Part of me feels the safest thing to do is to simply post, without comment, the three Hall of Fame inductees for the class of 2016, announced this morning (3/29) in the Hall of Fame's rotunda. But today's inductions beg for commentary.
First, the inductees:
FRED FOSTER (inducted in the rotating category - Non-Performer): the founder of Monument Records, the label that gave the start to acts such as Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Connie Smith, and many more (including session ace Bob Moore's big instrumental hit "Mexico"), Foster served as producer for most of Roy Orbison's massive hits and others, including the classic album The Silver Tongued Devil and I by Kristofferson (which was featured in the film Taxi Driver) and the Grammy-winning You Don't Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker by Willie Nelson. As a songwriter he co-wrote the legendary "Me and Bobbie McGee" with Kristofferson.
RANDY TRAVIS (inducted in the Modern category): the "neo-traditional" movement of the 80s, the last gasp of traditional country music in the mainstream arena, was spearheaded by four major forces: George Strait, Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, and Randy Travis. Strait was inducted in 2006; Travis joined him today. In unquestionably one of the most poignant moments in recent memory Travis, who suffered a debilitating and near-fatal (as his wife mentioned in her speech) stroke in 2013, walked from his wheelchair to the podium and uttered two magical words: "thank you." It was heartwarming and heartbreaking simultaneously. The man who gave us countless classic from "Diggin' Up Bones" and "Forever and Ever, Amen" to the award-winning "Three Wooden Crosses" is a most deserving inductee.
CHARLIE DANIELS (inducted in the Veterans category): the Bastille has now officially been stormed as the first person from the southern rock genre has been welcomed into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Daniels is best-known in country for his 1979 #1 hit "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." Additionally, he hosted the Volunteer Jam, a music festival of southern rock stalwarts, for 40 years.
The question becomes, of course, does Charlie Daniels really belong in the Country Music Hall of Fame? The traditionalists will argue that southern rock has no place here. Just because a band or a singer was from "the south" doesn't mean they have an automatic association with country music, despite the fact that that attitude has been rather prevalent for the past 20 years or so (or, since people began re-defining country music from the textbook definition to a definition to fit their tastes). People are arguing that Lynyrd Skynyrd was "country" (they did do "T For Texas" on One More From the Road and Merle Haggard's "Honky Tonk Night Time Man" on Street Survivors) for that reason: they were from Jacksonville. Daniels certainly has far more elements of country music in his songs that Skynyrd, so in that regard maybe I should be thankful it was him instead of Skynyrd inducted today.
There's another issue, however: is Charlie Daniels' career and/or influence significant enough to warrant induction in any hall of fame? Looking at the Billboard charts, one has to wonder. He had two top ten songs in rock and three in country. The 2008 Whitburn lists him as #204 in the all-time biggest singles artists in country music. While that may seem admirable, people who have double the "points" (the formula that Whitburn developed, based on number of singles, longevity, success, and other factors) of Daniels who aren't in the Hall of Fame. And, unlike Daniels, nobody is going to argue the authenticity of the country music of the Gatlin Brothers, Skaggs, Vern Gosdin, Gene Watson, Freddie Hart, or Dottie West. Even people who might cause a controversy, such as Charlie Rich (who burned John Denver's "entertainer of the year" envelope at the CMAs one year, despite the fact that Rich was hardly the champion of traditional country music), Hank Williams Jr., and Jerry Reed are much higher ranked in terms of chart success than Daniels.
But, as I've often argued, chart success isn't all of the story (and never has been). Does Daniels have the influence? He was a member of the "first generation" of southern rockers, along with the Allman Brothers, the Marshall Tucker Band, and Skynyrd. And, to his credit, he is the only southern rock act with a fiddle.
Still, I cannot help but think that, like Mac Wiseman's induction a few years ago (a legendary bluegrass singer who was the fifth act inducted into the Bluegrass hall of fame where his career has mainly been focused but had little success in country music), Daniels was put in to keep someone else out. It's very sad to think such a thing, but given that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame does that (one year ignoring the fact that the Dave Clark Five got more votes than another act and inducting the act with fewer votes instead) one cannot help but wonder if there's inside-the-industry politics and/or personal vendettas/dislikes/old grudges keeping deserving acts out of the Hall of Fame. Certainly Hank Jr. ruffled a few feathers with his political commentary; however, Daniels is also quite conservative in his political leanings and very vocal about those beliefs (writing them weekly in "Charlie's Soapbox" on his website). Webb Pierce was shunned for years because he wasn't well-liked thanks to his unscrupulous way of changing one word or note in a song then claiming 50% songwriter credit, but he was finally inducted (ten years after his death).
The barn door has been kicked down now, and I'm sure we can expect more rock acts (or acts with prominence in rock) inducted in the future. I'm sure the next few years will see the Band, the Eagles, Poco, and Gram Parsons put in the Country Music Hall of Fame. In fact, as next year is the songwriter year, I'd bet money on Bob Dylan being the songwriter inductee.
Larry Cordle famously wrote, "Ol' Hank wouldn't stand a chance on today's radio since they committed murder down on Music Row." He probably wouldn't stand a chance in today's Hall of Fame, either.