Hall of fame welcomes tearful Brooks

Connie Smith, left, is presented her medallion by Merle Haggard at the Country Music Hall of Fame Inductions on Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012 in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Wade Payne/Invision/AP)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Garth Brooks promised he’d be emotional during his Country Music Hall of Fame induction. But the tears started before he made it all the way into the building.

Reflecting on personal heroes George Strait, Bob Seger and James Taylor on hand to salute him Sunday night, Brooks teared up as he spoke with reporters on the red carpet. He only got more emotional as the night went along.

“I moved to this town for one reason and that was to get ‘Much Too Young to Feel This Damn Old’ cut by George Strait,” Brooks said before the ceremony as his eyes began to redden. “That’s what George is singing tonight. It’s gonna be so cool. I’m a fan. So I get to be a fan tonight.”

Brooks was inducted along with trailblazing singer Connie Smith and keyboard player Hargus “Pig” Robbins, whose rolling signature sound has adorned countless hits across the radio dial.

It was a night studded with stars. Strait, Seger and Taylor played for Brooks, dubbed “the mighty Garth” by Robbins. Lee Ann Womack, the Quebe Sisters and The Whites saluted Smith. Merle Haggard provided her induction speech.

Ronnie Dunn serenaded Robbins with a version of George Jones’ “White Lightning,” the first No. 1 hit Robbins played on in 1959, while simultaneously drinking moonshine from a Mason jar. Ronnie Milsap, who like Robbins is blind, joked “Pig and I are driving home tonight,” before joining Robbins on “Behind Closed Doors.”

Robbins is one of the most widely recorded session players in Nashville history, though his reputation spread far beyond Music City’s borders. From Jones and most of his country contemporaries to rock ‘n’ roll pioneers like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and J.J. Cale, he worked with some of the most dynamic artists in music history. His sound defines some of pop music’s most memorable songs as well, which Crystal Gayle reminded everyone by singing “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.”

“If we listened to every hit record he played on, none of us would live long enough to make it to the end,” Charlie McCoy said during his induction speech for Robbins.

Robbins also played on Smith’s early recordings shortly after she arrived in Nashville.

Smith recounted before the show how she won a talent contest in Columbus, Ohio. Bill Anderson heard her sing and less than a year later she had her first hit, “Once a Day,” which became the first debut single by a female country artist to reach No. 1. It sat atop the charts for eight weeks.

She inspired a generation of singers just as she was inspired by singers like Jean Shepard and the late Kitty Wells, whom she now joins in the hall of fame.

“Jean Shepard went in last year and she said, ‘I hope they hang your plaque next to mine,’ and I don’t think I could have a better compliment than that,” Smith said.