The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum inducted its Class of 2017 – Alan Jackson, Don Schlitz and Jerry Reed – at its annual Medallion Ceremony at the museum’s CMA Theater in Nashville Sunday night. Loretta Lynn presented superstar Jackson with the Hall’s Modern Era honor. Vince Gill gave “The Gambler” songsmith Schlitz the Hall’s Songwriter honor. And Bobby Bare paid tribute to his late friend – session guitarist, singer-songwriter, beloved character actor and all-around renaissance man Jerry Reed – who received the Hall’s Veteran Era honor. Between the heartfelt speeches and performances from George Strait, Jamey Johnson, Alison Krauss, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Aloe Blacc and others, the ceremony boasted many memorable, often emotional, moments. Here’s the 10 best.
“This is first time I’ve been out of the house,” Loretta Lynn, who’s still recovering from a stroke she suffered in May, told Alan Jackson from the podium. “You’re the only thing that would’ve brought me here.” Judging by the eruption of applause and instant standing ovation, even those gathered in the CMA Theater who expected surprises at the Medallion Ceremony were pleasantly shocked when the “Coal Miner’s Daughter” legend took the stage. Speaking off the cuff and without the aid of a teleprompter (noting that, “Since the stroke I don’t see good”), Lynn, 85, who was inducted to the Hall in 1988, showed she’s still sharp as a tack and full of moxie, keeping the crowd in stitches as she recalled how Jackson looked like a scared little boy the first time she met him, decades ago. “I looked at him and said, ‘You’re gonna be one of the greatest singers in country music,'” Lynn recalled. “He hasn’t let me down.” After reaching up to put the medal of honor around the neck of a low-bowing Jackson – easily one of, if not the tallest country Hall of Famers – Lynn returned to the mic to offer one more sentiment. “I wanted to say that, Alan, on that bad time, 9/11, [you] sang ‘Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).’ I cried all day long, and I still cry when you sing it.” She then joined Jackson, George Strait and Connie Smith in singing the ceremony’s traditional closing number: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
Despite his status as modern country’s most stone-faced, grizzled contemporary outlaw, Jamey Johnson cracked what (No joke!) looked like a smile as, accompanied by guitarist Brent Mason and banjoist Jimmy Melton, he led a crack house band through a spirited, sock-hop-ready rendition of Jerry Reed’s 1977 trucker-country classic “East Bound and Down.” The song, Reed’s signature hit, was immortalized by the beloved silver-screen crack-up Smokey and the Bandit, a vehicle for Reed and co-star Burt Reynolds. Introducing Johnson, Country Hall of Fame and Museum CEO Kyle Young, serving as the event’s master of ceremonies, noted that the singer wrapped his tour bus to look like the rig Reed’s character drove in the film.
Given Schlitz’s introduction as a songwriter and not as a star, it’s somewhat fitting that the night’s least-known performer, up-and-comer Charlie Worsham, stole the show, flooring the crowd with an uplifting, emotionally devastating rendition of “Oscar the Angel,” made all the more show-stopping thanks to a killer harmonica solo from Jelly Roll Johnson. The song, cut by Randy Travis in 1994, tells the story of a homeless man Schlitz befriended during his long-ago days as a ticket taker at the Rialto movie theater in his native stomping ground of Durham, North Carolina. “[He’s] the greatest kid to come around in a long time,” Vince Gill said of Worsham, following the performance.
Is there an equivalent to Commissioner Gordon’s bat signal that someone at the CMA shines into the Nashville night anytime Vince Gill is needed to bring a house down? He always seems to show up at the perfect time. Sunday night that came when the singer sauntered onstage sans introduction to join R&B badass Aloe Blacc on a clap-along-inducing rendition of Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler,” easily the most iconic song of the night, penned by songwriter Don Schlitz, the night’s least-recognizable inductee. After the performance, Gill spoke of Schlitz’s accomplishments, both as a songsmith behind such hits as Alabama’s “40 Hour Week (For a Livin’),” Randy Travis’ “Deeper Than the Holler,” the Judds’ “Turn It Loose” and dozens more, as well as a humanitarian who every week, along with Charlie Worsham, sings for the homeless at Clancy’s Crossroads Cafe, a Nashville outreach center, and who recently flew to Las Vegas to sing for wounded survivors of the Route 91 Festival shooting. “It’s so impressive to get to see you enter the Hall of Fame as a songwriter,” Gill told Schlitz, “because you don’t have your name plastered on records and on billboards and TV and videos.”
It’s unnatural, almost jarring, to see George Strait sing a song without a guitar in hand. But with a cowboy hat shading his face, that’s just what the superstar did when paying homage to Alan Jackson with a wonderfully understated and heartfelt rendition of “Remember When,” AJ’s stunning 2003 ballad.
Sporting dapper threads and a perfect pompadour, Ray Stevens transformed the CMA Theater into a Rat Pack-era Vegas showroom with an animated take on Jerry Reed’s rockabilly-pop romp “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot.” Complete with backup singers nailing the song’s “la-la-la’s,” and Stevens keeping it loose, hamming it up delivering the song’s old-timey lyrical bon mots with Dean Martin-worthy charisma, the performance perfectly conjured the lighthearted humor of country music’s golden era.
A glowing Alan Jackson joked of his reputation as a man of few words – “I’m not really shy, I’m just kind of socially awkward,” he said – at the top of an uncharacteristically lengthy acceptance speech that brought laughs and left wet eyes across the house. Over the course of 13 minutes, and in his plainspoken, wise man’s baritone, Jackson recalled how Nashville radio legend Gerry House used to lovingly make fun of lines like “‘Til the transom got rotten,” a boat-parts reference on Jackson’s 2002 country Number One “Drive (For Daddy Gene).” “That’s what I know and that’s what I write about,” the singer, and former car salesman, said. “I came to Nashville to be a singer because I loved cars and I couldn’t really buy any.” Jackson recognized the roles fellow legends and friends from George Jones to Randy Travis had on influencing him when he started his career in 1985 as bar busker and demo singer, before going on to sell more than 60 million albums. He also recalled the CMA’s response to his infamous 1999 awards appearance, when he went off script with an unplanned performance of Jones’ “Choices,” in response to Jones only getting 90 seconds of TV time on the broadcast. “They told me when I sang that ‘Choices’ thing I’d never be back on the CMA again,” Jackson recalled with a humble grin.
It’s no surprise that a man being honored for his skills as a wordsmith delivered an acceptance speech bursting with quick wit and dripping with sage, warm-hearted honesty. But the best moment of said speech wasn’t when Schlitz opened it with a killer one-liner – “They didn’t leave out the L,” he said upon seeing his Hall of Fame plaque. It came when he asked for everyone in the room who’s ever written a song for him to stand, then asked anyone who’s performed one of his songs to stand, followed by the same request to industry folks, musicians, DJs, producers, etc., who represented or worked on those songs, until ultimately asking all songwriters in the room and their advocates to stand. Naturally, the entire room was on its feet.
“I’m a singer of simple songs,” Alan Jackson famously sang on “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).” Of all his hit ballads, perhaps none says more with less than the title track of his 1990 breakthrough LP Here in the Real World. Captivating with a pin-drop vocal performance, Lee Ann Womack reinforced the song’s timelessness. “Real World” sounds like it could have been born in any era of country music, but its theme – coming of age by way of accepting the wrenching reality that things hardly ever work out the way they should – says as much today as it ever has.