Country Music Hall of Fame’s 2022 Medallion Ceremony Was a Study in Grace
Each of the three newest inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame gave the country music community a chance to dismiss him, but persevered. The two-and-a-half-hour long, Sunday night (Oct. 16) ceremony was a celebration of careers and country music.
It was also an opportunity to reflect on the urge to boil someone down to a single action or quality.
While Jerry Lee Lewis and Keith Whitley were the marquee names receiving their medallions at the CMA Theater, former Sony Music Nashville chairman Joe Galante's Nashville story led, and those unfamiliar with the executive quickly found out he was about as country as a spaceship when he moved to Nashville from New York City. The Hall's voiceover insinuated he may have even resented country music in the early '70s — a time when authenticity mattered ten-fold. Could you imagine the response to someone who didn't know Johnny Cash from Johnny Carson (an exaggeration, to be sure)?
Perhaps he had worse transgressions as an executive. After all, as much as artists like Waylon Jennings praised him for being a straight shooter, others surely didn't appreciate his honest approach. With time, a few studio sessions and help from his predecessors, Galante fell in love with the format without forgetting about his data-first approach to selling records. He also learned to value artist and song above all else, so the artist performers on hand to tribute him (Alabama, Kenny Chesney and Miranda Lambert) did so with glee. Even Wynonna Judd hollered an unscripted "Joe Galante changed my life" early on.
Whitley's legacy is more complex, and the Country Music Hall of Fame told a well-rounded story of his highs and lows. Garth Brooks, in particular, spoke of the late singer's personal struggles, which his widow, Lorrie Morgan would bravely verify. Earlier, CMHOF CEO Kyle Young remarked that a crippling self-doubt led Whitley to the bottle again and again. On May 9, 1989, he was found dead of alcohol poisoning.
There's scant evidence that anyone believed Whitley's death was shameful 33 years ago, and with increased awareness and understanding of depression, anxiety and ways to cope with mental health today, you'll find even fewer who will blame the man and not the disease. That it took three-and-a-half decades to get him into the Hall suggests some hesitation by an entity that — until fairly recently — hid its more misbehaved brethren.
Hank Williams Jr. inducting Jerry Lee Lewis was a sight to behold, because both were shut out of the Hall of Fame in years past when most felt they were deserving. Talking to Taste of Country in June, Williams admitted that his hell-raising ways "probably" are what added a few years to his time on the outside.
Lewis was outspoken and immoral. The Hall did point out how his marriage to a 13-year-old cousin once removed halted a thriving career (booking fees went from $10,000 a night to $250), but no one said anything about the drugs, the guns and the effects all of this had on his ex-wives and extended family. Instead, it was wrapped up in a "he's been through a lot" kind of statement and the show moved on. Lee Ann Womack, the McCrary Sisters and Chris Isaak performed his songs.
The beauty of the Country Music Hall of Fame induction season is that it's a chance to engage in debates about who is and isn't worthy of enshrinement (and why). Conversations about Williams, Lewis, Whitley and more raged for years, and as time has passed and social norms changed, so too have opinions.
Or, at least they should. There's a tendency to tighten a grip on one's beliefs in spite of rationale. A single defining quality becomes all we focus on, which isn't fair in country music or humanity.
There are surely fine arguments for why Galante, Whitley and Lewis should and shouldn't have been inducted on Sunday, but also a few that resort to name-calling and caricature painting. Even with a social media audience cheering you on, it's no more fair to do that today than it has ever been. As a museum, it'd be wonderful to see a more well-rounded record kept for the public, but the country fan knows that change is slow.
You still need to give it a chance.