Country Music Hall of Fame – 2015 Inductees

During a special press conference in Nashville, the latest inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame were announced by singer Brenda Lee, who herself became a Hall of Fame member in 1997. The new members of the Hall of Fame are to be Jim Ed Brown and The Browns, who are inducted in Veterans Era Artist category, the Oak Ridge Boys in the Modern Era Artist category, and Grady Martin in the Recording and/or Touring Musician Active Prior to 1980 category. All three will be formally inducted during an invitation-only Medallion Ceremony later this year.

Jim Ed Brown and The Browns (seated, l-r Bonnie, Jim Ed, and Maxine Brown) and The Oak Ridge Boys (l-r Duane Allen, William Lee Golden, Richard Sterban, and Joe Bonsall) are the newest inductees of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Grady Martin will be inducted posthumously. Photo Credit: Alan Poizner / CMA

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Browns offered up some of the smoothest harmonies in country music. The group was originally comprised of brother and sister Jim Ed Brown and Maxine Brown and were later joined by younger sister Bonnie. Both Maxine and Jim were born in Sparkman, Arkansas, where their father owned a sawmill. With the encouragement of their parents, they began singing and developing their close harmonies in childhood. Maxine Brown was working as a secretary for the Arkansas State Police in 1952 when she entered her brother into Barnyard Frolics, the Little Rock country music showcase. Jim Ed Brown lost, but was invited back with his sister and soon became popular favourites on the show and also other local radio shows, which led to local TV appearances as well.

In 1954 Jim Ed & Maxine Brown were signed to Fabor Records (a subsidiary of Abbott Records) and scored a top ten country hit with novelty song Looking Back To See. They were joined by younger sister Bonnie in 1955 following her high school graduation and the trio scored a top ten hit with Here Today and Gone Tomorrow. This led to regular appearances on the Louisiana Hayride and the Ozark Jubilee. Sid Siman, the latter show’s producer, arranged for them to sign with RCA Victor in 1956, where they came under the direction of producer Chet Atkins. Soon after they had major hits with I Take The Chance and I Heard The Bluebirds Sing as they changed their name to the Browns.

Jim Ed Brown and The Browns (Maxine, left, and Bonnie) are announced as the newest inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame in the 'Veterans Era Artist' category. Photo Credit: Alan Poizner / CMA

When Jim Ed was called up to serve in the military in 1957, the group continued to record while he was on leave, and sister Norma filled in for him on tours. They scored one of their biggest hits in 1959 with the inspirational, folk-oriented The Three Bells, which not only spent ten weeks on top of the country charts, but also crossed over and spent four weeks at number one on the pop charts and was also successful in the UK. As a result, the Browns appeared on Ed Sullivan, the Jimmy Dean Show and American Bandstand.

The Browns remained in the folk mode for their two follow-up hits, Scarlet Ribbons and The Old Lamplighter, both of which did extremely well on the country and pop charts. Their string of pop hits continued until 1961, when the folk craze died out, but they continued to create country hits with Send Me The Pillow You Dream On (1960), Then I’ll Stop Loving You (1964), I’d Just Be Fool Enough and Coming Back To You (both 1966). In 1963 the Browns joined the Grand Ole Opry.

In late 1967, the Browns disbanded and Maxine and Bonnie moved back to Arkansas to be with their families, while Jim Ed focused on the successful solo career he had started in 1965. He continued to score country hits from 1965 (I Heard From A Memory Last Night) through to 1981 (Don’t Bother To Knock), including a run of duet hits with Helen Cornelius. His most notable solo hits were Pop A Top (1967), Morning (1970) and Southern Loving (1973). His duets with Helen Cornelius include the chart-topping I Don’t Want To Have To Marry You (1976) and Saying Hello, Saying I Love You, Saying Goodbye (1977), If The World Ran Out Of Love Tonight (1978), Lying In Love With You and Fools (both 1979) and Morning Comes Too Early (1980).

