Willie Nelson’s Now a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer … and a Rock Artist Isn’t

For the second straight year, a country music icon was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And for the second straight year, they got in, and arguably over a much more deserving rock artist. In 2022, it was Dolly Parton who broke the country music barrier by being the first ever country music artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame aside from artists that had early influences on rock like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, and without any real rock and roll credibility.

Though of course everyone loves Dolly, the concern was that she was taking the place of a more deserving rock artist, and that the induction would lead the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame down a slippery slope where all of a sudden they would find themselves in arrears for having not inducted any country artists previously. This is one of the reasons Dolly initially turned down the nomination before eventually acquiescing.

In fact, when Dolly’s name came up and she won, we all knew that Willie would be next. But do we really believe that Willie Nelson deserves to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before Iron Maiden? How about Soundgarden and The White Stripes? How about Warren Zevon? Or Cyndi Lauper? They were all finalists with Willie. They didn’t get in. Willie did.

Even though you want to root for your favorite country 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. No different than how we wouldn’t want big popular artists in rock or pop superseding country names for the Country Music Hall of Fame, we should want to be good neighbors in country music, and recuse country artists from consideration. If by chance it’s a weak field one year and it feels right for a country nominee with perhaps some rock and roll ties to go in, only then should it happen.

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.

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, one of the criticisms of them by some was that they weren’t country, they were rock. 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 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.

But still, is Willie Nelson more rock than Iron Maiden? Is he more deserving of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction than The White Stripes? Willie Nelson’s legacy is secured in history. A Rock Hall induction is just one distinction of many. But for an artist like Warren Zevon whose influence and importance has been systemically overlooked over time, a Hall of Fame induction could be critical to finally setting his work in the proper context.

Then there’s the issue of Courtney Love’s essay that came out in March shortly after the 2023 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees were announced. Love is Kurt Cobain’s widow and the singer for the rock band Hole. “If so few women are being inducted into the Rock Hall, then the nominating committee is broken,” Love said in part. “Barely 8% of its inductees are female. The canon-making doesn’t just reek of sexist gatekeeping, but also purposeful ignorance and hostility.”

It’s believed that one of the reasons Dolly Parton was nominated in 2022 was to attempt to address this discrepancy of female inductees. But Willie Nelson’s induction doesn’t do this. It actually comes over Cyndi Lauper, Meg White as 50% of The White Stripes, and Gillian Gilbert as a member of the British synth rock band New Order who were all 2023 finalists that failed to get in.

“As scornful as its inductions have been, the Rock Hall is a bulwark against erasure, which every female artist faces whether they long for the honour or want to spit on it. It is still game recognising game, history made and marked,” Courtney Love said.

Ironically, the 2023 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominee class had more females than ever, and Kate Bush, Sheryl Crow, and Missy Elliott all made it in with Willie Nelson, George Michael, The Spinners, and Rage Against The Machine. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is making efforts to be more inclusive to women, while there remains less women than men who feel like viable nominees.

Still, with so much rage against the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for not putting in important rock artist, and the concern for the lack of women in the Rock Hall, you just feel weird about celebrating Willie Nelson as a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.

Just like Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson is one of the few universally-beloved individuals not just in North America, but in the world. But that’s all the more reason that an induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame isn’t necessary. Leave that distinction for important contributors like Warren Zevon, Joe Cocker, or Peter Frampton whose legacies could be cemented with an induction, acts you can’t believe aren’t in yet like The Guess Who, Boston, Motley Crue, Pantera, Slayer, Poison, Steppenwolf, and so many more. Leave it for important women like Annie Lennox, or even important country-adjacent Southern rock bands like The Black Crowes or The Marshall Tucker Band.

And now next year, the question will be for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is where is Garth Brooks? After all, he’s arguably the most popular musician of all time up there with Elvis and The Beatles. Then it’s so on and so forth from there as a cavalcade of top country artists help keep deserving rock artists out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Of course as country fans, we’re happy for any accolade Willie Nelson receives. But no fan of any genre of music should be happy with any accolade if it comes at the expense of someone who deserves it more.

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