Hargus “Pig” Robbins, a member of Nashville’s A-team of session players who added keyboards and piano to albums by Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan, Kenny Rogers, Miranda Lambert, Ween, and many more, died Sunday. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, who inducted Robbins into the Hall in 2012, confirmed his death. He was 84.
Robbins’ playing was all about the feel. Listen to the bluesy piano he dropped into Dylan’s “Pledging My Time” in 1966, the defining but never heavy-handed intro he played on Crystal Gayle’s 1977 “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” or the supple solo that Robbins added to Lambert’s “To Learn Her” on 2016’s The Weight of These Wings. It was that sense of providing exactly what the songs called for that made Robbins an in demand player up until the end of his life — Dolly Parton asked Robbins to play on a new album but his health wouldn’t allow it, Parton told Rolling Stone last year.
The keyboard player with the barnyard nickname was born Hargus Melvin Robbins in Spring City, Tennessee, on Jan. 18, 1938. He earned the moniker “Pig” for how filthy he would become when he was playing at school. “I had a supervisor who called me that because I used to sneak in through a fire escape and play when I wasn’t supposed to, and I’d get dirty as a pig,” Robbins told the Country Music Hall of Fame. That school was the Tennessee School for the Blind — Hargus lost his sight at age 3 as a result of a knife accident.
He played on his breakout recording session in 1959, adding boisterous piano to George Jones’ “White Lightning.” From there, Robbins became a go-to member of Nashville’s A-Team, the rotating group of session players that included luminaries like guitarist Chet Atkins, drummer Jerry Carrigan, fiddler Johnny Gimble, bassist Bob Moore (with whom Robbins often recorded), and pianist Floyd Cramer, a key influence on Robbins.
Robbins would go on to play on scores of sessions. On Jan. 30, 1961 — 61 years ago today — Patsy Cline released “I Fall to Pieces,” featuring Robbins’ indelible notes. He’s also responsible for the intro to Charlie Rich’s 1973 ballad “Behind Closed Doors,” provided piano and keys throughout Parton’s 1971 Coat of Many Colors, and joined Dylan on 1966’s Blonde on Blonde. He even added country bona fides to Ween’s 1996 lark 12 Golden Country Greats, along with fellow session greats Charlie McCoy and Gene Chrisman.
In addition to his session work, Robbins released a string of solo albums, most notably 1977’s Country Instrumentalist of the Year, which netted him a Grammy, and 1978’s A Pig in a Poke.
“His playing was always distinctive,” Kyle Young, CEO, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum said of Robbins in a statement. “Pig’s left hand on the piano joined with Bob Moore’s bass to create an unstoppable rhythmic force, while the fingers on his right hand flew like birds across the keys. The greatest musicians in Nashville turned to Pig for guidance and inspiration.”