Much of Nashville’s talent and sound comes from elsewhere.
The Country Music Hall of Fame medallion ceremony on Oct. 16 reminded us that the genre synthesizes American people, style, and talent. Keith Whitley found a bluegrass portal to Nashville from eastern Kentucky. Joe Galante brought marketing acumen from New York after working with David Bowie and Lou Reed.
Jerry Lee Lewis, forced by illness to stay home, perfected his dazzling piano playing and performing talents at R&B/blues bar Haney’s Big House in Ferriday, La., before commencing his recording career in Memphis.
The first performance, Alabama’s “My Home’s in Alabama,” celebrated the group’s hometown roots despite traveling to American cities.
The rest of the guest list represented popular music and geography. Garth Brooks discovered the dramatic high points of Whitley’s “Don’t Close Your Eyes” in a guitar/vocal format and closed his own eyes during the chorus to reflect the song’s central character. Lee Ann Womack sang Jerry Lee Lewis’
“Middle Age Crazy” with spine-tingling sensitivity, combining sympathy and derision. Kenny Chesney’s “The Good Stuff” was popularized by Galante, who campaigned for its radio release. Chris Isaak sang the Killers’ “Great Balls of Fire” with severely reverbed vocals and Jen Gunderman’s piano-banging and glissandos.
Frances Preston, a 1992 Hall inductee, told Galante that country music is about the song and the artist. The medallion ceremony’s awardees had memorable music and unique artists.
Lewis rode his “pumping piano” to a unique spot in rock and country history with “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” He refocused on the country in 1968, resulting in a 13-year run of songs that included a version of “Chantilly Lace,” honky-tonk classic
“What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me),” and an implausible take on “Over the Rainbow” that referenced “old Jerry Lee.” Hank Williams Jr. said this while inducting Jerry Lee. Jerry Lee doesn’t seek publicity. He insists. Not him. He orders… He doesn’t sing. He has music.
Whitley sang with a rich, emotive tone. “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” and “When You Say Nothing at All” were his first three No. 1 songs in a few months in the late 1980s, gaining extensive broadcast before his death from alcohol poisoning in 1989. Whitley hid self-doubts, which may have helped him convey melancholy and vulnerability in his music.
Keith was three weeks from joining the Grand Ole Opry when he died, his wife Lorrie Morgan said. “He was clueless. And he’d never suspected this [induction].”
Whitley’s breakthrough added him to the new traditionalist movement of that era, and he influenced Tim McGraw, Chris Young, and Brooks, who inducted him into the Hall.
“Tonight’s long overdue,” Brooks said.
By asking the appropriate questions, Galante helped the country’s industry better understand its product, audience, and connection. As Hall of Fame CEO Kyle Young stated, he created data that informed difficult judgments and inspired marketing ideas for a product often based on gut sense. Galante wasn’t a mathematician.
Young said Joe looked beyond the numbers to qualities like inventiveness and spirit. When he felt right, he ignored the data.
Galante achieved much. Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, Ronnie Milsap, Carrie Underwood, Martina McBride, and Miranda Lambert performed in his honor. Kix Brooks, inducting Galante, said Brooks & Dunn considered splitting when the executive took over their label. Working with “Joe freakin’ Galante” prompted the team to return for a second 10-year run.
In his acceptance speech, Galante said that his father, a 30-year postal worker, never understood the job that absorbed him. After his dad’s death, he discovered that he had bought Billboard from New York newsstands and saved images and stories about him.
Galante responded, “You get it,” before emotion took control.
Human stories, told by distinct performers, built Music City and the Country Music Hall of Fame Rotunda. Johnny Cash, Jimmie Rodgers, and Willie Nelson must take place for three more Nashville transplants.