Country Music Hall of Fame voters made a sound decision when they selected the class of 2021.
In addition to the two recording acts that are most familiar to the general public, The Judds and Ray Charles, the honorees for the first time include two session players: drummer Eddie Bayers and late steel guitarist Pete Drake. Both are the first Hall members to represent their chosen instrument on a full-time basis, both of them were also innovators, and they tied when voters selected this year’s inductee in the musician category.
The pandemic delayed the medallion ceremony for the 2021 class, but the new additions will finally become official on May 1.
Drake and Bayers fill out the Hall of Fame musician ranks a little more, bringing steel guitar and drums to a cast that includes only seven session players: guitarists Chet Atkins, Harold Bradley and Grady Martin; pianists Floyd Cramer and Hargus “Pig” Robbins; harmonica player Charlie McCoy; and fiddler Johnny Gimble.
More than 60 years since it was established, the Hall of Fame still has no full-time bassist in its membership, and a case can be made that musicians are severely underrepresented.
“There would be no Music City if it had not been for those musicians,” Drake’s widow, Pete Drake Music Group president/CEO Rose Drake, says.
Pete was Nashville’s leading session steel player for roughly three decades, after he first appeared on a country hit: Roy Drusky’s 1960 single “Anymore.” Before his 1988 death, he played on reams of hits, including Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” Lynn Anderson’s “Rose Garden,” Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” and George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
It’s telling that Pete flourished during that period, given that work for steel guitarists declined in the 1960s, thanks to the rise of the pop-influenced “Nashville Sound.” One key to his success was preparation — he changed pedals on his instrument to create a unique sound for each artist he worked with, according to Rose, and he often went into a session with an idea of what he might play, even though he wouldn’t hear the material until the session started.
“He would dream licks,” Rose remembers. “If he was going to go do a session with Tammy, he may wake up doing a lick that he would think would fit her voice. I mean, he lived and breathed music.” Even, apparently, in his sleep.
But Pete was also a steel inventor. He developed a talk box that allowed him to sing along with the steel through a tube. It gained traction through his 1963 recording “Forever,” but it reached new heights when rock guitarists employed it. Pete introduced the gizmo to Peter Frampton during sessions for George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, and the sound became a Frampton signature. It also has been used by Bon Jovi and Joe Walsh, whose “Rocky Mountain Way” put Pete’s talk box on the pop charts at the same time Pete was playing on a Charlie Rich pop hit, “The Most Beautiful Girl.”
Despite his significance, Pete wasn’t a household name. Nor did he expect to be.
“I think he’d be very proud,” Rose says of her late husband’s likely response to the medallion ceremony, “but I can’t tell you how many times that we would get dressed to go to the CMA Awards or the BMI Awards, and he would try to find a reason that he didn’t have to go. He’d say, ‘All people really want from me is my sound. They don’t need to see my face.’ “
Bayers, whose A-list status launched after he first hit the top 10 as the drummer on Mickey Gilley’s “True Love Ways” in 1980, was likewise an innovator. He was among the first percussionists to use “triggers” on country sessions, essentially patching different-size drums — snares, toms or kick drums — through electronic devices that let producers change the tone or the placement of a note in time. It made Bayers highly adaptable, and he appeared on hundreds of hits, including Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee,” George Strait’s “Ace in the Hole,” Keith Whitley’s “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” Trisha Yearwood’s “She’s in Love With the Boy” and Wynonna’s “No One Else on Earth.”
Additionally, Bayers has been the lead drummer for the Grand Ole Opry’s house band since 2003 and a longtime member of the Hall of Fame’s Medallion All-Star Band, playing at induction ceremonies for years. Someone else will have to sit in, at least for this class, so he can participate in activities that overlap with the band’s rehearsals.
Like Pete, Bayers thinks of his job as a service -— he knows many fans like the records he played on for reasons that have nothing to do with his percussion work. Likewise, the artists who employ him have different tastes or expectations when it comes to a drummer’s contributions. Bayers is OK with that, since they’re the ones paying the bills. Plus, if their work is successful, the artist will have to sing the song for years in concert.
“You play accordingly to what you’re booked to do,” reasons Bayers. “It’s not about you — you didn’t call them; they called you. You need to understand the artist and what it is they want.”
That attitude continues to pay off for Bayers. His session card is still full — he just did a Garth Brooks studio date in recent weeks — though months ago, his future as a drummer was unclear. Bayers couldn’t participate when his Hall of Fame class was announced on Aug. 16, 2021, outside of submitting a prepared note of gratitude. Despite getting vaccinated, he was hospitalized for 15 days with COVID-19 and required two more months of home rehab. It was brutal; thus, every word of his May 1 acceptance speech will be even more meaningful.
“My first sessions back, it was interesting because everybody I worked for went, ‘My God, Eddie, you’re playing better than you ever have. It’s like you hit a new zone,’ ” Bayers recalls. “I spent three months not knowing whether I’d ever play again — much less whether I’d live. When you get on the back side of that, you’re thrilled. I’ve appreciated everything I’ve done.”