When Alan Jackson moved to Nashville, he couldn't afford admission into the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
More than three decades and 50 Top 10 hits later, the lanky Georgia boy got his golden ticket: the medallion given to a new Hall of Fame members on the night of his or her induction.
Jackson, one of country music's great traditional voices, was welcomed into the exclusive club on Sunday night alongside songwriting great Don Schlitz and the late guitar virtuoso, songwriter, recording artist and film star Jerry Reed.
"I’m humbled," said Jackson on the red carpet. "How I ended up here, it’s definitely the American Dream."
“These men came to Nashville with no earthly idea of the mark that they would make,” said museum CEO Kyle Young during the Medallion Ceremony. “They believed in the enduring power of music.”
Known for classics like "East Bound and Down" and "Amos Moses," Reed — "for generations...the fast picking, wisecracking face of (country music)," said Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern — died in 2008 at the age of 71.
His daughters Lottie Zavala and Seidina Hubbard were in attendance on Sunday. When asked what their father would think of his induction, they laughed. "He’d be speechless, for the first time in his life," said Zavala on the red carpet. During the ceremony, she tearfully remembered a conversation in which he told her, "Making music is what I love and it's all I know....Every dream I ever dreamed has come true and then some."
Reed was one of only six musicians Chet Atkins bestowed with the title "Certified Guitar Player" (one of the other six was Atkins himself).
The three living CGPs, Steve Wariner, Tommy Emmanuel and John Knowles played Reed's instrumental "The Claw," Ray Stevens sang the 1971 chart-topper "When You're Hot, You're Hot" and Jamey Johnson led an all-star band through a breakneck "East Bound and Down."
Reed was formally inducted into the Hall by his friend and fishing buddy of 40 years, Bobby Bare.
'An unbroken circle'
Schlitz is best known for penning Kenny Rogers' signature song "The Gambler," but the list of songs he had a hand in is staggering: "When You Say Nothing at All," "Forever and Ever Amen," "One Promise Too Late" and many, many more.
"It's overwhelming," said Schlitz on the red carpet. "(Induction) means I’m a part of something that’s bigger than me, and that’s a great thing, to be part of something that’s bigger than yourself."
During the ceremony, Mary Chapin Carpenter, who co-wrote three hits with Schlitz ("He Thinks He'll Keep Her," "I Take My Chances" and "I Feel Lucky") took the stage to sing one he wrote with Paul Overstreet: "When You Say Nothing at All."
Charlie Worsham, Fred Knobloch, Thom Schuyler and Jelly Roll Johnson played "Oscar, the Angel," one of Schlitz's lesser-known masterpieces. Aloe Blacc and Vince Gill sang "The Gambler." By the final chorus, the entire CMA Theater was singing along.
Schlitz's speech was full of heart and humor. Contemplating his plaque, which will hang in the museum's rotunda alongside those of his heroes, he noted, "They didn't leave out the 'L.' "
While at the podium, he asked those who've had any part in his songs — co-writers, performers, producers, broadcasters, even anyone who's ever sung along to themselves — to stand. He then told his grandchildren to look around the nearly 800 people who were on their feet: "This is an unbroken circle...We all do this for each other."
He paused, then deadpanned, "This is also how a songwriter gets a standing ovation."
'A singer of simple songs'
The legendary Loretta Lynn, who is recovering from a stroke she suffered in May, formally inducted Jackson into the Hall. She reminisced about their first meeting, in which the young country singer "looked like a scared little boy."
"I love you and I am so proud of you," she continued. "You deserve to be here."
"Loretta Lynn said I should be here," Jackson marveled when he stepped up to the podium. That's all I needed to hear."
For the last three decades, the plainspoken singer and songwriter has done what his hero and friend George Jones wanted him to: "Keep it country."
He's done it well, selling more than 60 million records and writing and recordings songs that are now part of country music's canon."I just write and sing from the heart....I'm just a singer of simple songs," Jackson said, borrowing a phrase from his 2001 recording "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)."
In his honor, Lee Ann Womack sang a stellar version of his first Top 10 hit, "Here in the Real World," Alison Krauss and Tommy Emmanuel delivered the 1991 chart-topper "Someday" and George Strait's rendition of "Remember When" was one of the night's most moving performances.
At the end of the evening, Jackson, Lynn, Strait and Connie Smith led the room in country music's anthem. It is sung at every Medallion Ceremony, and its lyrics are displayed in the rotunda where the Hall of Fame members' plaques hang: "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."