The Country Music Hall of Fame officially inducted the members of its 2020 class of inductees—Dean Dillon, Marty Stuart, and Hank Williams, Jr.—with a ceremony Sunday (Nov. 21, 2021) at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s CMA Theater.
These three artists mark the Hall of Fame’s 140th, 141st and 142nd members. Stuart was inducted as the modern era artist, while Williams Jr. was inducted as the veterans era artist and Dillon was inducted in the songwriter category, one of three non-artist categories that rotate each year.
“Tonight is homecoming, a comforting return to something we’ve all missed so much, the celebration of the circle, intact and complete, as we honor the careers of three extraordinary, pivotal figures in country music and welcome them into the country music hall of fame,” said Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern. “Members of the Hall of Fame wait a lifetime for this distinction. This class of honorees had to wait even longer as we rode out the worst of the pandemic.”
Trahern noted that they started sharing the news [of the inductions] with the honorees back in February 2020.
Country Music Hall of Fame board chair Mary Ann McCready also welcomed guests to the ceremony, while Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum CEO Kyle Young helped to guide the festivities.
The evening started with the entrance of attending Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum members, among them Bill Anderson, Statler Brothers member Jimmy Fortune, Emmylou Harris, Alabama members Randy Owen and Teddy Gentry, Brooks & Dunn, harmonica player Charlie McCoy, Ray Stevens, songwriter Don Schlitz, Ricky Skaggs, Randy Travis, producer/exec Jerry Bradley, and Brenda Lee.
The first honoree of the evening was Stuart.
“Marty Stuart is a flamekeeper, a spokesman and a chief,” Young said, before introducing the first performer of the evening, Pastor Evelyn Hubbard, who honored Stuart with a rendition of “It’s Time To Go Home.” Emmylou Harris and Charlie Worsham performed Stuart’s 1991 release “Tempted,” followed by Ashley McBryde, who turned in a stunning rendition of “The Observations from a Crow,” from Stuart’s pivotal 1999 album The Pilgrim.
Backing all of the performances during the evening was the Medallion All-Star Band, featuring ace musicians Biff Watson, Eddie Bayers, Rusty Danmyer, Tania Hancheroff, Brent Mason, Carmella Ramsey, Deanie Richardson, Michael Rojas, Jeff White, and Glenn Worf.
Country Music Hall of Fame member Connie Smith inducted her husband, Stuart, into the Country Music Hall of Fame. “It’s the fulfillment of a lifetime dream for him,” Smith told the audience.
By the time Stuart was in his teens, he was already on the road performing as part of Lester Flatt’s band, before later joining Johnny Cash’s band. In the 1990s, Stuart would have a string of hits including “Hillbilly Rock,” “Tempted,” the Grammy-winning “The Whiskey Ain’t Working” (with Travis Tritt) and more. By the late ‘90s, Stuart was more focused on creative fulfillment over commercial accolades, releasing the 1999 album The Pilgrim, which featured Cash, Harris, George Jones, Ralph Stanley and more. From there, more critically-acclaimed albums followed, such as Soul’s Chapel and Badlands. In addition to adding four more Grammys to his accolades, Stuart also served as the Country Music Hall of Fame’s artist-in-residence in 2019.
“I love this building,” Stuart told the audience. “This is our living room. This is our spiritual home.”
During his induction speech on Sunday evening, Stuart also recalled once seeing a photo of Louis Armstrong playing to the pyramids. “I thought, ‘That man can go anywhere on earth and represent jazz. I want to be that for country music.’ Because country music deserves the same consideration as jazz, ballet, classical music…it needs to have its place in the pantheon of the arts.”
Next up was songwriter Dean Dillon, known for his plethora of hits recorded by George Strait (“Marina Del Rey,” “The Chair”) as well as hits recorded by Pam Tillis (“Spilled Perfume, penned with Tillis”), Kenny Chesney (“A Lot of Things Different”), Vern Gosdin (“Is It Raining at Your House?,” penned with Gosdin), Keith Whitley (“Miami, My Amy”) and “Tennessee Whiskey,” which just missed becoming a No. 1 hit for George Jones on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart and later became the song that shot Chris Stapleton to stardom.
Chesney was on hand to honor Dillon with a performance of “A Lot of Things Different,” while newcomer Brittney Spencer offered a soulful rendering of “Tennessee Whiskey.” Both performances earned standing ovations.
“Dean, thank you for sharing your beautiful gift with the world and me,” Chesney said.
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum member Lee, seated in the audience, had particularly high praise for Spencer’s performance, shouting from her seat, “Let’s all go home. I give up and I quit,” eliciting another round of applause from the crowd.
In 1981, Dillon was a co-writer on Strait’s very first No. 1 hit, “Unwound,” and since then, Strait has recorded more than 60 of Dillon’s songs, including “Ocean Front Property,” “If I Know Me,” “Here For a Good Time,” and more. Sunday evening, after performing a rendition of “The Chair,” Strait inducted Dillon into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and recalled getting to record “Unwound.”
