Unbroken Circles and Glass Houses, Part 2: Reading the Operator’s Manual

Now for the post I’d meant to write.

Thanks to Future Rock Legends and the Wayback Machine, the somewhat-long-lost Country Music Hall of Fame bylaws have been recovered, so it’s possible now to read them over and see what the takeaway is—if there is one. Other Hall watchers know more about music, more about music writers and more about the Hall, but I can geek out on rules real good. It also lets me use this photo of this gorgeous building again.

Continue reading “Unbroken Circles and Glass Houses, Part 2: Reading the Operator’s Manual”

Unbroken Circles and Glass Houses: Comparing the Country and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame

UPDATE: The site turned out to actually be the CMA’s-go figure. CMHOF election process is outlined here.  (Thanks to Future Rock Legends for the superior research skills).

This is not the post I meant to write.

Maybe a year and a half ago I came across a website with the induction process for the Country Music Hall of Fame®, with all the rules and bylaws spelled out in detail. I was impressed with both how well such a subjective process was organized and the Country Hall’s transparency.  I thought sometime I’d write a post comparing and contrasting the CMHOF and the RRHOF and highlighting the things that the Rock Hall could, in my -oh-so-expert opinion, adopt.


Deciding it was time, I went to find that website. No luck. Reading what I could find about the CMHOF, the word “secret” came up…over and over again. But poking around confirmed what I’d started to suspect: that site, or at least that page, is gone, and it’s possible (read: likely) that it’s because the powers that be want it that way. For those of you who think the RRHOF is opaque, or as Joe Elliot says, “Some guys in tuxedos behind a closed curtain deciding who’s going to be in” (really, Joe, how sexist; there are a few ladies in evening gowns in there), meet the Country Hall. By comparison, the Rock Hall is as clear as the glass it’s built from.

The CMHOF is unique in that it’s run by the first trade organization specifically created to promote a single genre of music–the Country Music Association (CMA),  formed in 1958 in direct response to the rise of rock and roll. (The direct impetus was the mass abandonment of country by radio in the wake of the phenomenon that was Elvis Aron Presley). The CMA is now a global organization with 7500 members and an 82-member board of directors, dedicated to promoting country music to sponsors, the media and the public and to advancing the genre’s legal and economic interests.

With so much power vested in it, it’s not surprising that not everyone’s on board with how the CMA operates. The culture of anonymity has been noted, charges of sexism have been leveled and journalists have charged that the organization is random and retaliatory in granting press credentials for CMA events. Artists including Waylon Jennings, Reba McEntire, LeeAnn Rimes, Ricky Van Shelton and others have had run-ins with them over the CMA award selection process, treatment of artists at press conferences and other issues. Last year, it sparked controversy at the CMA Awards ceremony by decreeing that journalists who attempted to ask about the tragedy in Las Vegas would be ejected and credentials revoked, an order it quickly had to walk back.

The CMA Foundation was chartered in 1964 by the state of Tennessee to preserve artifacts related to country music’s history; the museum opened in 1967 and moved to its current 130K-square-foot home in downtown Nashville in 2001 with several expansions since. It’s the world’s largest repository of country music memorabilia, housing more than 200,000 recordings that include 98% of all pre-WWII commercial recordings, more than half a million photographs, publications, films, and other assets. It’s also accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, a distinction earned by just over 1,000 of the more than 33,000 museums in the country. The Foundation’s charitable arm grants millions of dollars annually in support of more than 40 music education initiatives around the world. Part of the funding for these projects comes from the CMA’s major annual events—the CMA Awards in November, the CMA Country Christmas in early December and the CMA Music Festival (formerly Fan Fest) in the spring.

The actual Country Music Hall of Fame was created in 1961 and has always kept a low profile: it’s not prominent on the CMA website and not even mentioned in its Wikipedia entry. While there’s a press conference to announce the inductees, the actual Medallion Ceremony is a quiet invitation-only affair held at the Museum; inductees aren’t even mentioned on the CMA Awards broadcast.

Induction into the CMHOF is solely the prerogative of the CMA and is a two-step process. The CMA board of directors selects anonymous inductors from among its members, who are required to have “participated actively” in country music for at least 10 years and who must “merit respect and recognition for their accomplishments and/or knowledge of one or more aspects of Country Music.”

Historically, the number of CMHOF inductees has varied between one and 12. Since 2010, there has been a potential for three new members to be inducted annually, each from a different category:

Veterans Era (voted annually): Nominees become eligible beginning 45 years after achieving national prominence;

Modern Era (voted annually): Nominees become eligible 20 years after achieving national prominence;

Rotating Category: Recording and/or Touring Musician, Nonperformer, Songwriter (Each division is voted on once every third year).

The Veterans Era and Modern Era categories each have separate nominating committees, each made up of 12 industry leaders serving three-year terms. The Modern Era nominating committee also oversees the rotating categories. Two anonymous panels of electors are established, with one panel voting for the modern era and rotating categories and the second voting for the Veterans Era category. Among all voters, there are two rounds of ballots: In the first, each voter chooses five candidates from the slate of 10-20; in the second, voters pick one nominee from the top five. If candidates don’t receive a minimum number of votes, the category goes unfilled that year. To prevent “sympathy votes,” there’s a one-year moratorium on nominations for deceased artists. The museum does not participate in the election but provides the exhibition space for the bronze plaques representing each inductee through a licensing agreement with the CMF.

