Comedic country singer Ray Stevens set the tone for the Country Music Hall of Fame’s 2019 Medallion Ceremony Sunday when he said: “This is Nashville. Anything can happen.”
For four men, anything – and everything – did happen.
Stevens, country music executive Jerry Bradley and the genre’s most awarded duo Brooks & Dunn became the newest members of the Country Music Hall of Fame during the 24th Medallion Ceremony at CMA Theater.
“I’ve never been so proud and humbled,” Brooks & Dunn’s Ronnie Dunn told the star-packed crowd. “If you don’t believe that, just step in my heart right now.”
Brooks & Dunn were inducted in the Modern Era Artist category. Stevens entered the Hall in the Veterans Era Artist category. Jerry Bradley was added under the Non-performer category, which is awarded every third year in a rotation with Recording and/or Touring Musician Active Before 1980 and Songwriter categories. The men raised the number of those inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame to 139 members.
Dunn pledged not to cry on induction day. When current Country Music Hall of Famers including Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Ricky Skaggs, Alabama’s Randy Owen, Randy Travis, Charlie Daniels and members of the Oak Ridge Boys paraded into CMA Theater, it was a vow Dunn immediately broke.
Another sentimental moment came when Roy Clark, Maxine Brown, Harold Bradley, Fred Foster and Mac Wiseman — members who died in the last year — were honored with a moment of silence.
“Tonight, we observe country music’s sacred occasion,” said Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “It is as close as we get to a religious service, though this year’s ceremony includes one new member who sang about a squirrel going berserk in a Pascagoula, Mississippi church. We want to be certain that our musical heroes are recognized in perpetuity.”
Young said Bradley, Brooks & Dunn and Stevens offered lessons and wisdom. He explained they are innovators with foresight who brought “things we didn’t know we wanted but that we now cherish.”
Ray Stevens: Veterans Era Artist
Stevens was the night’s first induction.
Born Harold Ray Ragsdale in 1939 to thread company employees Willis Harold and Frances Stephens Ragsdale in Georgia, Stevens wanted to be a baseball player in his youth. However, his mother and music intervened. She insisted he take piano lessons and practice an hour every day. By the time Stevens was six years old, the instrument had made sense. In high school, he had his first regional hit with “Silver Bracelet.”
Stevens moved to Nashville in the early ‘60s to play piano in recording sessions. He collaborated with record producers Jerry Kennedy and Shelby Singleton before he went to work at Monument Records in 1968. While there, Fred Foster asked him to produce “a new girl” named Dolly Parton. Stevens was behind Parton’s early songs, including “Don’t Drop Out” and “Busy Signal,” which he wrote specifically for her.
Stevens was a stand-in Jordanaire. He sang harmony — the high tenor part — on one of Waylon Jennings’ early albums. The pianist arranged strings for Bobby Bare and befriended Chet Atkins, who wrote some of Stevens’ songs. Stevens played on records for hundreds of artists ranging from Elvis Presley and Charlie Rich to Brenda Lee and Patti Page.
He launched a five-decade career for himself as a professional hitmaker in 1969 with his Top 10 pop song “Gitarzan.” He followed it a few months later with Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” and kept the success flowing with “The Streak,” “Misty,” “Ahab the Arab,” “The Mississippi Squirrel Revival” and “Everything Is Beautiful” among others.
Sunday night artists including Ricky Skaggs and the McCrary Sisters paid tribute to Stevens with performances. Skaggs put an inspired bluegrass spin on “Misty” and joked that he really wanted to sing “The Mississippi Squirrel Revival,” but no one would let him. The McCrary Sisters, who sang on the original recording of “Everything is Beautiful,” delivered a soulful, gospel version of the song that moved Stevens to tears on the front row. Veteran country music personality Ralph Emery inducted Stevens, hanging the gold medallion suspended from a thick, black ribbon around the singer’s neck.
“When word got out that I was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, people would come to me and say, ‘Well, it’s about time,’” Stevens shared. “I’d say, ‘Anytime is a good time to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. It’s a long way from a sock hop in a South Georgia high school gym where I played piano with a little four-piece band to this place here tonight. A lot of folks in this room have been there … that’s part of the life we’ve chosen. But nobody chooses to be up here. We can dream about it, but we can’t plan on it or choose it. We have to be chosen. Let me say how sweet it is to be chosen to be here tonight.”
