Hall Yeah, And While I’m At It, What The Hell?
March 31, 2016
I think the Country Music Hall of Fame selection committee deserves an A-plus for the just-announced Class of 2016: Charlie Daniels, Fred Foster, and especially Randy Travis.
It might be tempting for some to consider Travis a sentimental favorite, after the hell he’s been though in recent years. To say that his 19-year marriage to Lib Hatcher, who also served as his manager, ended badly would be putting it mildly. Their 2010 split triggered a rapid and tragic downward spiral for Travis that included a series of alcohol-related incidents and multiple arrests. Both his mental and physical health declined, then Travis suffered a stroke in 2013 that has since left him unable to speak. Cruelly, that also means his rich, distinctive baritone singing voice is now silenced, as well. He’s been through a lot – too much – and he won’t even turn 57 until May.
All of that heartbreak and misfortune notwithstanding, the truth is, many Hall of Fame candidates and inductees have had similar drama in their personal and professional lives – hey, this is Country music, after all. But no, Randy Travis didn’t earn his induction based on recent, unfortunate events, though it makes for a great story. He’s in the Hall because he changed Country music at a pivotal time in the format, churning out massive hits and paving the way for an even bigger surge in the format’s mainstream popularity.
Country music – and thus, Country radio – was in the doldrums in 1985, suffering a major down music cycle following the Urban Cowboy phase. A widely read New York Times article that year had declared the death of Country. Early in 1986, Travis quietly hit the top 10 with “1982,” which wasn’t even his debut single. He’d sputtered at #67 with “On The Other Hand,” but his label – Warner Bros. – re-released it as a follow up to “1982,” and it went on to be the first of his 16 #1 singles. It also spurred interest in his Warner Bros. debut album, “Storms Of Life,” which exploded, selling four million copies. That was pretty much unheard of for Country then.
Travis, along with Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle, were sparking the format, and doing so with traditional sounding music. But Travis far outsold Yoakum’s terrific “Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc.” and Earle’s “Guitar Town” albums, as breakthrough and brilliant as both were. Suddenly, it was cool to have a traditional Country album – even for non-core fans. Like George Strait on his debut “Strait Country” album cover in 1981, Travis was young and good looking – not at all what you expected after hearing that deep baritone on the radio, which painted a much older, mature picture based on the music.
And “Storms Of Life” quickly became the one album that non-core Country music fans needed to own, to bolster their overall music cred, as it was widely accepted into the mainstream, pop culture of the time. It is an absolutely fantastic Country album, and I’ve said this before, so it’s not a bandwagon ploy: “Storms Of Life” is one the greatest Country albums ever made – and one of the most important. I would not only rank it in my all-time top 10 Country album list, but my all-genre top 10 list as well. By the way, Earle’s “Guitar Town” is on both lists, as well.
Travis’ next album, 1987’s “Always And Forever,” was just as strong, and another multi-million seller. Its lead single, “Forever And Ever Amen” was a smash – a career record – and became a staple of Country radio gold libraries for years, annually ranking in the top five with auditorium tests well into the early 2000s. His early success set the table for the class of ’89 – its charter members being Clint Black and Garth Brooks. I have said this before, too, and I will always believe it: Without Randy Travis’ trailblazing traditional Country success in ’86-88, the Class of ’89 would have taken longer to gain acceptability, and the early 90s Country boom would have been more like a strong tremor.
By the way, while Charlie Daniels is – of course – another no-brainer for the hall, he’s one of those artists about whom many will ask, “I thought he already WAS in the hall?” He’ll turn 80 later this year and is still out there touring his ass off. Amazing. And so deserving.
Many people have no idea who Fred Foster is, and that is often the case with inductees in the Non-Performer category, especially ones who were born in 1931. So, if you weren’t aware, Foster is also a no-brainer for the Hall, having formed Monument Records in the late 50s and later producing many of Roy Orbison’s biggest records. Think “Pretty Woman,” “Only The Lonely,” “Crying,” and “Blue Bayou.” We also have Fred Foster to thank for bringing us Dolly Parton; he signed her to Monument in the mid-60s.
The only question I have about the Country Music Hall of Fame is: Why so few inductees each year? With the exception of 10 honorees in 2001, most years have just three – and sometimes only two. The Hall has been inducting members since 1961 – 55 years – and has only allowed 131 members so far? I know it’s the Hall of Fame and it SHOULD be hard to get in, but man, there must be a huge bottleneck by now, since Country music has been around for about 100 years. Similar in age, the Pro Football Hall of Fame was established in 1963 and has 303 members – the NFL is also nearing 100 years of existence. This year’s Pro Football Hall of Fame will welcome eight new members. Then again, Baseball has been around since the mid-1850s, establishing its Hall of Fame in 1936 and has only allowed 310 members in 80 years. There have been some years when nobody has been deemed worthy of a trip to Cooperstown, NY, home to Baseball’s Hall.
Closer in category to the Country Music Hall of Fame, The Country Radio Hall of Fame – which, full disclosure, I serve as Chairman – has been around since 1975 and has 140 inductees. Our number of inductees varies from year-to-year, but on average in the past 10 years, it’s about six. Of course, I realize every Hall of Fame has its own criteria, and I don’t know what the Country Music Hall’s is. It seems like they do a great job every years of recognizing the most deserving honorees. In no way am I being critical – I was wondering about the small inductee list more than anything else. Again, I commend them on a strong class for 2016.
Hey – I love Keith Urban. I love Miranda Lambert. I love Keith and Miranda together singing “We Were Us.” I love ZZ Top, and especially its vocalist and lead guitar assassin extraordinaire, Billy Gibbons. I’d love to see Keith and Billy have a 100mph, screeching, wailing guitar showdown that never stops. Miranda Lambert, too? Even better.
But I don’t love the idea of teaming Miranda, Keith, and Billy for ZZ Top’s “Tush” on Sunday’s ACM Awards. In fact, I hate it. My first, involuntary reaction when I saw the release was, “really?” It’s nowhere near Keith or Miranda’s vocal wheelhouse. And the song – which ZZ Top originally released in 1975 off their “Fandango” album –is not only 41-friggin’ years old, but it’s just been played out and covered to death. By everybody. It was a standard for Hank Williams Jr. on his live show for years. I distinctly remember watching his fiddle player trying his darndest to jump in somewhere, with a look on his face that said, “Am I really needed here?”
In fact, the now-classic, opening riffs to “Tush” were always a go-to at Country shows where, insert-artist-name-here, took a break from his own stuff to prove he had rock roots and was once a badass, too. Kenny Chesney covered it on the 2002 “Sharp Dressed Men: A Tribute To ZZ Top.” I also love Kenny – but his version lacked the grit of the original; it was too slick, but to be fair, so was that entire tribute album. And let’s face it: with a few notable exceptions, tribute albums are usually just kinda “meh.”
Listen – I know the ACMs are a couple days away, and it’s not fair to judge a performance that hasn’t happened yet. But I’ll have to be convinced on this one. I’ll have to be wowed and overwhelmed. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to see Lambert, Urban, and Gibbons jam together. I just think somebody could have come up with something fresher than a 41-year old song that only fits the original artist. Okay, fine, if producers insist on ZZ Top music, as a longtime fan who’s seen the power trio live on numerous occasions, let me suggest something off the 1979 “Deguello” album: “Cheap Sunglasses.” While acknowledged by ZZ Top fans as one of their best-ever songs, it is not played out. Not close. It features an awesome, extended bluesy guitar break for when Keith and Billy want to show off. It’s closer to the vocal range of Keith and Miranda. And, befitting Miranda, Keith, and Billy, it’s a totally badass song.