The Good & Bad of Willie Nelson’s Rock Hall of Fame Nomination

Well here we are again talking about a major country music artist being nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and just like Dolly Parton in 2022, Willie Nelson will be one of the next Rock Hall members. His nomination ordains that. Voters won’t peruse down the list of names and not drop a vote on Willie.

And though as a country fan it is fun to see an undisputed country music icon honored, it lends to the same moral conundrums Dolly Parton’s nomination and eventual induction did last year—a nomination that Dolly Parton initially declined due to those conundrums, but eventually accepted, likely because once the ballots went out, there was no way to pull her nomination back. And just like Willie, nobody was going to not vote for Dolly.

Willie was nominated for the 2023 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Sheryl Crow, Kate Bush, Missy Elliot, Iron Maiden, Joy Division/New Order, Cyndi Lauper, George Michael, Rage Against The Machine, Soundgarden, The Spinners, A Tribe Called Quest, The White Stripes, and Warren Zevon.

What is the moral conundrum Dolly Parton and country fans faced last year? It’s that even though you want to root for your favorite artist for any honor they might receive, it feels like Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions should be reserved from rock and roll artists first and foremost. And if by chance it’s a weak field one year and it feels right for a country nominee to go in, only then should it happen. This was Dolly’s reasoning for initially taking herself out of the running.

Country music has its own Hall of Fame, and it’s a major institution in American music with vibrant and active participation in the arts and entertainment community. Hip-hop, pop, and other genres do not have that, and that’s one of the reasons the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has expanded to include those genres as well.

But most importantly, there are rock artists who deserve to get into the Rock Hall before country ones. No different than how we wouldn’t want big popular names in rock or pop superseding country names for the Country Music Hall of Fame, we should want to be good neighbors in country, and recuse country artists from consideration unless the field was so weak where it makes more sense.

That said, there are a few reasons why Willie Nelson’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination makes more sense than Dolly’s did. When Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings emerged during the Outlaw era in country music in the mid ’70s, the criticism of them was that they weren’t country, they were rock. Waylon Jennings at least had Ralph Mooney playing steel guitar behind him. Willie didn’t really have any traditional country music instrumentation.

When Texas historian Jan Reed wrote his book about the emergence of the music scene in Austin, he put Willie Nelson on the cover, and called it The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock. Unlike country artists at the time, Willie Nelson bucked the system and took his cues more from rock artists who recorded the songs they wanted, and with their own bands, which was completely counter to the Music Row system at the time which put producers in charge. After Willie left RCA, he signed with rock producer Jerry Wexler and the rock label Atlantic. Wexler produced Willie’s albums Shotgun Willie and Phases and Stages.

Where Dolly Parton didn’t really have any rock music bonafides (and that’s the reason she’s about to release a rock album), Willie does. But let’s face it, even Willie’s rock credentials are few and far between. Would you really say that he could compete with Iron Maiden, Soundgarden, or Warren Zevon? Still though, Willie will be a shoo-in off of name recognition and respect. It’s hard to say these other artists will be.

The other concern when Dolly Parton was nominated and inducted to the Rock Hall is that it would start the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame down a “slippery slope,” setting a precedent where every year subsequently, a country artist would be nominated and likely inducted. Willie Nelson’s nomination affirms this. It was inevitable. If you were going to put Dolly in, you had to put Willie in. He was #1 on Saving Country Music’s list of next possible country artists into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But now that Willie will go in, who will be next, and next after them? With Dolly Parton’s induction, it feels like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is dramatically in arrears when it comes to inducting country artists, because previously, country artists had been considered out-of-bounds, with the only exception being the “early influence” inductees such as Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.

Again, as a country fan, you may feel happy about this development. But as a good music neighbor, you have to think who these country artists are helping to keep out. One of the reasons certain people were advocating for Dolly Parton to be put in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is because of a perceived lack of women. But Dolly Parton’s induction very well could have kept Kate Bush and Cyndi Lauper out for another year, let alone bumping acts like Iron Maiden and Warren Zevon, while Willie’s nomination marks another years where Jethro Tull, Steppenwolf, and Jim Croce don’t receive one.

For some of the performers that Dolly and now Willie competed with for nominations and induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they may need that induction to help codify their legacy in music. Willie and Dolly don’t. Their legacies are just fine.

All that said, it certainly is cool to see Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and the artists that will be nominated in the coming years from the country music realm receive this recognition. But in this new era where country artists are all of a sudden competing for Rock and Roll hall of Fame slots, let’s be respectful and judicious as country music fans, and as a country music community. Let’s make sure we don’t step on our brothers and sisters in rock through this new opportunity. Because we would want the rock world to show that same respect to us.

© 2023 Saving Country Music