It took 57 years from the release of his first single for Hank Williams Jr. to become a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. His induction speech took less than two minutes.
Williams, an avid hunter, opened by celebrating the start of deer season. He said the many people to thank “know who they are,” and closed by referencing several of his classic songs.
“All my rowdy friends are coming over tonight. I was born to boogie, and this –”
He turned to point at his just-unveiled plaque, which will now hang in the museum’s famed rotunda.
“…is a ‘Family Tradition.’”
Williams, country torchbearer Marty Stuart and master songwriter Dean Dillon were all inducted Sunday during the Hall of Fame's annual Medallion Ceremony.
Country Music Hall of Fame 2020 inductees: Hank Williams Jr., Marty Stuart, Dean Dillon
Along with their songs, the CMA Theater was often filled with a sharp sense of gratitude: not just for the inductees and the institution, but for the opportunity to gather for another ceremony at all.
Williams, Stuart and Dillon, in fact, are the hall’s 2020 class, and were first revealed more than a year ago. Due to the pandemic, their ceremony was put on hold for more than a year, and a recently unveiled 2021 class is right on their heels. But Sunday’s parade of tributes from friends and superstars ensured it was worth the wait.
Marty Stuart: 'My life was set'
Marty Stuart’s brilliance, in part, is fueled by his ceaseless reverence for country music’s most legendary figures. On Sunday, he officially took his place alongside them.
Born Sept. 30, 1958, in Philadelphia, Mississippi, Stuart was covering country music with his band by the time he was nine. In the midst of pop’s “British Invasion,” he said he felt like the country stars of that era “needed a correspondent” in his town.
“I still feel like I'm a correspondent for Hank Sr., and Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash and the culture of country music, because it's what I love.”
He began picking professionally at age 12, joining the Sullivan Family bluegrass band for a summer tour in 1972, and it wasn’t long before he began living out all of his country music dreams, piece by piece.
The first two records he ever owned, he said, were by Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash, and they later became the two artists who hired him for their bands. He saw country star Connie Smith in his hometown at age 11, and he told his mother he was going to marry her.
On Sunday, Smith, Stuart’s wife of 24 years, tearfully inducted her husband into the Hall of Fame.
“My life was set,” he said. “It was just a matter of growing into it.”
Stuart’s celebrated journey – from a beyond-his-years talent to traditionalist star, fiercely independent artist and ambassador – was reflected in his tributes.
Hall of Fame CEO Kyle Young called Stuart “a flame-keeper, a spokesman and a chief,” and noted that he wasn’t just being inducted for his hit-making years, but the crucial work he’s done throughout the 21st century.
Friend and collaborator Pastor Evelyn Hubbard of Mississippi sang “It’s Time to Go Home,” from Stuart’s 2005 gospel album “Souls’ Chapel.” Emmylou Harris and Charlie Worsham lent Everlys-esque harmonies to “Tempted,” his highest charting solo single.
Ashley McBryde delivered an inspired rendition of “The Observations of a Crow,” a standout from his 1999 landmark album “The Pilgrim.”
“Anybody that knows me knows that I love this building,” Stuart said after seeing his plaque. “I got to be a part of it coming up out of the ground, just a small part of it. But this is our living room. This is our spiritual home. This is our treasure chest. And this is where we belong. God has had his hand on this place.”
Dean Dillon: 'I knew what I loved the most'
In 1973, Dean Dillon had just graduated high school when he carried his guitar down the ramp in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, stuck out his thumb and hitched a ride to Nashville.
Nearly 50 years after he started blindly knocking on doors on Music Row, he became a member of country music’s most exclusive club.
He may have arrived in Music City as a stranger, but Dillon soon struck some crucial friendships. The first songwriter he met in town was Frank Dycus, and the two became frequent collaborators. They were sitting on Dycus’ front porch, “popping the tops off beer cans,” when producer Blake Melvis stopped by and asked if they had any songs for “this kid from Texas” named George Strait.
Among the songs they offered was “Unwound,” which became Strait’s breakthrough hit in 1981. Both parties decided to keep a good thing going, and it hasn’t stopped for 40 years.
Strait has now recorded more than 60 of Dillon’s songs, including “The Chair”, “Marina del Rey”, “Ocean Front Property” and “If I Know Me.”
