’s Final Ballot – Don Rich, Ralph Mooney, Redd Volkaert, Lloyd Green, W.S. Holland
This is a hard award to pick, and Saving Country Music’s perspective may be slanted towards overlords of the past, when it might be some session player from the 80’s who gets in. But here’s some ideas.
Don Rich – There was arguably never a side player more important to a superstar than Don Rich was to Buck Owens. As a guitar player who could pull off those steel guitar bends while standing up, all while turning in spectacularly tight harmony lines that were so critical to the Buck Owens and Bakersfield Sound, a strong case couple be made that Don Rich should be in the Country Music Hall of Fame on his own right as a performer. At the least he should be inducted as a musician.
Ralph Mooney – Arguably one of the most important musicians to ever play steel guitar, he enjoyed a long, prolific career, first in Bakersfield playing for Wynn Stewart, Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard, and then becoming the long-time steel player for Waylon Jennings.
Redd Volkaert – A living legend who is still making faces smile, he was seminal to the sound of Merle Haggard and many others, and still regularly engages in session work and live performance.
Mac McAnally – A perennial winner of the CMA’s Musician of the Year, a younger name who has a shot, helped by his solo career, and well-liked nature.
Lloyd Green – Seminal steel guitar player during the Countrypolitan era who played on so many of the classic hits.
Mickey Raphael – May be a little young for this distinction yet, but he will be in some day. His harmonica is one of the most immediately-identifiable sounds in country music, and he is incredibly prolific, regularly performing on the records of some of country music’s newest independent artists.
- Sam Bush
- Buddy Emmons
- Pete Drake
- Paul Franklin
- Don Kelley
- Jerry Douglas
- Jesse McReynolds – Though may be considered too much of a solo performer.
- NOTE: Tony Rice (guitarist), Paul English (Willie Nelson drummer), W.S. “Fluke Holland (Johnny Cash Drummer), and Richie Albright (Waylon Jennings drummer) are not eligible this year, since they passed away in the previous year.