Jim Ed Brown has remained a member of the Grand Ole Opry through to today. In the late 1970s he hosted the syndicated country television show Nashville On The Road, along with Jerry Clower, Helen Cornelius, and Wendy Holcombe. He also hosted The Nashville Network programmes, You Can Be A Star (a talent show), and Going Our Way, which featured Brown and his wife travelling across America in an RV. Currently he hosts two nationally syndicated country music radio shows, the weekly two-hour Country Music Greats Radio Show and the weekday short-form vignette, Country Music Greats Radio Minute. Both are broadcast by over 300 radio stations, to a weekly audience exceeding three million, as well as on the Internet.

The Oak Ridge Boys (l-r, Joe Bonsall, Richard Sterban, Duane Allen, and William Lee Golden) are announced as the newest inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame in the 'Modern Era Artist' category. Photo Credit: Alan Poizner / CMA

In 2014 he was diagnosed with cancer. At the end of January 2015, after four months of cancer treatment, he returned to the Ryman Auditorium for the Grand Ole Opry to huge applause. That appearance coincided with the release of IN STYLE AGAIN, his first solo album for 40 years.

In the 1980s, The Browns began performing occasionally in concert for the first time in nearly 20 years. Maxine Brown, who had suffered deep depression after the Browns split and her family had all grown up, wrote the book Looking Back to See: A Country Music Memoir, that was published in 2005. The Browns were big favourites of both Elvis Presley (with whom they toured in the mid-1950s) and the Beatles. When the Beatles were on American Bandstand and host Dick Clark asked what American bands they liked, the answer was The Browns.

I have to say that I was never a fan of the Browns. Jim Ed possessed a sweet, smooth voice, not too dissimilar to Jim Reeves while his two sisters provided smooth two-part harmonies. They were the epitome of the worst excesses of the dreaded Nashville Sound of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Insipid, wallpaper muzak, at times they were just too sweet and saccharine-coated for me.

When listening to the smoothly executed harmonies on such classic songs as Unchained Melody, Love Me Tender and Fair And Tender Ladies, memories of Sunday afternoon’s BBC Light programme with the Michael Sammes' Singers comes to mind. But when they stayed close to pure country as with I Heard the Bluebirds Sing (Chet Atkins guitar can be clearly heard alongside Tommy Jackson’s fiddle and Bob Foster’s steel), the infectious Ground Hog, Down On The Old Plantation (Hank ‘Sugarland’ Garland providing some fine guitar pickin’) and I’m In Heaven (Jimmy Day playing the distinctive pedal steel) they were very much in a class of their own.
For many years the Oak Ridge Boys were one of the top groups in gospel music, winning 14 Dove Awards from the Gospel Music Association and four Grammies. Then in the mid-1970s the group made the transition from a highly successful career in gospel music to become the top country music vocal group.

Joshua Martin speaks on behalf of his father,
Grady Martin,who was announced as the
newest inductee into the
Country Music Hall of Fame in the
'Recording and/or
Touring Musician Active
Prior to 1980' category.
Photo Credit: Alan Poizner / CMA

With the help of producer Ron Chancey, the Oak Ridge Boys mastered a highly contemporary commercial country/pop/gospel style that hardly saw them off the charts throughout the 1980s. The inevitable pop chart breakthrough came with the multi-million selling Elvira and Bobbie Sue in 1981. The country hits continued with American Made, I Guess It Never Hurts To Hurt Sometimes, Come On in (You Did The Best You Could). They scored an impressive forty-four hits, including seventeen chart-toppers, two platinum singles and a whole shelf-full of gold and platinum albums, not to mention Grammy and CMA awards. Then, as so often happens in the fickle music business, the bubble burst. By the time the 1990s rolled around, their harmony sound was no longer flavour of the month at country radio, but the group were still a popular concert attraction. With a much lower public profile their album sales plummeted and by 1992 they couldn't sustain a major label record deal. They did, however, maintain a highly visible touring schedule and seemed doomed to play concert after concert of their past hits to an audience that was, like the band, ageing rapidly.

