Brooks & Dunn, who were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2019, led the reveal of the Hall of Fame’s newest members on Tuesday (March 17) at an event at the Hall of Fame and Museum’s rotunda.
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The CMA created the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961 “to recognize noteworthy individuals for their outstanding contributions to the format.” Each year, the Country Music Hall of Fame inducts honorees in three categories: modern era artist, veterans era artist, and one of three rotating categories, including non-performer, songwriter, and recording and/or touring musician.
Whitley is this year’s modern era artist inductee, Lewis the veterans era artist inductee, and Galante the non-performer inductee. They will officially be inducted in a ceremony to be held in October.
Here’s a closer look at each of this year’s honorees:
Working for RCA Records, Galante moved from New York to Nashville in 1974 and went on to become the longest-tenured major-label head in its history. Along the way, RCA Nashville had its first platinum album with 1976’s Wanted! The Outlaws compilation. Galante led RCA’s late 1970s and early 1980s crossover artists, including Waylon Jennings, Ronnie Milsap and Dolly Parton. At 32, he took over the lead of RCA Nashville, making him the youngest person to lead a major label’s Nashville division.
Galante ushered in eventual Country Music Hall of Famers Alabama’s success using a pop marketing model, and signed numerous future stars, including Clint Black, Kenny Chesney, Sara Evans, Vince Gill, The Judds, Martina McBride, Lorrie Morgan, K.T. Oslin, Carrie Underwood, Keith Whitley and Chris Young. Galante is the third chief of Sony Music Nashville to join the Country Music Hall of Fame, following Chet Atkins (1973) and Jerry Bradley (2019).
In 1990, Galante married Phran Schwartz in Nashville, before the couple returned to New York, where he was named president of RCA Records – U.S., becoming the first Music Row label chief to run a major label’s entire U.S. operation. His signings while there included the Dave Matthews Band, SWV and Wu-Tang Clan. Galante returned to Nashville in 1994 as chairman of RCA, and in 2000, Arista Nashville came under the BMG/Nashville umbrella, with artists including Brooks & Dunn, Alan Jackson and Brad Paisley. In 2004, BMG/Nashville became the first label group of the SoundScan era to place three country albums — Jimmy Buffett’s License to Chill (RCA/Mailboat), Kenny Chesney’s When the Sun Goes Down (BNA Records) and Alan Jackson’s What I Do (Arista Nashville) — atop the Billboard 200 chart in a calendar year.
In 2006, Galante oversaw the evolution of BMG/Nashville into Sony BMG Nashville, adding the former Sony Nashville and its Columbia Nashville imprint, with such artists as Miranda Lambert, Gretchen Wilson and Montgomery Gentry. Sony BMG Nashville became Sony Music Nashville in 2009 and Galante exited Sony Music Nashville as chairman the following year. Galante is a founding member of Leadership Music and has served as a mentor-in-residence for the Nashville Entrepreneur Center, where he also founded Project Music.
Galante has been a member of the Country Music Association’s board of directors since 1978, and the CMA Foundation board of directors since 2011, serving as chairman of both organizations. Galante also established the Phran Galante Memorial Fund for Lung Cancer Research at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center, in the wake of his wife’s passing in September 2019.
“There were a lot of people who mentored me along the way,” Galante told the audience in the Country Music Hall of Fame’s rotunda, “including Frances Preston, Irving Waugh, Donna Hilley, Joe Talbot and many, many more.”
He also referred to joining the CMA board of directors as a “pivotal moment” in his career. “The success I’ve had is also due to a lot of people along the way, publishers, artist managers and songwriters… they have been true partners and in many cases, lifelong friends.” He later added, “This is an unmatched honor and I think it’s a tribute to all of those people who helped me get here.”
The late Whitley’s career spanned just four years, seven months and 10 days between his first appearance on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart in September 1984 and his passing on May 9, 1989 at age 34, marking the shortest time span of any Country Music Hall of Fame member during their lifetime.
The Kentucky native played in numerous bluegrass bands as a teen, eventually meeting another future Hall of Fame member, Ricky Skaggs. Both musicians would work as part of Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys, and after leaving Stanley’s band Whitley joined J.D. Crowe and the New South from 1978 to 1982. Galante signed Whitley to RCA Records and Whitley released his debut EP A Hard Act to Follow in 1984. The next full-length project, L.A. to Miami, earned the top 20 Country Songs hit “Miami, My Amy” and three top 10 hits, “Ten Feet Away,” “Homecoming ’63” and “Hard Livin’.”
It was 1988’s Don’t Close Your Eyes that brought Whitley’s breakthrough, with the songs “When You Say Nothing at All” and “I’m No Stranger to the Rain.” One month after “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” hit the top of the Country Songs chart, Whitley passed away in his home. After his passing, Whitley earned two more No. 1 hits on the listing, “I Wonder Do You Think of Me” and “It Ain’t Nothing.”
Whitley never performed at the CMA Awards and never became a member of the Grand Ole Opry (though unbeknownst to him, his Opry invitation was set for three weeks after his passing). His first gold record for Don’t Close Your Eyes, as well as his Grammy Awards nominations and CMA Awards, also came posthumously. “His legacy is immeasurable,” Kix Brooks said.
Grand Ole Opry star Lorrie Morgan, who was married to Whitley, accepted on the behalf of the late star.
“I heard Keith Whitley sing for the first time in 1982,” Morgan said. “Keith never knew how good he was. He never accepted that he could have as much as anybody else had in this industry. He would be absolutely blown away if he was here today. He would be saying that [they] got it wrong, that’s how humble he was.”
“Thank you CMA for remembering Keith and loving Keith… because people believe in him and believe in his music, he lives on,” Morgan added.
Jerry Lee Lewis
At 86, Lewis attended to accept his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, telling the audience, “I’d like to say it’s a great honor and a great pleasure to be in the Country Music Hall of Fame. My name is Jerry Lee Lewis and I love everybody. I’m just overwhelmed to be asked to be here today. It’s always great to be recognized.”
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Lewis has notched 28 top 10 hits on Billboard‘s Country Songs chart over four decades, earning more hits over a longer period of time than he did on the Billboard Hot 100. In the country genre, his hits have included “Chantilly Lace,” “Another Place Another Time,” and “There Must Be More to Love Than This,” while signature rock and roll songs of his including “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire” also topped Country Songs.
Lewis is the fourth member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s founding 1986 class of inductees to also gain membership in the Country Music Hall of Fame, along with Elvis Presley (1998), the Everly Brothers (2001) and Ray Charles (2021).