Genre-leaping master vocalist Mac Wiseman, piano-playing hit-maker Ronnie Milsap and song-poet Hank Cochran will receive the country music industry's highest honor: induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Wiseman, Milsap and Cochran, who died in 2010 at age 74, were announced Tuesday morning as the Hall's next induction class, in an event held in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's newly expanded facilities. Wiseman was elected as a "Veteran Era" artist, Milsap as a "Modern Era" artist and Cochran in the "Songwriter" category.
Elected by members of the Country Music Association, the three represent one of the Hall's most diverse induction classes.
Wiseman has sung memorably above acoustic soundscapes in eight separate decades.
Milsap was a dominant presence in country music's 1970s and '80s who notched a remarkable 48 consecutive Billboard Top 10 country singles and who trails only Hall of Famers George Strait, Conway Twitty and Merle Haggard on the all-time list of top-charting "Billboard" singles.
Cochran came to Nashville in January of 1960 and wound up writing classics including I Fall To Pieces, Make the World Go Away,Don't You Ever Get Tired Of Hurting Me and The Chair. Close friend Willie Nelson called him "the avalanche of sorrow," while friend Jamey Johnson, who recorded a 2012 tribute album to Cochran called Living For A Song, told The Tennessean that Cochran "had the gift of subtle brilliance."
They were different artists, driven by differing motivations, but bound by a shared and ceaseless love of expression.
"The Voice With A Heart"
"I've driven, literally, millions of miles," says Wiseman, who'll turn 89 in May and who began his professional music career 69 years ago. To be elected in the Veteran Era category, a performer must have become nationally prominent more than 45 years ago. Wiseman has cleared that bar for the past quarter century.
Wiseman received news of his pending induction with a mixture of surprise and relief. He negotiated twisting highways with Uncle Dave Macon and Earl Scruggs; he sang lead on Bill Monroe's Can't You Hear Me Callin'; he notched solo hits including 'Tis Sweet To Be Remembered and Love Letters In The Sand; he ran Dot Records' country division: he helped found the Country Music Association (and is the only living original member of the CMA's board of directors); and he is called "one of the heroes" by Kris Kristofferson, "a great, great voice" by Merle Haggard and "the voice with a heart" by legions of fans.
But he worried that he wouldn't live to know of his membership in country music's most exclusive club, and worried that the 300-odd industry professionals who vote for each year's class of Hall of Famers were too young to appreciate his contributions.
"I'd given up on it, to be honest," he says. "But when they called and told me, it was the biggest thing musically that's ever happened to me. Being in there with so many greats, and to be recognized as an equal."
"It's all been perfect"
Milsap, 71, hasn't been at this as long as Wiseman, though he easily passed the Modern Era category bar of having to have received prominence more than 20 years ago. He came to Nashville in the latter days of 1972, taking a job performing on the ninth floor showroom of the King of the Road Hotel at 211 N. 1st St. Forty one years later, he'll enter the Hall, less than two miles from the King of the Road. Small trip, big journey.
"It's always been a dream to be in the Country Music Hall of Fame," he says. "That's the highest honor they can bestow. Joycie has been with me through all of this. She's seen me through."
"Joycie" is Joyce Milsap, Ronnie Milsap's wife of 48 years. She has leukemia, and wasn't able to attend the Hall of Fame function Tuesday morning. But she has been Milsap's constant, helping him to a place as one of four virtuoso pianists (the others are Hargus "Pig" Robbins, Floyd Cramer and Owen Bradley) in the Hall. It was Joyce who assured her husband that they needed to move to Nashville, and Joyce who called producer Tom Collins and told him that Ronnie would be playing the King of the Road.
"Tom brought Jack Johnson over," Milsap says. "Jack was Charley Pride's manager. On January 3, 1973, I signed a management contract with him. He said, 'I can't make you a star, you'll have to do that yourself.' I said, 'Why'd I just sign this contract?'"
Johnson helped Milsap to grand successes soon enough, and Milsap became a superstar. Milsap was averse in R&B, rock, blues, pop and country, and by the time he got to Nashville he'd played on Elvis Presley sessions and idolized and internalized the work of Ray Charles. He's also dismissed any notion that his sightlessness or his stubborn versatility would deter him.
"Jack Johnson took me to (RCA Nashville label chief) Jerry Bradley, when I first got to town," Milsap says. "Jerry said, 'I know about him, he's a rock 'n' roll singer, a blues singer. Not a country singer.' Jack said, 'Listen to this tape.' Jerry said, 'You know what, that son of a (gun) is a country singer.' He gave me a chance."
That chance paid off, in spades. Milsap won the CMA's top male vocalist crown three times, its top album trophy four times, and also won its entertainer of the year prize. He owns six Grammy Awards, and a Pioneer Award from the Academy of Country Music. He has sold more than 35 million albums, and scored hit singles including "Pure Love," "Smoky Mountain Rain," "It Was Almost Like A Song" and dozens more. And now he is being inducted as a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
"I think about the songwriters," he says. "Mike Reid wrote such great songs for me, and helped me so much. And I think about the things I learned in school. I learned Braille when I was six. Blindness never held me back. I'm aware of it every day. I can tell people more about the dark than they ever want to know. But, really, it's all been perfect."
"Make it short, make it sweet and make it rhyme"
Hank Cochran lived for songs. He burned for them. And his burning produced classics including Make the World Go Away, Fall To Pieces,The Chair, She's Got You and numerous others.
"Nobody put himself through more hell than Hank," said his friend Dale Dodson, who co-produced Jamey Johnson's aptly titled tribute, Living For A Song. "He'd get in the lowest of lows, put himself in a deep state of depression, and pour that out in eight lines of a song."
Eight lines were often enough. Cochran's philosophy was, "Make it short, make it sweet and make it rhyme." Cochran sought simplicity and specificity, and when he arrived at those things he'd stop at nothing to make sure that someone voiced his compositions. He pitched his songs to recording artists as passionately as he wrote them down.
"He would never, ever drop it," said Jamey Johnson. "If you wanted you to do a song, every time you saw him he'd have that song on him..... He was the most persistent song-plugger I've ever met."
He was also persistent when it came to bringing other people's talent to attention. When he heard Willie Nelson's songs, he pitched them to his publisher, Harold Smith.
"He asked what Willie would have to have for a weekly pay," Cochran told Doak Turner in an article that ran in American Songwriter magazine. "I said, 'I'm getting $50 a week and reckon he has to have the same amount, as he has three kids and a wife.' Harold said, 'We were fixing to give you a raise, but I cannot give it to you and pay him, too.' I told my publisher, 'Give it to Will and sign him!'"
Cochran is also tied to Milsap: He wrote Milsap's 1988 smash, Don't You Ever Get Tired (Of Hurting Me), which has also been a hit for Ray Price, and the duo of Price and Nelson.
"He had a perspective on life that the rest of us could learn a lot by studying," Johnson said. "Hank lived seven lifetimes in the span of one, and he had the gift of subtle brilliance. He always found the most important lesson to be learned in every situation."