Originally known as the Country Cut-Ups, the group was formed shortly after the Second World War. They performed regularly at the atomic energy plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Reformed in 1957 by Smitty Gatlin as the Oak Ridge Quartet, they became fully professional four years later. Their initial appeal lay with high quality sacred material performed in an infectious, foot-stomping manner. In the late 1960s, the Oak Ridge Boys underwent an image makeover, growing their hair long and singing almost nothing but pop-oriented material. In the early 1970s, they gradually incorporated more gospel back into their repertoire. In 1971 they received a Grammy for their recording of Talk About The Good Times. By 1973, the group’s core line-up of Duane Allen (lead vocals), Joe Bonsall (tenor), William Lee Golden (baritone), and Richard Sterban (bass) was in place. Golden (born January 12, 1939, Brewton, Alabama), was the longest serving member, having joined in 1964; Allen (born April 29, 1944, Taylortown, Texas), a former member of the Southernaires, joined 1966; Sterban (born April 24, 1944, Camden, New Jersey) joined 1972; and Bonsall (born May 18, 1944, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) joined a year later. They scored a minor country hit with Family Reunion in 1975. Soon after they provided the back-up on Paul Simon's million-selling Slip Sliding Away.

Encouraged by Johnny Cash, who asked them to open for him in Las Vegas, they pursued a country career. Signed with ABC-Dot they scored a top five country hit with Y'all Come Back Saloon in 1977. They won the first of many CMA Awards as Best Vocal Group the following year and became red-hot with their gospel-flavoured country-pop songs. Their most notable hits include I'll be True To You (their first number one in 1978), Sail Away (a UK radio hit in 1979), a stunning version of Rodney Crowell's Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight, the stomping doo-wop flavoured Elvira (CMA Single of the Year) and Bobbie Sue (penned by a young Kix Brooks of Brooks & Dunn fame). ABC-Dot was swallowed up by MCA, and the Oaks stayed with them all the way through to 1990, when they scored their last chart-topper with No Matter How High. With their own six-piece Oak Ridge Boys Band, the Oaks gained a reputation for their exciting live performances, a fast-paced showcase with dynamic presentations.

In March 1987, Golden was dismissed from the group due to ‘continual musical and personal differences’ and set out on a solo career. He filed a $40 million suit against the three remaining members which was settled out of court. His replacement was the band’s rhythm guitarist Steve Sanders (born September 17, 1952 in Richland, Georgia), who had a long career in gospel music. He took over the baritone vocal chores on their HEARTBEAT album. The change seemed to make little difference to the Oak’s chart and touring success. But more controversy was to hit the Oaks when Sanders had marital problems that led to him leaving the group in 1996. A broken man, Sanders committed suicide on June 10, 1998. Golden was brought back in, apparently all previous animosity forgotten with the passing of time. During the early 1990s, the Oaks were briefly signed with RCA, releasing a couple of albums and scoring just one top ten hit with 1991's Lucky Moon. In 1999, more than seven years after the Oaks released THE LONG HAUL, their last album on RCA, they made a recording comeback with the aptly titled VOICES, on the independent Platinum Records. Usually when veteran acts that are no longer on the radio end up on a label like Platinum, they are expected to re-record their own hits, in order to garner instant sales from fans who are looking for the familiar. The Oaks returned with one of their strongest ever albums, full of classic songs from new Music Row writers. Platinum didn't last the course and were closed down less than a year later.

