The evening began with previously inducted Hall of Fame members emerging from backstage to take their seats to a standing ovation from the audience.
It was a moment that had Brooks & Dunn’s Ronnie Dunn welling up. “I was feeling pretty good till all you Hall of Fame members walked in, and I teared up,” he said of past honorees that included Bill Anderson, Garth Brooks, Charlie Daniels, Reba McEntire, Alabama’s Randy Owen, The Oak Ridge Boys, Ricky Skaggs and Randy Travis. “It caught me off guard. I was sitting here with a camera in my face trying not to cry. But you know what? I let it go. My therapist is here today — I love ya — we’ve still got a lot of work to do, but we’ve done a lot of work.”
The audience erupted in laughter and that moment reflected the tone of the event — a blend of heartfelt emotion combined with frequent hilarity. Country Music Hall of Fame CEO Kyle Young emceed the evening, who noted the Hall of Fame members who had died this year: Harold Bradley, Maxine Brown, Roy Clark, Fred Foster and Mac Wiseman.
Harold Ray Ragsdale, known to the world as Ray Stevens, was the first artist to be inducted. Following a video highlights reel, Skaggs performed Stevens’ Grammy-winning hit “Misty,” but before he launched into the song looked at Stevens, grinned and said, “I wanted to sing ‘The Mississippi Squirrel Revival,’ but they wouldn’t let me.”
Veteran broadcaster Keith Bilbrey and comedian James Gregory delivered Stevens’ 1974 hit “The Streak” and the McCrary Sisters got a standing ovation for their soulful performance of “Everything Is Beautiful.” The McCrarys sang on Stevens’ original recording of the Grammy-winning 1970 hit and the full-circle moment brought tears to his eyes. Legendary radio/television personality Ralph Emery inducted Stevens, placing the medallion around his neck and accompanying him center stage for the unveiling of the bronze plaque that will hang in the Hall of Fame’s rotunda.
While happy to be inducted at any point, Stevens joked, “If you guys would have gotten me in here a little sooner, I could have upped my price on booking dates and bought the other half of Music Row, but instead Mike Curb bought it.
“All joking aside,” he continued, “it’s a long way from the sock hop at a South Georgia high school when I played piano with a little four-piece band to this here place tonight. … Think about it. Ray Stevens in the Country Music Hall of Fame — no hat, no guitar. My jeans aren’t even ripped. How did that happen? The answer is simple, really. This is Nashville. Anything can happen in Nashville.”
Prior to Bradley’s induction, Young noted that both Bradley’s father, Owen, and his uncle, Harold, were already members of the Hall of Fame, but that family ties didn’t play a role. “Lineage does not assure legacy,” Young said, “Greatness doesn’t come through blood. It is achieved through action and invention.” (The only other father/son inductees are Fred Rose and Wesley Rose.)
The video package for the iconic record executive/publisher highlighted such accomplishments as signing Ronnie Milsap and Alabama to RCA and being behind Wanted! The Outlaws, the first platinum-selling album in country music.
Marty Stuart and Travis Tritt performed a spirited version of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson’s classic “Good Hearted Woman,” followed by British chanteuse Yola, whose riveting rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” earned her a standing ovation. Molly Tuttle joined Old Crow Medicine Show for a lively version of Alabama’s “Dixieland Delight,” during which Owen gave a thumbs-up from the audience.
Taking the stage, Bradley, who was inducted by his longtime friend, former Gaylord Entertainment president/CEO E.W. “Bud” Wendell, quipped, “As my old friend, [producer] Norro Wilson would say, ‘I don’t know how I got here, but I sure as hell ain’t leaving.’” In a heartfelt and often hilarious acceptance speech, he recounted such memories as when he and Mel Tillis took Burl Ives’ boat to Florida and wound up in the Bahamas, and, after signing a deal with Billie Jean Horton, who had been married to Hank Williams and Johnny Horton, she wanted him to celebrate by going to her house and getting in the pool naked.
“I quickly said, ‘No, but I will send Troy,” he said teasing Troy Tomlinson, current chairman/CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group Nashville, who used to work for Bradley. “Troy, how did that work out for you?”
Turning serious, he said, “This business has given me a wonderful life. I’m grateful for the people I’ve met, the songs I’ve heard and the part I played.”
Up next, Brothers Osborne took the stage to perform Brooks & Dunn’s breakthrough hit “Brand New Man.” Before delivering a stellar rendition of “Red Dirt Road,” Luke Bryan spoke about what the duo meant to him, sharing that Kix Brooks had called him after his sister died and that Dunn had spent 35 minutes on the phone giving him advice early in his career when he was struggling with vocal problems. “That’s what country music is all about and I just can’t thank you guys enough for those moments. It’s an honor to be here,” said Bryan, whose performance received a standing ovation.
Trisha Yearwood had the audience on its feet when she sang “Believe” before McEntire took the podium to induct Brooks & Dunn, teasing Dunn that she wasn’t going to mess up his spiky hair as she put the medallion around his neck. Brooks shared that when they toured with Merle Haggard, the country icon encouraged them to stick together after they had announced they were calling it quits 20 years into their career. “He said, ‘Son, you boys have got a thing,’” Brooks recalled. “‘You can’t put your finger on it. It’s one thing when an artist has a thing, and people know it. But for groups and for duos, that’s a rare, rare thing. You can’t waste that.”
The duo performed their final touring show in Nashville in 2010, but McEntire coaxed them out of retirement to join her for an ongoing Las Vegas residency that began in 2015. Earlier this year, Brooks & Dunn were again at No. 1 on the Top Country Albums chart with Reboot, a collection that paired the duo with newcomers like Kane Brown and Luke Combs in re-recording their hits.
“I’ve never been so proud and humbled,” Dunn told the crowd. “If you don’t believe that, just step in my heart right now.”
The event concluded with McEntire and the McCrary Sisters leading the star-studded crowd in “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
New members of the esteemed Country Music Hall of Fame are elected annually by an anonymous panel of industry leaders chosen by the Country Music Association. The first members — Jimmie Rodgers, Fred Rose and Hank Williams — were inducted in 1961.