Wynonna Judd, making her acceptance speech with sister Ashley Judd beside her, recalled kissing her mother and former singing partner’s forehead at 2:20 p.m. on April 30, then looked toward the future.
“Though my heart’s broken,” she pledged, “I will continue to sing.”
Ashley, rising above the family’s personal grief, congratulated the night’s other inductees – Ray Charles (“so iconic and archetypal”), steel guitarist Pete Drake and drummer Eddie Bayers – then addressed the dozen or so existing Hall of Fame members who attended the ceremony, and the room at large.
“My mama loved you so much, and she appreciated your love for her,” Ashley said. “I’m sorry that she couldn’t hang on until today.”
Naomi missed a good show, one that seemed apropos for the circumstances. The evening’s 11 live performances were all ballads – the fastest tempo was Marty Stuart’s closer “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” – and the bulk of the material addressed the kind of painful topics that were historically central to country’s mission: broken hearts, unrequited love, cultural disintegration or death.
Mortality, in fact, inhabited three of the night’s songs, placing those classics in a different context.
Wendy Moten’s powerful rendition of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” – honoring Drake, who played on George Jones’ hit version of the song – is set at a funeral for a man who is finally freed from a decades-long passion for an old flame. Garth Brooks’ “Seven Spanish Angels” – a cover of a duet Charles performed with Willie Nelson – enlists a sort of western Romeo & Juliet tragedy, with both of the lovers gunned down and welcomed into the celestial realm. “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” the traditional medallion ceremony finale, pictures an undertaker delivering a deceased mother to her final resting place.
In one of music’s paradoxes, addressing the hurt provided a certain comfort by recognizing the loss of family and friends as a familiar life hurdle.
“As our community grieves, we look to love and the healing power of country music to ease our pain and calm our minds,” Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern said. “As a community, we need comfort in the honored traditions that are the very foundation of this event, to share stories and lift up Wynonna and Ashley, because we lost an industry icon, but they lost a mother.”
Fellow Kentuckian Carly Pearce honored The Judds by applying her smoky tone and Southern accent to the familial “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Old Days).” Gillian Welch and David Rawlings played a folky version of “Young Love” over a ringing music-box ideal, created when Rawlings placed a capo high on the neck of his acoustic guitar. Tommy Sims chimed in with a reverent take on “Love Can Build A Bridge,” the song Naomi delivered in her final public Judds appearance at Hall of Fame Park during the CMT Music Awards on April 11.
Drake was celebrated with renditions of two songs he played on as a studio musician: Moten’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and Elizabeth Cook’s warm version of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” Tommy White, affiliated with the Grand Ole Opry house band, handled steel, and Drake’s widow, Rose Drake, accepted on his behalf.
Bayers, who played on most – if not all – of The Judds’ hits, noted through visible emotions that his late son, Eddie Bayers Jr., was recognized by Naomi as “Chosen,” a name that was placed on his tombstone. Vince Gill sang “When I Call Your Name” and Trisha Yearwood offered “Walkaway Joe,” ballads in which the house band’s drummer, Jerry Pentecost, replicated Bayers’ tasteful, spacious approach to percussion.
Charles, the final inductee, was recognized with Brooks’ Mexical-flavored performance of “Seven Spanish Angels,” along with The War and Treaty’s inspired read of “You Don’t Know Me” and Betty LaVette’s dramatic, scratchy version of “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”
Charles, who was best known for his forays into soul and jazz, may have seemed an unusual Hall of Fame choice to some observers from outside the genre, but his 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music was a watershed for country, enjoying critical success and recasting the songs with big-band and string arrangements in the midst of the civil rights movement.
“His recording exposed a whole new generation to country music,” Ray Charles Foundation president Valerie Ervin said. “Country music was the core of Ray Charles’ life. His love and appreciation for the genre can never be overstated, and its influence also helps shape his storytelling in other genres.”
“Everybody tries to mimic Ray Charles,” Ronnie Milsap said in his induction speech. “You can’t do it. There was one of him, and only one.”
In the 61 years since the CMA established the Hall of Fame, this latest induction ceremony was likewise the only one quite like it.
“Every medallion ceremony is special, no doubt,” said Stuart, “but tonight is one for the books.”