The Oak Ridge Boys have continued recording prolifically for different small independent labels sometimes returning to their gospel roots (xx) and maintaining their close country connections with FRONT ROW SEATS (2006) and THE BOYS ARE BACK (2009) which saw them working with Shooter Jennings (song of Waylon Jennings). The Oaks are still out there entertaining audiences, maintaining their stature as one of the most exciting live acts you will see anywhere. Their most recent album was 2014’s BOY’S NIGHT OUT is their first live album. In fact, it’s as a live act that the Oak Ridge Boys are at their best. I recall in the early 1980s seeing them at London’s Dominion Theatre, and after years of watching sedate country performers like Don Williams, Charlie Rich and Bill Anderson, the Oaks were a revelation. More like a fully-fledged rock show they stomped around the stage as their band laid down a rich and vibrant backdrop of sound topped off at the end with fireworks. This was country music as we’d never seen or heard it in the UK before.
Grady Martin was one of the most influential, yet largely unheralded guitarists in country music. A member of the Nashville A-team, the group of session musicians whose studio work helped shape country music in the 1950s and 1960s as the genre developed from a backwoods sound into a highly successful and commercialised international music phenomena, his innovative playing can be heard on hundreds of recordings. Artists as diverse as Hank Williams, Bing Crosby, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley and Joan Baez benefited from the highly developed aural imagination he brought to his session work.

Unlike most acclaimed musicians who developed an easily recognised style, Grady Martin proved himself again and again to be versatile in his approach to the guitar. He is highly regarded by rockabilly fans for his aggressive, confident, fat-sounding electric guitar that adorned classic 1950s recordings by the Johnny Burnette Rock’n’Roll Trio, Buddy Holly, Brenda Lee, Don Woody and Johnny Horton. Then there is the nylon-string atmospheric Mexican guitar playing on Marty Robbins’ 1959 landmark western ballad El Paso that provided a defining moment in country music history, as did his influential distorted solo on another Robbins’ classic, Don’t Worry, two years later. 

In the early 1950s country fans were delighted by the honky-tonk styling of Billy Byrd and Grady Martin’s twin guitars on Ernest Tubb classic records. Then pop fans were blown away by his compelling and dramatic riff that opens Roy Orbison’s Oh, Pretty Woman. There were also sweeter moments that decorated sensitive and heartbreaking ballads performed by the likes of Brenda Lee (I’m Sorry, Break It To Me Gently), Patsy Cline (She’s Got You, Sweet Dreams) and Sammi Smith (Help Me Make It Through The Night).

Alongside all of his session work, throughout the 1950s Grady Martin also performed in the legendary clubs in downtown Nashville’s Printers Alley with his all-star Slewfoot Five. Despite minimum radio play and no chart action, they recorded prolifically for Decca Records with many of their records being released in Japan at the time on long out-of-print 78rpm discs.

Thomas Grady Martin was born on January 17, 1929 in Chapel Hill, Tennessee. He grew up on a farm with his oldest sister, Lois, his older brothers, June and Bill, and his parents, Claude and Bessey. His mother played the piano and read music and encouraged his musical talent. He learned successively to play the piano, guitar and fiddle, becoming most proficient on guitar. He left school when he was only fifteen years old to play fiddle in the band of Nashville radio personality Big Jeff Bess. Two years later, he joined the Bailes Brothers, with whom he played guitar as well as fiddle and fulfilled a childhood dream by performing on the Grand Ole Opry.

In February 1946 he travelled to Chicago and made his recording début alongside the husband-and-wife team of Curly Fox and Texas Ruby. That same year, he joined Paul Howard’s western swing-oriented Arkansas Cotton Pickers as half of Howard’s twin guitar ensemble with Robert ‘Jabbo’ Arrington and performed on the Grand Ole Opry. When Howard left, Opry newcomer Little Jimmy Dickens hired several former Cotton Pickers, including Martin and Arrington, as his original Country Boys road band. Together they developed a blistering twin-guitar style that would gain widespread exposure. Their work on Dickens’ recordings like Country Boy (1949), A-Sleeping At The Foot Of The Bed and Hillbilly Fever (both 1950) has a dazzling intensity that foreshadows much of the best rock’n’roll guitar work.

