Reflecting on the 2022 Country Music Hall of Fame Class

Joe Galante / Jerry Lee Lewis / Keith Whitley

The Country Music Association announced the 2022 Country Music Hall of Fame inductees on Tuesday, May 17th, with Keith Whitley receiving the honor in the Modern Era category, Jerry Lee Lewis getting the honor in the Veteran’s Era category, and long-time RCA executive Joe Galante being inducted in the non-performer category, which rotates with songwriters and musicians every 3rd year.

You have to be happy with this class overall. Certainly, you can look over the elongated list of other potential inductees that grows even longer every year due to the Hall of Fame’s austere approach to induction, and do a healthy level of second guessing. But if Jerry Lee Lewis was getting in eventually (and he was), better to do it when he is still around. Unfortunately, we’ve seen too many inductees and potential inductees pass before they’re able to enjoy the distinction in person.

And sure, Keith Whitley doesn’t come with the gaudy numbers of many other Hall of Fame-caliber performers. But as was expressed by Kix Brooks of Brooks & Dunn who presided over the press conference, it’s what Keith Whitley did in those four years before his death in 1989, and the influence that he left that makes him a Hall of Famer. It’s also important to remember his career in bluegrass in the service of Ralph Stanley and JD Crowe before he ever became a solo performer when regarding the full scope of his career.

In regards to the non-performer category, you knew it was going to be some label executive deeply connected to the Country Music Association walking away with the distinction as opposed to someone such as clothier Nudie Cohn, or journalist Chet Flippo, all of whom would mean much more to the country music public at large.

It’s not that Joe Galante doesn’t come with a rather remarkable list of accomplishments in his executive career. At RCA, he helped launch and foster the careers of Hall of Famers like Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, Alabama, Vince Gill, The Judds, as well as future Hall of Famers Clint Black and Miranda Lambert among others. But as Joe Galante admitted himself in his acceptance speech, “I came down here with no background in country music. I was blessed with a lot of people that helped me along the way. They showed me how the town worked, and what country music was about.”

One of the people Joe Galante mentioned as helping him was Irving Waugh, who some hypothesized might be this year’s non-performer inductee. Unlike Galante, Irving Waugh knew country music backwards and forwards, and from the beginning. It was in his blood. He’d started at WSM radio in the 40’s, and eventually transitioned to the CMA where he was instrumental to bringing country music to television. Waugh was the executive producer of the CMA Awards until 1993, and there is a special CMA Award named after him specifically, even though he’s not in the Hall of Fame.

But there could have been worse picks than Joe Galante. Mike Curb of Curb Records was another rumored name. With his rap sheet of offenses against artists, that would have been a catastrophe. Joe Galante may not be an exciting name to many country fans, but the stories of him running afoul of artists or sticking his foot in his mouth like Sony Nashville’s Gary Overton are slim. In his autobiography, Waylon said about Galante, “…he was one of the only executives that was ever straight with me at RCA.”

Still, when people trek to the Hall of Fame and look at the plaques on the wall and wonder why Tanya Tucker, Dwight Yoakam, Trisha Yearwood, Clint Black, The Stanley Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, and so many others are still not there, but they see a plaque for an industry insider they’ve likely never heard of named Joe Galante, it’ll be a head scratcher for sure.

It’s not Joe Galante, though, that is stirring some controversy. It’s the election of Jerry Lee Lewis. And it probably deserves some. The character of these candidates should be scrutinized, we should be out in the open about transgressions, and present these blemishes along with the accolades for these artists, as Saving Country Music and much of the rest of the media did when discussing the Jerry Lee Lewis legacy.

Still, inducting Jerry Lee Lewis into the Hall of Fame makes for an easy target.

“The fact that Jerry Lee Lewis’s many disturbing misgivings were overlooked to give him the highest honor in country music says all to know about the CMA voting block behind this decision,” says journalist and professor Amanda Marie Martinez, who has taught classes on country history. “These folks would rather die on the hill supporting [Jerry Lee Lewis] than any Black/Brown artist or woman.”

