On Sunday night, Ricky Skaggs, Dottie West and Johnny Gimble were welcomed as the newest members of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum at the 2018 Medallion Ceremony, held in the museum’s CMA Theater. Garth Brooks presented bluegrass stalwart Skaggs with the Hall’s Modern Era honor. Connie Smith inducted late fiddle great Gimble in the Hall’s Recording and/or Touring Musician category. And Brenda Lee led a tribute to her late friend, Grammy-winning classic country turned pop-crossover star Dottie West, who received the Hall’s Veteran Era honor. Performances and speeches from Brooks, Dierks Bentley, Chris Stapleton, Smith and Grand Ole Opry star Jeannie Seely highlighted an evening that was at times touching, hilarious and even surreal for those onstage and in the audience alike. Here’s a look at the 10 best moments from this year’s ceremony.
Garth Brooks shoots from the hip.
In an appearance recalling his induction of Randy Travis to the Country Music Hall of Fame two years ago, Garth Brooks was on hand to welcome another one of his musical heroes, Ricky Skaggs, into the format’s most exclusive club. Explaining that he didn’t know he was actually giving the speech to induct Skaggs in addition to paying tribute to him with a performance of “Highway 40 Blues,” Brooks opted to shoot from the hip with a heartfelt, stream of consciousness address hailing Skaggs’ lasting traditional influence on country music with bluegrass-tinged hits such as “Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown” and “Uncle Pen.” In his acceptance speech, Skaggs thanked Brooks for being one of his biggest cheerleaders through the years and also thanked Brooks and his wife Trisha Yearwood for just being real.
The Time Jumpers electrify with their Johnny Gimble tribute.
Joe Spivey, Kenny Sears and Larry Franklin — the Time Jumpers’ triple-threat fiddle players — teamed up with singer David Ball (“Thinkin’ Problem”) to kick off the night with an electrifying performance of the Twenties’ jazz ballad “Right or Wrong” in honor of late fiddle player Johnny Gimble. The sheer power of those three fiddles sawing away was a good reminder of just how exciting it is to watch virtuosity in action. A native Texan, Gimble played “Right or Wrong” many times as a member of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys and went on to play that fiddle part again on George Strait’s chart-topping 1984 cover version. Gimble also appeared on classic recordings from Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson, as well as on Paul McCartney’s storied 1974 Nashville sessions.
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The Hall plays up its academic credentials.
This year’s Medallion Ceremony got off to an odd start with the Country Music Hall of Fame board chairman Steve Turner standing onstage along with three of his fellow board members in academic robes and sashes recognizing their status as members of the organization’s Circle Guard. According to a July press release, the new group spotlights former and current Hall of Fame board members who have donated their “time, talent and treasure” to the Hall to “safeguard the integrity of country music and make it accessible to a global audience through the museum.” While these individuals certainly deserve recognition for their efforts, the visual of these men wearing such formal collegiate attire might have come off slightly less elite and stuffy if they’d been decorated instead with some Manuel-style rhinestones and fringe.
Chris Stapleton delivers simmering mountain soul.
The continuing influence of bluegrass music on today’s country music was most apparent when reigning CMA Male Vocalist Chris Stapleton paid tribute to his fellow Kentuckian Ricky Skaggs with a simmering cover of the Ralph Stanley-penned “Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn.” Skaggs and Emmylou Harris recorded a duet of that bluegrass chestnut on Harris’s 1980 bluegrass album, Roses in the Snow, and Stapleton admitted he got a little choked up watching the tribute footage of Skaggs and bluegrass giant Bill Monroe that ran before his performance. Armed with just an acoustic guitar around his neck, Stapleton never let his commanding voice fully ring out as he delivered the inspirational lyrics about keeping faith when all seems lost. It was an exercise in the power of restraint and a reminder that Stapleton’s connection with audiences owes a lot to those bluegrass roots.
Female artists celebrate Dottie West’s legacy of girl power.