By 1950, Martin had become part of the rising Nashville recording scene as a studio guitarist and fiddler and became very popular for his improvisation and his flexibility with diverse types of music. His guitar hooks propelled Red Foley’s rollicking Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy and Birmingham Bounce high on the country charts. He later took up Foley’s offer to lead his band and spent the next few years playing with Foley's band, in appearances on the Ozark Jubilee as well as on the road and all of his sessions, and on dozens of other artists’ recordings as well.

By 1952, he was working almost exclusively on guitar—his fiddle playing was confined primarily to recording sessions, the last in 1955, in conjunction with star instrumentalists Tommy Jackson and Hank Garland; indeed, the last time Grady played fiddle in front of an audience was in 1952, accompanying Hank Williams in the latter’s appearance on the Kate Smith show, one of the most watched country music clips in television history.

By this time he was using his twin-neck Bigsby guitar and led his own country-jazz band, the Slew Foot Five, comprising such session heavyweights as fellow guitarist Hank ‘Sugarfoot’ Garland, bassist Bob Moore, fiddle player Tommy Jackson and steel guitarist Bud Isaacs. He signed with Decca Records and alongside working on records by Burl Ives (Wild Side of Life) and Bing Crosby (Till the End of the World), released a whole series of singles and LPs for more than a decade, none of which made any impact on the charts.

A 10-inch LP they recorded at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium for Decca remains a much sought-after collector's item. An early version of When My Dream Boat Comes Home demonstrated some of the guitar licks he was to later use on the early rockabilly and rock’roll sessions he played on for the likes of Buddy Holly, Johnny Burnette and Brenda Lee. Many of the Slewfoot Five recordings were not only released in America but also in Japan on sought after 78rpm records, including such titles as Jalausie, Hot Lips, Beer Barrel Polka, 12th Street Rag, Sioux City Sue and San Antonio Rose.

While producers and vocalists began developing what later became known as the Nashville Sound, Grady Martin and other A-team session players were doing double duty, playing jazz and experimental music in their own time while also working the studios on hundreds of sessions. Grady was a young, intuitive guitarist who was continually experimenting and exploring new and fresh directions for his playing. He’d become an in-demand touring musician in his mid-teens and by the time he was 21 he was working in the studio and on the road with Red Foley, at the time the biggest name in country music.

The mid-1950s saw the emergence of great changes in country music as young, vibrant musicians like Grady alongside new, young dynamic performers led by Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, challenged the traditions and the way that music was being created. Grady Martin and his fellow session musicians were right at the forefront of these changes in Nashville leading into full tilt rock’n’roll by the Johnny Burnette Rock’n’Roll Trio and the classic The Train Kept A Rollin’ and Buddy Holly’s Rock Around With Ollie Vee, both of which features Grady’s phenomenal electric guitar played in a way that was raw and uninhibited to match the wild vocals and rebellious lyrics.

Though he continued to play the standard country licks for such singers as Lefty Frizzell, Carl Smith and Ernest Tubb, he maintained a busy schedule playing on what are now considered groundbreaking recordings including eleven-year-old Brenda Lee and Bigelow 6-200, Bobby Lord’s Everybody’s Rockin’ But Me and Red Sovine’s Juke Joint Johnny. There was also Johnny Horton’s classic I’m a One-Woman Man, and an out-of-character Burl Ives with quite a creditable rendition of Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves.

He demonstrated his guitar virtuosity when he was asked to play on what was to become a career changing Marty Robbins’ session on April 7, 1959. Grady had played on many of Marty’s recordings previously and no one present considered this to be anything extra special. The plan was to record a series of western-themed songs for an album. Grady was the session leader and had to borrow the nylon-string acoustic guitar he used for Robbins’ self-penned epic tale of El Paso. A near-five minute classic, Grady played the distinctive signature Spanish-style guitar accompaniment in one take.