Jerry Bradley: Non-performer category
Jerry Bradley’s path to the Country Music Hall of Fame had a much different origination than Stevens.’ Bradley is just keeping the family tradition alive – his father Owen Bradley, and his uncle Harold Bradley are already members. However, Jerry Bradley’s business sense and ear for music and not his family name landed him in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“Lineage does not assure legacy,” Young said. “Greatness doesn’t come through blood. It is achieved through action and invention. Jerry Bradley had his father, Owen, and his uncle, Harold … as north stars. He understood that he could not imitate or reproduce their gifts or their manners. He would have to find his own path.”
His storied career includes producing records for singers ranging from Eddy Arnold to Dottie West. He ran RCA Records from 1973 to 1982, where he signed Ronnie Milsap, Dave & Sugar, and Alabama — deliberate moves on his part to keep pushing country music forward. He led the Outlaws to country music’s first platinum album.
Bradley was CMA board president in 1975 and a longtime member of the board who played a crucial role in creating the Country Music Association’s Fan Fair. When the Gaylord company bought Acuff-Rose Publishing in 1985, Bradley was named the head of its newly formed Opryland Music Group.
To honor Bradley, Marty Stuart and Travis Tritt did a rousing cover of “Good Hearted Woman.” Yola brought the audience to its feet with a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” And, Old Crow Medicine Show – led by Ketch Secor and his fiery fiddling - recreated Alabama’s “Dixieland Delight.”
“This business has given me a wonderful life,” Bradley said. “I’m thankful for the people I met and the part I played.”
Brooks & Dunn: Modern Era Artist
Brooks & Dunn – comprised of Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn – walked a much longer path to country music grandeur. The men who possess 20 No. 1 songs, sold 28 million albums and have close to 50 industry awards had been flailing solo artists before executive Tim DuBois suggested they make music together. In its first decade, Brooks & Dunn sold an average of 5,000 albums per day. The duo’s hits include “Brand New Man,” “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” “I Believe,” “Red Dirt Road,” “Neon Moon” and “Play Something Country.”
“They are the most successful duo in the history of country music, and yet, they didn’t see much in the way of a future together,” Young said. “Kix Brooks, when asked about the beginnings of his partnership with Ronnie Dunn, said, ‘The chances of that lasting were just not very good. I mean, we just looked around at each other and what was going on and at all the potential conflicts on the table. It’s like ‘I don’t see a lot of longevity here.’
“As we sit here this evening, we can all happily agree that Kix was wrong,” Young added.
Brothers Osborne kicked off the Brooks & Dunn tribute with the duo’s first single and No. 1 hit “Brand New Man.” Luke Bryan gave a heartfelt speech about what Brooks & Dunn mean to him before he sang “Red Dirt Road,” and Trisha Yearwood wowed the audience with a soaring, poignant “Believe.”
Brooks & Dunn did break up 20 years into its career. Members thought they had artistically said all they had to say so they professionally parted ways. Merle Haggard and Reba McEntire – who inducted the duo -- deserve the credit for getting them back together. Haggard, a hero to both men, opened the last two weeks of Brooks & Dunn’s tour in 2009. Brooks remembers Haggard asked, “What’s wrong with y’all? Look at that out there. How many people is that? Why would you all quit?”
Years later, Brooks interviewed Haggard for his radio show. Haggard asked if the duo was getting back together. When Brooks didn’t give him an unequivocal yes, Haggard was incensed.
“He said, ‘Son, you boys have got a thing,’” Brooks quotes. “‘You can’t put your finger on it. It’s one thing when an artist has a thing, and people know it. But for groups and for duos, that’s a rare, rare thing. And you all have a thing. You can’t waste that. You need to call up Ronnie, and you all need to figure this out.’”
When McEntire called and offered them a dual Las Vegas residency soon after, they couldn’t say no. About five years after their supposed last show, Brooks & Dunn dusted their boots off and returned to the stage. This year, the men also released a chart-topping collaboration album of their hits dubbed “Reboot” and they’re nominated for duo of the year at the Country Music Association Awards in November.
“We had every intention of quitting,” Brooks said. “And, we did for a few minutes. But I think we realize now how lucky we are. We’ve had a lot of people who probably had more faith in us than we had in ourselves at a lot of times, and that’s what makes success.”
Reach Cindy Watts at 615-664-2227, email@example.com or on Twitter @CindyNWatts.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Country Music Hall of Fame: Brooks & Dunn, Ray Stevens inducted