In all likelihood, the committee that is fielded by the Country Music Association to choose the annual inductees to the Country Music Hall of Fame has already made their decision of who the 2020 inductees will be. The rumor on the Row is that an announcement of the 2020 inductees is coming “in a few weeks.” But with everything locked down due to the Coronavirus—including the Hall of Fame itself where the announcement usually occurs—there’s little need to rush it. In fact re-opening the Hall of Fame with the announcement that usually happens in early spring might make for a cool moment.
With the recent death of John Prine (also at the hands of COVID-19), the question has been posed by many about the legendary songwriter’s prospects of ever being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. It’s an interesting discussion point for sure, and one with a few important qualifiers.
Candidates for the Hall of Fame are selected in 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.
Hypothetically, John Prine could be waiting in the wings as the Hall of Fame’s 2020 inductee in the Songwriter category. Though this distinction usually goes to someone with more commercial success than Prine—meaning a songwriter who wrote a slew of country radio hits for others over their career—if Prine ever gets into the Country Hall of Fame, it’s likely to be in this category.
And why wouldn’t he be considered? John Prine is regarded as one of the greatest songwriters of all time. He’s called the Mark Twain of songwriting, and has been lauded as the best by the likes of Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, and nearly every other living songwriter, and many who are deceased. John Prine’s influence is unquestionable.
And it’s not like Prine didn’t write any hits either. George Strait had a #1 with the Prine co-penned “I Just Want to Dance With You” in 1988. As we now know, David Allan Coe’s hit “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” was co-written by Prine with Steve Goodman. Even more modern stars like Miranda Lambert sing the praises of Prine. She covered his song “That’s The Way The World Goes ‘Round,” and performed it on the 2010 CMA Awards. And of course this doesn’t mention the countless covers of Prine songs like “Angel From Montgomery,” “Paradise,” “Sam Stone,” and a slew of others from other prominent names.
Complicating matters though is a stipulation in the Country Music Hall of Fame’s nominating guidelines that recuses candidates from being considered for the Hall of Fame in the year after they pass away. Consider it a sympathy clause, which is probably a smart move. But if the picks were already made this year before Prine passed away, would his nomination still be allowed to go through?
Something that we’ve seen over the years with the Country Music Hall of Fame is to be seriously considered, you need a good ground game in Nashville. Ray Stevens didn’t get in before Hank Williams Jr. due to his catalog and influence. It’s because he knew how to lobby for it and get in front of the right people. Though Prine was never a commercial powerhouse, he was incredibly well-beloved in Nashville, and across the entire industry. We saw that in the massive outpouring of love and remembrance after his passing. Consider this a strong asset for Prine’s prospects.
But the biggest problem is that these performing songwriters like John Prine end up getting sifted into no man’s land when it comes to Hall of Fame consideration. Right beside Prine, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt are also regarded as some of the greatest songwriters of all time, and penned major commercial hits upon occasion as well. But they were never powerhouses of commercial hits, nor were their performing careers significant enough to be Hall of Fame worthy on their own. The influence is undeniable, but may not be dominant enough in any single category to rise to the level of Hall of Fame consideration.
But once again, that’s where John Prine makes for an exception. In 2018, John Prine was actually nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to garner enough votes to be inducted, but it does prove that he can be regarded as having a Hall of Fame career. And how embarrassing would it be if Cleveland honored Prine before Nashville, where John made his home and was a pillar of the community for much of his career?
But of course, that brings us to the biggest obstacle for John Prine. The Country Music Hall of Fame is arguably the most difficult Hall of Fame to get into in American culture—sports, music, or otherwise. Their stipulation of only letting one inductee in each year in the three categories has resulted in such an incredible glut of talent being left on the outside looking in—especially in the Veteran’s Era, and among songwriters—choosing Prine ultimately means you’re not choosing someone else who also seems extremely qualified to get in. It’s good that the Country Music Hall of Fame hasn’t let anyone and everyone in, which would dilute the importance of the distinction. But still, you would think there would be a lane for someone such as John Prine to at least be considered.
So the sad prospect is, unless John Prine miraculously slips through this year, he would have to wait another three years at the least to be considered again, and then would run up against a list of other qualified songwriters that also feel worthy and well past due for induction. In other words, in the current environment and under the current rules, John Prine being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame will be very, very difficult.
But there should be some avenue for songwriters who were also landmark performers such as John Prine, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and Lucinda Williams to get in. Sure, there is a slew of other names that also seem to be insanely qualified who are still not in. How is Hank Williams Jr. still not inducted, or Jerry Lee Lewis? But there should be a lane for songwriters that are quite literally considered the best ever at their craft like John Prine.
But until that lane opens up, let’s not pretend John Prine’s legacy isn’t secure. He’s already in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, and the Country Music Hall of Fame honored him with a display in 2017. John Prine already is a Hall of Famer in the minds of most anyone who reveres great songwriting. And he always has been, and always will be.