Country Music Hall of Fame member Brenda Lee announces the newest inductees to the
Country Music Hall of Fame Wednesday morning in Nashville. Photo Credit: Alan Poizner / CMA

It was a stunning showcase for his virtuosity, that guitar part identifying not only the song itself, but Robbins’ new ‘western sound.’ He was all over the GUNFIGHTER BALLADS & TRAIL SONGS album that was recorded during that long eight-hour session, and has proved to be one of the perennially best-selling country albums of the past 50 years. Grady Martin created another historical first just two years later on another Marty Robbins’ session. His guitar was accidentally run through a faulty channel in a mixing console, generating a fuzz sound. His thrusting, fuzz-toned guitar solo churns through Robbins’ 1961 country-pop hit Don’t Worry, influencing generations of distortion-happy guitarists.

He remained very busy throughout the 1960s, some of the most notable recordings he played on include the distinctive guitar on Roy Orbison’s Oh Pretty Woman, Lefty Frizzell’s Saginaw, Michigan, Little Jimmy Dickens’ novelty tune May The Bird Of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose, Brenda Lee's I’m Sorry and Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, and Ray Price’s For the Good Times.

He continued to be amenable to working with some of the most left-leaning rock artists of the era, hewing even further over with his work on a pair of Country Joe McDonald LPs. When folksinger Joan Baez decided to try assimilating the Nashville sound on her ANY DAY NOW album, Grady was the guitar player at her sessions, on such records as Poor Wayfaring Stranger. He also worked in the studio with JJ Cale, Arlo Guthrie and John Prine.

Alongside his session work he also dabbled in music publishing and in partnership with pianist Floyd Cramer formed Cramart Music. Though not recognised as a songwriter, nevertheless he did find success as the co-writer of Snap Your Fingers. Originally recorded by Joe Henderson (American pop hit, 1962) it was revived later by Bob Wills & his Texas Playboys, Barbara Lewis, Dean Martin, Don Gibson (country hit, 1974) and Ronnie Milsap (number one country hit, 1987).

In the early 1970s, Grady Martin played on many records by Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, worked with Kris Kristofferson and produced the country-rock band Brush Arbor. When Merle Haggard began recording in Nashville in the mid-1970s, Grady was his first-call guitarist, despite the fact that Haggard also utilised members of the Strangers in the studio. However, by this time Grady was becoming jaded by new trends in record production and in 1978 he returned to the life of a touring musician; working alongside first Jerry Reed and then, for some 16 years, with Willie Nelson. In 1994 deteriorating health forced him to retire, but he produced Nelson’s 1995 honky tonk album, JUST ONE LOVE. He moved back to his birthplace to a house in Lewisburg, Tennessee to be near to his family.

The Nashville Entertainment Association gave him its first Master Award in 1983, and he was the 83rd inductee into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. On April 5, 2000, he received a Chetty award for significant instrumental achievement at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium during the Chet Atkins Musician Days festival. Health problems prevented Grady from attending; Nelson, Vince Gill and Marty Stuart presented the award—named after Atkins, who attended—to Martin’s son, Joshua. He was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in 2007.

Grady Martin died following a heart attack at his home in Lewisburg on December 5, 2001. Married three times, he was the father of ten children. A true genius on the guitar, Grady Martin was a one-of-a-kind musician who could also play fiddle, Dobro, mandolin, sitar, bass, clarinet, flute, percussion, piano, organ and vibraphone.
The Grady Martin Touch was often the secret ingredient that made the difference between an ordinary country record and a classic country record for nigh on four decades. Few relatively unheralded guitarists have had as much impact on country music as he. A guitar virtuoso with an irascible, no-nonsense attitude, producers often designated him the ‘session leader,’ meaning that he oversaw the musicians and directed the instrumental arrangements for many songs. More often than not he would come up with his distinctive guitar parts after just one listen to a song that he’d never previously heard, and complete a near-perfect rendition in one take. This was in the days before multi-tracking, when everything was cut more-or-less live in the studio and it was his creative input and brilliant capacity for on-the-spot arrangements that turned so many Nashville recordings into international hits and timeless classics recognised around the world.