But nobody is “overlooking” Jerry Lee Lewis’s disturbing behavior. Going solely off of his importance to the country genre, Jerry Lee Lewis should have been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame 25 years ago. The only reason that he wasn’t is because of his disturbing behavior.

The Hall of Fame waited until basically the very last possible moment to induct the 86-year-old while he’s still living. It’s fair to point out that Jerry Lee Lewis also paid with both his popularity and his prominence in music in the era when he engaged in questionable behavior. And now that he is finally being honored, it’s not because he exemplified sterling character, but for his musical contributions that are indelible to American music, and country music specifically.

When Amanda Marie Martinez says, “These folks would rather die on the hill supporting [Jerry Lee Lewis] than any Black/Brown artist or woman,” this is misleading, and lacking context.

The “any” is key here, because it’s patently false, and actively participates in the erasure of the legacies of the women, and the Black and Brown people that have been honored by the Hall of Fame. This month, on May 1st—just two weeks ago—Naomi Judd and Wynonna Judd, along with Ray Charles, were formally inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in the latest Medallion Ceremony. They were also inducted before Jerry Lee Lewis.

To characterize that the Hall of Fame inductors would rather “die on the hill” of inducting white males when we’re less than a month removed from the induction of The Judds and Ray Charles exemplifies how some of the of the intellectuals and journalists who are primarily interested in country music for the political implications are acting in bad faith, and are more responsible for erasing contributions of women and minorities to push a slanted narrative than celebrating their achievements. They are the ones who are truly hyper focused on gender and race, often to sow social capital in academia.

They are also overlooking what might be the most important takeaway from the entirety of the 2022 Country Music Hall of Fame induction class. Some would have you believe that these inductions were for white men, by white men, affirming the white male dominance over country music. But along with a woman in the CMA’s CEO Sarah Trahern presiding over the process, it was a country music woman that was the linchpin to the 2022 Hall of Fame class.

Keith Whitley got into the Country Music Hall of Fame from his own merits. But few if any would argue that he would have never even been considered if it wasn’t for the work of Lorrie Morgan. It wasn’t a cabal of whites dudes making this decision to affirm their dominance, it was Lorrie Morgan’s dogged determination over many years, lobbying hard for her former husband, both in the public and behind-the-scenes, that finally made this happen.

This was Lorrie Morgan keeping her promise to make sure Keith Whitley’s legacy is never forgotten. It’s truly a touching, inspiring story in country music, and it’s one that deserves to be told. And if you want to know more about Lorrie Morgan and Keith Whitley’s relationship—and what lengths Morgan went through to keep Keith alive as long as she did—check out Episode 5 of Country History X.

Lobbying for diversity in the Country Music Hall of Fame is a noble cause. Characterizing that the Country Music Hall of Fame is purposely avoiding inducting individuals solely due to race and sex is a gross oversimplification of the issue that only tunes people out, and unnecessarily politicizes and polarizes the issue.

Besides, with Jerry Lee Lewis now in, it means there is a very good chance Tanya Tucker is the 2023 Veteran’s Era Hall of Fame inductee, with Linda Ronstadt and her Hispanic heritage also on the short list, along with Crystal Gayle. And with Keith Whitley out of the way in the Modern Era category, it means the women of 80s and 90s country such as Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, Shania Twain, Patty Loveless, and maybe Lorrie Morgan herself will have an opportunity in the coming years.

And if there’s somebody specific that you think deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, or a certain group of entertainers you want to see better represented, you can grouse on social media, or you can do something about it. Start a petition, or sign a petition. If you’re in the media, lobby for those who you believe should be in with strong arguments for them, not just conspiracy theories of why the CMA is against them. The nature of the Country Music Hall of Fame is that everyone feels their favorites are being excluded, and the only way anyone gets in is with a significant, organized push, like Lorrie Morgan just accomplished.

This is because there are just not enough people per year being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame to keep up with the names that deserve it. That’s a concern we should all be able to get behind, and would solve a host of problems—including the ones concerned with diversity—if it was finally addressed by the institution.

© 2023 Saving Country Music