Peter Cooper, The Tennessean
Two Oklahoma songbirds and a Florida-reared master of words and melody entered the Country Music Hall of Fame Sunday night as Reba McEntire, Jean Shepard and Bobby Braddock received country music’s highest honor during the Hall’s Medallion Ceremony.
The invitation-only event drew a bevy of cross-generational all-stars as artists including George Jones, Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, Kelly Clarkson, Bill Anderson and Elizabeth Cook raised voices in tribute to the new inductees. And while McEntire is the inductee best known to contemporary country radio listeners, she was quick to credit her Okie predecessor Shepard for paving the way for modern female singers’ successes.
“Jean Shepard did so much for women in country music,” McEntire said. “I’m honored to be going into the Hall of Fame with her.”
Indeed, Shepard, 77, found rare success as a woman in country music in the early 1950s, just after Kitty Wellsscored a top hit with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” and long before country record label executives were convinced of the value of releasing records with female lead singers. She was raised a sharecropper’s daughter, in a home without running water or electricity. Her family saved money to buy a new battery each year to power their AM radio, and she drew inspiration from listening to the country sounds coming from Nashville’s WSM AM 650 signal. Shepard’s first producer, the now-Hall of Famer Ken Nelson, figured there wasn’t a place in country music for women, but her tone-true vocals and palpably emotional performances convinced him otherwise.
The records Shepard recorded with Nelson, including “A Dear John Letter” (with Ferlin Husky), “A Satisfied Mind” and “Beautiful Lies” helped to overcome gender barriers in country, and on Sunday, Hall director Kyle Young said Shepard and her fans “effectively created the climate change that parted the clouds for Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette in the next decade and beyond.” The “beyond” part extends into the present, as Shepard has starred on the Grand Ole Opry since the mid-1950s.
“This is way too long in coming,” said Country Music Hall of Famer (and Rock and Roll Hall member) Brenda Lee. “She busted down the doors.”
Those were the doors McEntire, 56, raced through in becoming what Young called “the most successful female country performer of her generation.” Indeed, McEntire has become the go-to heroine of contemporary country females including Trisha Yearwood and Martina McBride, both of whom sang in her tribute Sunday night. For more than a quarter century, she has been a chart-topper, scoring hits including “Whoever’s In New England” (sung Sunday by Garth Brooks), “How Blue,” “Is There Life Out There” and, this year, “Turn On The Radio.” She sold more than 33 million albums in the 1980s and ’90s and extended her notoriety onto television and Broadway, and her rangy, emotive style ushered in an era of octave-hopping, gymnastic vocals.
“There’ve been a lot of changes in country music,” Shepard said. “I love some of them. I love Reba.”
On Sunday, Young told the story of McEntire’s rural childhood, her days traveling the rodeo circuit with her family, her slow and unsteady rise to country music stardom and her impact as a singer, actress, publisher and businesswoman.
“Following a 1987 divorce, she moved to Nashville and founded Starstruck Entertainment, a diversified entertainment company that earned her the moniker “country music’s Oprah,” Young said.
Another Oklahoman, Brooks, appeared to sing “Whoever’s In New England,” and other performances of McEntire hits came from Trisha Yearwood (with sister Susie McEntire), Gill and the one-time duo of Kelly Clarkson and Martina McBride.
Braddock, 70, was inducted on the strengths of his songwriting credits, which include classics “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” as well as modern hits “People Are Crazy” and “Time Marches On.” Braddock’s induction was a call for celebration in Nashville songwriting community, as evidenced by the attendance of Matraca Berg and Hall of Famer Bill Anderson (who provided a laughter-rich “formal” introduction). Before the ceremony, Anderson mused on Braddock’s lyrical skills.
“He writes things that are so funny, and then he’ll write something that will bring a tear to your eye,” Anderson said. “He’s one of the greats.”
Sunday’s formalities assured Braddock, McEntire and Shepard have been affirmed as standing among country’s greats. Their bronze plaques will hang in the Hall’s rotunda, alongside Hank Williams, Johnny Cash,Patsy Cline and the rest. The often unflappable McEntire wept at the moment’s enormity as she sat in a room filled with industry pros, with now-fellow Hall members and with Dolly Parton, who inducted her into the Hall.
“We kind of have a lot in common,” Hall of Famer Parton said from the podium.
Now, they’re members of country’s most rarified club.
Reach Peter Cooper at 615-259-8220 or firstname.lastname@example.org.