In a moment most relevant to today’s conversation on women in country music, Country Music Hall of Fame member Brenda Lee called fellow female artists Trisha Yearwood, Emmylou Harris, Jan Howard, Jeannie Seely and Connie Smith out of the audience onto the stage to help her induct the late Dottie West. A longtime friend of West, Lee told the audience, “It’s gonna take a village to induct this woman.” Just as Patsy Cline welcomed West with open arms upon her arrival in Nashville in the early Sixties, West paid that gift forward sharing camaraderie and friendship with scores of women coming up after her in country music, including Seely, who kicked off the musical tributes with a performance of West’s first Grammy-winning hit from 1964, “Here Comes My Baby.”
Dierks Bentley straddles the lines of country and bluegrass.
Dierks Bentley’s career has been on an upward artistic swing even since he made his critically acclaimed 2010 bluegrass-influenced album, Up on the Ridge. Since then, banjo and mandolin sounds have shown up even more prominently in his mainstream country radio hits, and that’s a formula he learned from studying Skaggs’ wide and varied musical playbook. Bentley said it was “probably the biggest night of my career” and “definitely the most surreal” getting to pay tribute to Skaggs’ melding of bluegrass and country with a performance of Skaggs’ 1982 steel guitar-drenched hit “You’ve Got a Lover.”
Emmylou Harris is brought to tears.
The usually reserved Emmylou Harris was brought to tears as her former band member and duet partner Skaggs used a good chunk of his acceptance speech to thank her for introducing his music to the international stage. Skaggs was a key player in shepherding Harris’s music toward a more acoustic, bluegrass sound in the late Seventies. Their work together would reach its summit with Harris’s 1980 bluegrass album, Roses in the Snow, which heavily featured Skaggs on fiddle, banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar and duet vocals. This tearful exchange between two of country music’s most fervent keepers of the flame was one of the night’s most profound moments.
Ricky Skaggs plays Bill Monroe’s mandolin.
This year’s standout Medallion Ceremony moment came at the end of the night as inductee Skaggs was allowed to play his mentor Bill Monroe’s 1923 Gibson F-5 mandolin. The instrument is a centerpiece of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Precious Jewels exhibit, and Skaggs is one of the only people in the world worthy of making that mandolin ring out again with a show-closing rendition of the Hall’s official anthem, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” As a six-year-old bluegrass prodigy, Skaggs was allowed onstage at a Bill Monroe show in Kentucky to play that very mandolin under the watchful eye of Monroe, who instructed his young student to play the instrument hard as if he was whipping a mule. Playing it again as a 64-year-old man now credited with carrying on Mr. Monroe’s bluegrass tradition, Skaggs was visibly overcome with emotion. He even talked to the instrument onstage in a touching, yet surreal scene as he stressed the role that mandolin played in helping Monroe create the bluegrass genre.
Dottie West is honored for shepherding new talent.
Before performing a duet of West’s Coca-Cola jingle-turned-country hit, “Country Sunshine,” Steve Wariner and Larry Gatlin both credited West with giving them the encouragement and the opportunity to move to Nashville to launch their careers. Touching on her mother’s generous spirit, West’s daughter Shelly spoke of trying to get out the front door to go to school and having to step over the sleeping bodies of aspiring songwriters finding shelter on the family’s living room floor. She said, “Can you imagine growing up with Roger Miller, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson in your living room all night?” These stories point to West’s dual role as a respected country singer-songwriter as well as de facto den mother for the artists we now regard as the icons of country music.
The War and Treaty bring down the house.
In a nod to Dottie West’s flashy foray into pop-country in the late Seventies and early Eighties, Americana husband-and-wife duo the War and Treaty brought down the house with a fiery, soulful take on West’s 1980 chart-topping kiss-off anthem, “A Lesson in Leavin’.” The performance rocked so hard the usually reverent audience actually stood up to clap along mid-song. Jo Dee Messina covered the song in 1999, but West’s funky original — with its opening drum break and electric piano flourishes that lean more R&B than traditional country — is evidence that country’s slick Urban Cowboy period produced a few outright classics.