He’s also had deep songwriting partnerships with Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith, and cuts with Alabama, Brooks & Dunn, George Jones, Pam Tillis and Vince Gill.
One song has continued to find new life with new artists. Dillon and Linda Hargrove wrote “Tennessee Whiskey,” which was first cut by David Allan Coe in 1981, made a hit by George Jones in 1983, and reinvented by Chris Stapleton in 2015.
Dillon was a recording artist in his own right, with stints on RCA, Capitol and Atlantic through the early '90s. During his acceptance speech, he recalled a turning point when Strait wanted to record his song “Easy Come, Easy Go.” Dillon planned to release it as his own single.
“Then I thought, ‘Do you want a recording career, or do you want to be a songwriter?’ And in my heart of heart of hearts, I knew what I loved the most. I looked at him, and I said, ‘He can have it.’ I left that meeting, and went to Atlantic, walked into (label executive) Rick Blackburn’s office and said, ‘I'm done.’ And I can honestly sit here and tell you, it's the smartest decision I've ever made.”
At Sunday’s ceremony, Kenny Chesney took the stage to perform his 2002 hit “A Lot of Things Different,” which Dillon co-wrote with fellow Hall of Famer Bill Anderson. He also couldn’t resist sharing the story of meeting Bruce Springsteen backstage, who loved the song and asked if he wrote it.
“I wanted to say ‘yes’ so bad,” he said as the crowd laughed.
The perpetual power of “Tennessee Whiskey” was showcased by rising star Brittney Spencer, who earned yet another standing ovation for her performance. And Strait — who, of course, had a wealth of cuts to choose from — picked his 1985 chart-topper “The Chair,” which Dillon co-wrote with songwriting legend Hank Cochran.
“I knew you’d be in the Hall of Fame,” Strait told Dillon, as he formally inducted him from the podium.
Hank Williams, Jr.: ‘This is a family tradition’
The man known as “Bocephus” may have kept things short, but his songs and story, of course, spoke volumes.
His is the tale of a talent who fought to escape the shadow of one of country music’s most legendary artists — his father, Hank Williams — and became an icon in his own right.
He first hit the road at age 9, emulating his late father (who died when he was 3 years old) and continued in that strict tradition throughout the '60s.
But Williams had other influences – chiefly, rock 'n' roll – and after narrowly surviving a 500-foot fall off a mountain in 1975, he re-emerged with a singular look and southern rock-influenced sound.
He crafted the perfect mission statement in 1979’s “Family Tradition” – a rowdy anthem that used his lineage as a springboard to a new brand of country music.
His star continued to rise throughout the '80s, culminating in two CMA Entertainer of the Year awards. In 1989, he solidified his place as one of the genre’s most prominent artists thanks to a fruitful partnership with ABC’s “Monday Night Football.” Williams sang a reworked version of his "All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” to serve as the broadcast’s theme song.
Not long after becoming a prime-time star, Williams enjoyed his final top 10 country hit to date: 1990’s “Good Friends, Good Whiskey, Good Lovin.’” His most recent album was 2016’s “It’s About Time.”
To kick off his musical tribute, Williams’ “Feelin’ Better” was performed by an artist who relates to his journey more than most: Shooter Jennings, son of outlaw country legend Waylon Jennings.
“You laid a path before me that wasn’t there before,” he told Williams from the stage.
Eric Church went the extra mile for his cover of “A Country Boy Can Survive” – and it was a bold move, considering the song’s author was sitting 10 feet away.
He began with his own autobiographical verse: “I remember where I was and when, first time I heard ‘Whiskey Bent’/ With a brother I ain’t got no more, now he plays guitar on that heavenly shore.”
Alan Jackson was one of many who said Williams deserved more credit as a songwriter before performing “The Blues Man,” which he first covered and released as a single in 2000.
“It’s way overdue,” he said of Williams’ induction.
Williams was formally inducted by Brenda Lee, who first crossed paths with him when they were kids and fellow precocious talents in Nashville. She spoke of him as a lifelong friend, one you could always call at midnight and say, “I’m in trouble.”
“He might not come, but he’ll send his plane,” she said, and the room erupted in laughter.
Next, the Hall of Fame turns to its 2021 class. Ray Charles, The Judds, Eddie Bayers and Pete Drake will be inducted at a later date.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Country Music Hall of Fame inducts Hank Williams Jr., Marty Stuart and Dean Dillon