You had to have been there to understand and fully appreciate the impact Dwight had on country music in the early 80s (I was, working my way through college at a little AM country station in Ellensburg, Washington). Prior to that, country had gone soft–lots of strings, lots of ballads, a whole lot of honky, very little tonk. In the early 80s, artists like George Strait, Alabama and Randy Travis (all already in the Hall) came along. The Judds and this redhead from Oklahoma named Reba picked up the torch from women like Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn. And then in 1986 this skinny yahoo from Kentucky (via Los Angeles) bursts on the scene, all denim and attitude, and helps to once-and-for-all blow the doors off of what was left of the rusted hulked of late-70s Countrypolitan fluff. I remember the first time I dropped the needle (um, literally) on Honky-Tonk Man. I didn’t know whether to cringe in horror or flat-out bow to this nasel-y-voiced spokesman for a new generation of doghouse-dwelling ne’er do-wells. Before the record was over, I’d settled with the latter. And while, ironically, Honky-Tonk Man was one of his only hits he didn’t write (Johnny Horton deserves that accolade), Dwight is not only a compelling singer and performer but also, writer. From the title track of “Guitars, Cadillacs, and Hillbilly Music” to “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere”, he wrote (and continues to write) songs that are sonically, intellectually and emotionally evocative. And I’m not sure country music as we know it today would have been the same now without his attitude back then.
Modern Era (any artist who has come to prominence in the last 20 years) So, that gives us a window between 1997 and 2017, right? What artist has had THE most impact in that time? Ugh. TOUGH question. Many–like Brooks and Dunn, Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney and Shania Twain (again, how are these people not already IN the hall?) actually got started before 1997, but really hit their stride towards the end of the last century/first part of the 21st century. However, only a couple of them are what the industry would consider “still going strong”. And if you’re going to use that as part of your criteria (and I am because it’s too hard otherwise)…it comes down to overall impact. So, in that regard, who’s not only still scoring number one hits but also starring in hit movies? Wait…who’s hanging out in the winning suite of Super Bowl teams and still selling out stadiums? Who are still recording hugely successful albums and singing hugely successful songs? Damn. By virtue of the fact that there will be future Hall of Fame inductions, and that he had the first hit–(Not A Moment Too Soon, 1994 vs She’s Got It All, 1997) I gotta go with Tim.
Hang in there Kenny, you’re time’s comin’ (You too, Alan, and Kix and Ronnie and Shania and Clint and….)
Veterans Era(40 years after achieving prominence) This may be the toughest category, because you have to consider some seriously formidable country icons–Tanya Tucker, Hank Jr, The Judds (none of them are already in there either?) the aforementioned (and recognized) Dwight Yoakam. But, based solely on their OVERALL influence to country music from their peak period going forward, I would have to choose Hank Jr.
Hank Jr. absolutely, without a doubt, deserves to be included on the Mt Rushmore of Stone-Cold Original Country Outlaws. In his day Hank Jr was vilified (and, at the same time, by younger generations, idolized) for introducing a hardcore blues/rock attitude to country music…a no-nonsense, take-me-as-I-am, F-U approach that very few other artists (other than already-Hall-of-Famers like Waylon, Merle or Johnny) at that time were willing to try, much less embrace. Hank Jr. didn’t give a rip what you thought. He was “very proud” of his “daddy’s name”, and that’s ALL he cared about. God love him for it, too.
So, those are my picks but, as I’m sure you’ve already realized–there are SO many other deserving candidates that, again, I don’t understand why the Hall is so skimpy on inductees. One per year per category? When you have artists like Alan Jackson, Clint Black, Tanya Tucker, Travis Tritt all standing by patiently? They’re ALL shoe-ins, eventually. Why do we need to wait so long to recognize their contributions?
Oh well, that’s not for me to answer. In the meantime, this is the best I can do….and I’d love to hear your thoughts!