“Luckily Johnny Paycheck—you know the story—was in jail and I got the song,” Strait said with a chuckle. “Man, but all these years, all those songs Dean and here we are today. This is the pinnacle, really, of what we do, right? It’s hard to even dream about being in the Hall of Fame because you never think you’re going to be here…I knew you’d be in the Hall of Fame. I couldn’t be more proud of you and more proud to be the one to put this medallion around your neck, brother.”
After accepting the medallion from Strait, Dillon quipped, “I’m glad the CMA finally got around to the outlaw songwriter division.” Wiping tears from his eyes, he also thanked his family members as well as various team members. Dillon also spoke of his early ambitions to be both a songwriter and an artist, before he had a life-changing moment a few years into his career of writing hits for Strait.
“On a Monday of the week he records, for the last 40-something years, I’ve always sat across his desk and played him songs,” he said. He also recalled how the song “Easy Come, Easy Go” became a pivotal moment in his career. Dillon was signed to Atlantic and planned on releasing the song himself. However, Strait and producer Tony Brown wanted the song for Strait, with Brown promising Dillon the song would go to No. 1 if Strait recorded it. Dillon recalled “doing the math,” but also asking himself what meant the most to him–an artist career or writing songs. He gave Strait permission to record the song, and promptly went to Atlantic and quit his career as a recording artist to focus on writing songs.
The final inductee of the evening was Hank Williams, Jr., joining his late father and country music luminary Hank Williams, Sr. as a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
After spending his early years making music similar to the style made famous by his father, the younger Williams began to formulate his own unique musical style, blending elements of rock, soul, country, and more. After surviving a near-fatal accident during a ski trip in 1975, Williams began releasing songs that centered on biographical lyrics and fused that range of styles. Beginning with 1979’s Family Tradition, Williams launched a hot streak of music that included a string of popular songs such as “Family Tradition,” “Whiskey Bent and Hellbound,” “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight,” “Born To Boogie,” “A Country Boy Can Survive,” and more. Williams has twice won the CMA Awards entertainer of the year honor, and has had 10 songs reach No. 1 on Billboard’s country charts. He also won four Emmy Awards for crafting the themesong for Monday Night Football.
Shooter Jennings honored Williams with a performance of “Feelin’ Better,” while Eric Church offered a snarling acoustic rendition of “A Country Boy Can Survive.”
“I came to this town many years ago to try to catch some dreams and I caught most of mine, and I caught them because of Hank’s music…Hank was kind enough to take me out in a time in my career where the industry wasn’t as kind to me. We were in Louisiana. I had a song at the time called ‘Smoke a Little Smoke’ and it was doing okay. I remember standing side stage because I would always watch Hank’s show, and I was sitting there and Hank came up. I was still feeling pretty good, and he came up and said, “I heard you had ‘em going, cousin.’ I said, ‘yeah,’ and he said, ‘Watch this,’” drawing laughter from the crowd.
Church also recalled listening to Williams’s music with his late brother. “What matters to me is that journey, I mentioned catching dreams,” Church said. “This is one of my favorite nights in this town. When I sit here tonight, it’s about honoring him, but it’s also about, I think, about my brother.”
The final artist honoring Williams that evening was Alan Jackson, who performed Williams’s “The Blues Man,” which Jackson included on his 1999 album Under The Influence.
“A lot of your music led me to Nashville, so I thank you for that,” Jackson told Williams. “I sang your songs a million times. Man, you’re a great songwriter. You write some sweet things and it ain’t just all party stuff. It meant a lot to me and impressed me and helped me move to Nashville. As far as the Hall of Fame induction, all I can say about that is it’s way over due.”
Brenda Lee did the honors of inducting Williams into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“This is hard for me, because I only have a career because of the Williams name, because of Hank, Sr. My first record was ‘Jambalaya,’ and I was 10 years old and it gave me a life in an industry that I have loved and cherished with all my heart. I love to see entertainers that feel the same way. And Hank does, and he always has.”
She added, “He has been one of the few people in this industry that I can truly say that had all the strings—I’ll call them strings, you know what I’m talking about—but he never used them. As the song says, he charted his course and he did it his way.”
Lee also honored him for his work as a philanthropist and his love for his family.
She called Williams “a guy you can always call at midnight and say, ‘Hey, I’m in trouble. I’m in Alabama with a flat tire.’ He might not come, but he’ll send his plane,” she said, drawing more laughs from the audience.
Taking the stage, Williams knelt down so Lee could place the medallion around his neck. He kept his acceptance speech brief, saying, “Well the good thing is, this didn’t happen yesterday, which was opening day of deer season…my six-year-old grandson took his first deer.” Later, he added, “Alright, a lot of people to thank and I know who they are. They know who they are. That part about the family with the open arms, well, that might have been a little bit different in my case. But I went to Muscle Shoals, Alabama and all my rowdy friends are comin’ over tonight, I was born to boogie and this is a family tradition.”
In keeping with the tradition of the Medallion Ceremony, Connie Smith led the audience in concluding the ceremony with a rendition of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.”