Hargus “Pig” Robbins, a Country Music Hall of Fame member and renowned session pianist who played with the likes of George Jones, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and many more, has died. He was 84.
Robbins passed away on Sunday (Jan. 30), the Country Music Hall of Fame confirmed.
In a statement from the Country Music Association, CEO Sarah Trahern wrote, “Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins was a defining sound for so much of the historic music out of Nashville. His talent spoke for itself through his decades-spanning career and work as a session pianist with countless artists across genres. Our hearts go out to his friends and family during this difficult time.”
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum CEO Kyle Young said, “Like all successful session musicians, Pig Robbins was quick to adapt to any studio situation. He worked quickly, with perfection less a goal than a norm. And while he could shift styles on a dime to suit the singer and the song, his playing was always distinctive. Pig’s left hand on the piano joined with Bob Moore’s bass to create an unstoppable rhythmic force, while the fingers on his right hand flew like birds across the keys. The greatest musicians in Nashville turned to Pig for guidance and inspiration.”
Born in Spring City, Tennessee, Robbins said in a 2007 Nashville Cats interview that he “was about three years old when I stuck a knife in one eye.” The other eye had what was called “sympathetic infection,” he said, and he lost his sight completely.
He attended the Tennessee School for the Blind, where he started taking piano lessons at age seven, learning by ear. “I figured in two or three weeks I’d be playing what I was hearing on the radio,” he joked, saying that at the time he was listening to “country music, of course.”
He got his nickname while at school. He loved playing in the old fire escapes, and said that “when I’d come out, I’d be real dirty from all that soot and everything.” The school supervisor would tell him, “‘You’re as dirty as a little pig,'” he noted, “and the kids picked [it] up and started to call me ‘Pig.'”
He said the nickname never bothered him, and it stuck.
At school, he was taught classical music, but he practiced the music of his choice without his teachers. Some of his early influences included Owen Bradley, Poppa John Gordy and Ray Charles.
Robbins’ breakout performance as a session player came in 1959, on George Jones’ “White Lightning.” In the Nashville studio, he went on to work on innumerable sessions with country stars. Notable credits would include Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces,” Loretta Lynn’s “You’re Looking at Country” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors,” Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” and Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” — just to name a handful of highlights.
Robbins was also the pianist on Bob Dylan’s classic Blonde on Blonde, during the album’s Nashville sessions in 1966.
Beyond his countless contributions over decades as a session player, Robbins also recorded a number of his own solo studio albums in the ’60s and ’70s.
The musician took a brief break from his career around the year 2000, due to illness.
“I was diagnosed with cancer in December of ’99,” he recalled in the Nashville Cats interview, “and then I started taking chemo and it numbed my fingers — so I had to quit about April, I think it is, that year. After about a year, I got to feeling a little better and found out I was going to live, so I thought I’d start trying to play again. The more I played, the more the feeling would come back. It was kind of like therapy.”
He soon got back to playing on a number of albums, with one of his most recent credits being Connie Smith‘s 2021 release, The Cry of the Heart.
Of Robbins, longtime collaborator Smith once said, “I love the depth and timbre of his playing. The way he plays just lifts me up, and I feel more when Pig’s playing.”
Robbins was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2012. Among the various awards he’s won, Robbins was named the CMA’s instrumentalist of the year in both 1976 and 2000, and he took home a Grammy for best country instrumental performance in 1978.