Keith Whitley, Jerry Lee Lewis, And Joe Galante Help To Expand The Country Music Hall Of Fame.


The country music industry may be centred in Nashville, but much of the talent and sound behind Music City’s best-known export originates elsewhere.


The Country Music Hall of Fame medallion ceremony on Oct. 16 provided a strong reminder that the genre synthesises people, style and abilities from across America. Late honoree Keith Whitley found his way to Nashville from eastern Kentucky through a bluegrass portal. Record executive Joe Galante brought marketing savvy to town from New York after working rock records by David Bowie and Lou Reed.

And Jerry Lee Lewis — forced by an illness to stay home — developed his flashy piano playing and performance skills after hanging out at R&B/blues club Haney’s Big House in Ferriday, La., before launching his recording career in Memphis ahead of his shift to country in 1968.


The first performance during the induction — Alabama’s “My Home’s in Alabama,” a song that was key in the band signing with Galante at RCA in 1980 — clung to that concept, celebrating the group’s hometown roots despite exploring a range of American cities.

The rest of the guest list similarly represented multiple facets of popular music and geographical backgrounds. Oklahoman Garth Brooks found all the dramatic high points of Whitley’s “Don’t Close Your Eyes” in a guitar/vocal format, ironically closing his own eyes during the chorus while seemingly channelling the song’s lead character. Texan Lee Ann Womack created spine-tingling sensitivity in her version of Lewis’ “Middle Age Crazy,” infusing the late-’70s ballad with fierce sympathy and just a touch of scorn. East Tennessee-born Kenny Chesney fought through the emotionally challenging country love song “The Good Stuff,” a title that found favour in part because Galante pushed for its release to radio. And former San Francisco resident Chris Isaak delivered a faithful rendition of the Killer’s “Great Balls of Fire,” replete with heavily reverbed vocals and Jen Gunderman’s interpretation of Lewis’ piano-banging and shiny glissandos.


Galante recalled in his acceptance speech that late BMI executive Frances Preston, a 1992 Hall inductee, had told him that country music revolves around the song and the artist. That combination of impactful songs and distinct artists describes the works that defined the medallion ceremony’s honorees.

This night,” Brooks announced, “is long overdue.”

Galante, meanwhile, was hailed as an executive who, by asking the right questions, helped the country industry better understand its product, its audience and the connection between them. As Hall of Fame CEO Kyle Young pointed out, he created data that informed difficult decisions and inspired marketing plans for a product that had previously relied on gut instinct. Galante did not strictly follow a mathematical playbook.

“Joe also looked beyond the numbers, to the intangibles like originality and heart,” Young said. “When it felt right, he overruled the data.”

Galante had numerous successes. In his honour, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, Ronnie Milsap, Carrie Underwood, Martina McBride, and Miranda Lambert performed a guitar/vocal version of “White Liar.” While inducting Galante, Kix Brooks mentioned that Brooks & Dunn was considering a split after a merger put the executive in charge of their label. The opportunity to work with “Joe frickin’ Galante” was enough to persuade the duo to give it another shot, which resulted in a second 10-year run.

During his acceptance speech, Galante expressed how his father, a 30-year postal service employee, had never understood the job that consumed his son. Only after his father’s death did he learn that the elder Galante had routinely purchased Billboard from New York newsstands and saved photos and stories about his son.

“You get the point,” Galante said, just before the story became emotional.

Ultimately, it is the human stories told by singular artists that have built both Music City and the Rotunda that houses the Country Music Hall of Fame’s bronze plaques. Johnny Cash, Jimmie Rodgers, and Willie Nelson will have to make way for three newcomers who arrived elsewhere but left their mark in Nashville.

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