That’s what we’re given to know about the process. The identities of the electors and the rules governing their actual votes are kept meticulously secret. The only bylaw that I remember from that lost website is that electors are required to vote; failure to do so results in the forfeiture of voting rights and the delinquent elector having to apply for reinstatement (I seem to recall that there’s a three-strike rule in effect here, but don’t quote me on that).

Clearly, the Country Hall is highly exclusive; it seems the CMA Awards are the accolade most country artists are intended to aspire to. As of this year, the CMHOF has only 136 inductees inducted over 56 years (first class in 1962), compared to 323 inducted over 32 years (first class in 1986) for the RRHOF. Among the luminaries yet to attend their Medallion Ceremony: Hank Williams Jr., Lynn Anderson, the Judds, Johnny Paycheck and Dwight Yoakam.

For hall of fame purposes, country’s got some distinct advantages over rock. It’s beyond the scope of my knowledge and this post to go into its history and culture, but it’s safe to say that while it’s not homogenous, and putting “old country” versus “new country” arguments aside, it has a more cohesive identity and a unique sense of community, so the endless battle over genre that plagues the Rock Hall. Also, for good or bad, it has a decision-making body that is generally accepted as “the boss,” which decided early on that everything was going to be kept separate from filthy lucre, while the RRHOF’s induction is its biggest fundraiser.  The name “Hall of Fame” no doubt gives some allure to the museum, which has no trouble keeping the turnstiles turning; it’s been posting tremendous growth over the past few years and attracts close to one million visitors per year. (Of course, it’s also located in a city that’s a hot tourist draw).

There are a lot of things I like about the Country Hall. My inner policy wonk loves the fact that it has a carefully thought-out process aimed at making a subjective undertaking as logical and consistent as it can be. It’s handled by people who understand the history of the music as a whole and can evaluate an artist’s position in it—experts, in other words. “They’ve sold a lot of records and they’re still around” isn’t the criterium. Neither is “Will they sell tickets to the dinner?” Nominating committee members are rotated, bringing in fresh viewpoints and shaking up the groupthink. Performers from earlier eras stay in the mix, voted on by people who know their careers. Nonperformers get their due. And at the risk of sounding maudlin, I think there’s a genuine sense of service to something important, of preserving something meaningful for future generations that goes beyond sponsors and TV specials and ticket sales.

But there are a couple of things that don’t make as much sense. It’s clear the CMA wants to preserve the exclusivity and dignity of the institution, but why is are the Hall of Famers virtually completely uncelebrated? Why isn’t there a tribute concert or a TV special with artists who’ve been influenced by and have respect for the inductees—“Will the Circle Be Unbroken” made real? Why not at least a bigger mention on the website? It’s been pointed out that the inductees tend to be older artists that are less visible and commercially viable, but if an artist deserves to be in a hall of fame, there’s a valid story there and a creative way can be found to tell it, especially when the museum has such vast resources at its disposal. Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s heyday was in the 1930s/1940s and her last performance was 45 years ago, but her induction with Brittany Howard’s performance was a high point of this year’s Rock Hall ceremony and brought her music to thousands of people who’d never heard of her before.

A favorite jab of Rock Hall critics is that it’s irrelevant because it’s too inclusive. As Chet Flippo put it, “An animal shelter, with numerous strays being brought in every year.” It’s true–the RRHOF has some questionable inductees. Recently It’s taken a pronounced turn for the populist, and I think more than one Hall monitor is keeping a watchful eye on the “Voice Your Choice” balloting at the museum, wondering which of the names we’re seeing there show up in October and if we’ll see something like Styx replacing Link Wray. But most of us who watch it still spend more time decrying who’s still left out. Taking in the potential artist pool, 323 is still a small club.

All the points cited above in praise of the Country Hall make up what for me is a bigger factor in relevance, and one that drives me crazy about the Rock Hall: professionalism, or the lack of it. Professionalism means that the Musical Excellence category is awarded consistently, instead of being allowed to look like a consolation prize. It means that the lineup for nominated bands is correct at the time of nomination so members aren’t added later and find out about it from their wives. It means artists don’t induct themselves. It means the criteria for a new category are officially explained instead of it being sprung as a strange afterthought that reeks of an end run around the process.

Actually, there are a couple of things that fall under the heading of professionalism that neither institution does that I’d like to see: Whatever rules govern the game, they should be published. And personally, I don’t feel a need to see the actual voting results, but certification would be a good step towards establishing that they’re legit.

Clearly, we’re looking at two different animals here. The CMHOF and the RRHOF are the products of two disparate cultures and could never be run the same way. But maybe they could show each other a thing or two.

Random note: It’s a while yet until October, but we’ve all been thinking about our predictions for the Class of 2018 ballot. Last year’s ballot was notably UK-centric, and several of the names on it—Judas Priest, the Zombies, the Eurythmics—made strong showings in the fan vote and could be serious contenders to return. There’s a fair amount of buzz for Def Leppard making its first appearance this year, and if they do, can they co-exist with Judas Priest? How about Duran Duran? How British could the ballot be?