Ken Burns Country Film Exposes Holes in Hall of Fame Membership

The Ken Burns-directed Country Music documentary on PBS did a lot of great work reinvigorating interest in the history of country music, and hopefully resetting the mindset of what country music actually is compared by what is represented on country radio today. Though there has been much discussion about the important country music figures the film missed, it’s also important to harp on what the film got right and did include, including a lot of important performers who too often have gone lost in time.

Something that became obvious while watching the documentary is a few of the egregious oversights the Country Music Hall of Fame has been a party to when it comes to its inductees. Unlike other Halls of Fame, The CMA, which chooses the inductees, is extremely selective of who they let in, only allowing three new members in each year (read the rules). Though this is a fair and understandable approach to operating a Hall of Fame, there remains some glaring omissions, and ones that the Ken Burns documentary helped to illustrate.

If you’re looking for a more in-depth list of potential Hall of Fame inductees or oversights, check out Saving Country Music’s picks and prognostications from earlier in 2019. But below are the names that Country Music by Ken Burns specifically helped prove are Hall of Fame worthy.

The Maddox Brothers & Rose

Featured prominently in both the 2nd and 3rd episodes of the Ken Burns film, Country Music illustrated the pivotal role this family band played in the early formation of what we consider country music today. So many aspects of country music and rock n’ roll were heavily influenced by this family of Alabama migrants who ended up in California, and started playing “hillbilly” music during The Depression to get out of day labor.

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 coming years. 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. Don was the oldest person interviewed in the documentary who is still alive.

When the Country Music Hall of Fame featured their big Bakersfield Sound exhibit a few years ago, the very first thing that would greet visitors was a display for The Maddox Brothers & Rose. Now with the renewed interest from the Ken Burns film, it’s time for the Hall of Fame to do the right thing and give this influential band a full induction.

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, and it’s comical that it’s rumored he’s not even being seriously considered. Two CMA Entertainer of the Year awards, three ACM Entertainer of the Year awards, 70 millions of albums sold, 13 #1 albums, 21 straight Gold records, and 10 #1 singles, Hank Williams Jr. has the resume and then some for the Hall of Fame.

Featured in the 7th episode of the Ken Burns documentary, the film told Hank Jr.’s story of performing his father’s songs starting at the age of 8, all the way to becoming one of the most successful stars in country music history. But unlike many of the other artists featured in the 7th episode of Country Music, including Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, and Dolly Parton, Hall of Fame induction has eluded Hank.

Some claim the reason Hank Jr. still hasn’t been inducted is due to the concern he wouldn’t acknowledge the accolade, and wouldn’t show up to the announcement or the induction ceremony. But it doesn’t matter if Hank Williams Jr. wants to be in the Country Music Hall of Fame or not. What matters is if he belongs there, which he does. One of the reasons Hank Jr. possibly doesn’t care if the Hall of Fame honors him or not is because he’s the most obvious snubbing in the institution’s history, and he’s rightfully angry about it.

A movement started a few years called Bocephus Belongs is hoping to help push Hank Jr. over the top and get him into the Hall of Fame 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.

The Stanley Brothers and Ralph Stanley

Though not the most commercially successful country or bluegrass artists of all time, as the Ken Burns film helped explain, the importance of these two brothers, and later Ralph Stanley’s solo career, was seminal to country and bluegrass. They were one of the most pure lines to the original Appalachian influence in country music.

After passing away in 2016, Ralph Stanley and The Stanley Brothers emerged as a glaring omission in the ranks of Hall of Fame members. Their legacy received a second wind after the success of O Brother Where Art Thou. 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 and/or The Stanley Brothers would be a strong pick for the Hall of Fame few would quibble with.

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 Keith 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 Keith Whitley is that the Hall of Fame recently opened a special exhibit dedicated to him as part of the Hall’s annual revolving exhibit schedule. Keith Whitley wasn’t featured prominently in the Ken Burns documentary, but the story was told how his death inspired Vince Gill’s “Go Rest High On That Mountain.” Gill singing the song at George Jones’s funeral was arguably the most emotional moment of the entire documentary.

Marty Stuart

The involvement of Marty Stuart in the Ken Burns documentary underscored why Marty Stuart should be in the Hall of Fame someday irrespective of his limited commercial success. Marty Stuart is country music. He’s a walking encyclopedia of the genre, a tireless ambassador for the music, and a man that owns many of the artifacts that are included in the Hall’s museum display cases.

Along with all the great commentary Marty Stuart lent to the documentary, it also told the story of Stuart starting as a performer as a boy in Lester Flatts band, getting to play the Grand Ole Opry at age 13, and later marrying Country Music Hall of Famer Connie Smith. If there was ever a man that deserved to be in the Hall of Fame solely for his work off the stage, it would be Marty Stuart. He just also happens to be one hell of a performer, and had his moment in the spotlight during the “No Hat” days as well, however brief.

Gram Parsons

Parsons is probably still a long shot for the Hall of Fame, but it’s hard to make the case that anybody was a bigger ambassador for country music than Gram. Gram Parsons showed millions of non-country fans that country music could be cool. He turned The Rolling Stones into country fans. He discovered one of the most important women in country music history in Emmylou Harris, and as the Ken Burns country documentary illustrated brilliantly, sparked a resurgence of interest in country within the genre itself that Emmylou carried into the next generation.

In the 7th episode, the story was told how Willie Nelson’s daughter showed him a copy of “Pancho & Lefty” that Emmylou had recorded. It was 4 in the morning, and Willie woke up Merle on his bus to record the song. Gram Parsons turned Emmylou Harris onto the beauty of country music when she was a folk singer living in Washington D.C. After the death of Gram, Emmylou went on a quest to share her newfound love for country with the rest of the world by covering many country standards, and some that would soon become them like “Pancho & Lefty.” Emmylou said she was obsessed to the point of annoying people about it, and it ultimately led to Willie and Merle recording a track written by Townes Van Zandt, which became Van Zandt’s first and only #1 song, and solidified his place in history.

Since Gram Parson died young in 1973, he never got a chance to be prolific, or to settle into his proper place in country music history. But Gram was way much more than “that guy who played in the Byrds.” He pushed The Byrds to record a country record in Nashville. His solo career and work with The Flying Burrito Brothers resulted in some of the most influential country records in history. He revitalized interest in The Louvin Brothers. Emmylou Harris is in the Hall of Fame due to Gram opening doors for her, and instilling her with the love of country. For his influence, Gram Parsons deserves to be considered for the Country Music Hall of Fame as well.

Other Considerations

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. Ken Burns did a good job explaining why the legacy of The Judds was so important to their era in country, and how their lives beyond the stage embodied many of country music’s underlying themes.

Rosanne Cash- Folks sometimes forget just how big Rosanne Cash got in the 80’s with ten #1 hits, and how she was a huge influence on the genre at the time. She’s not just Johnny Cash’s daughter, or an Americana icon. The Ken Burns film explained how with husband and producer Rodney Crowell, the 2nd generation star helped bring country music to a new generation of listeners.

Hazel Smith – The only issue with Hazel Smith’s commentary in the Ken Burns documentary is there wasn’t enough of it. As the woman who invented the term “Outlaw Country” and helped run Hillbilly Central where the Outlaw movement was centered, she deserves her place in country music history. Beyond coining a marketing term, many don’t know that Hazel Smith was a prolific songwriter, and later a journalist and commentator, helping to keep the history of country music alive. She is the mother hen of country music. Along with journalist Chet Flippo, Hazel Smith deserves to be in the Hall of Fame for making sure what happened during one of country music’s most important eras was chronicled for the future.

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