Eric Church, Kenny Chesney, George Strait, Alan Jackson and More Sing for the New Hall of Fame Class

Hank Williams Jr., Marty Stuart and songwriter Dean Dillon receive country music's highest honor during an induction ceremony Sunday in Nashville

Country Music Hall of Fame Medallion Ceremony
Dean Dillon, Marty Stuart and Hank Williams, Jr. Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty

A superstar lineup — including George Strait, Alan Jackson, Kenny Chesney and Eric Church — took the stage in Nashville on Sunday night to usher in the 2020 class of the Country Music Hall of Fame: outlaw legend Hank Williams Jr., master showman-musician Marty Stuart and classic songwriter Dean Dillon.

The invitation-only event, which took place in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's CMA Theater, was a night filled with memorable performances and testimonials, culminating in the three honorees being inducted by a Hall of Fame member each had personally selected. It's also a tradition for the tribute performances to be surprises — and, per tradition, the roster was a sensational mix of big names and fresh voices.

Country Music Hall of Fame Medallion Ceremony
Kenny Chesney. Terry Wyatt/Getty

Strait and Chesney both performed for Dillon, who began writing a lengthy string of hits in the 1980s — most notably for Strait, who has recorded more than 60 Dillon songs. For the ceremony, Strait chose perhaps Dillon's most timeless classic, "The Chair," but the selection still must have been difficult, considering his list of Dillon-written hits, which include "Ocean Front Property," "Easy Come, Easy Go," "Marina del Rey," "The Best Day" and "She Let Herself Go."

Chesney honored his fellow east Tennessean with "A Lot of Things Different," his 2002 hit that Dillon co-wrote with Hall of Famer Bill Anderson. And up-and-comer Brittney Spencer brought her soulful sounds to "Tennessee Whiskey," a Dillon song, first cut by David Allan Coe in 1981, that's gone on to earn its ageless reputation through interpretations by George Jones, in 1983, and Chris Stapleton, in 2015. (This was Spencer's second opportunity in recent months to wow an influential Nashville crowd with a solo turn; in August, she torched the Ryman Auditorium stage with Martina McBride's "Independence Day" at the ACM Honors show.)

Country Music Hall of Fame Medallion Ceremony
Brittney Spencer. Jason Kempin/Getty

In his remarks, Dillon told how he arrived in Nashville on a hitchhiking thumb, intent on becoming an artist, and through the 1980s, he forged a modest recording career while also writing hits for stars, such as Strait. Then in the early '90s, Dillon said, he had a life-changing decision to make when Strait came to him coveting "Easy Come, Easy Go," a song that was already destined to be Dillon's lead-off single from his next album.

Country Music Hall of Fame Medallion Ceremony
Dean Dillon. Jason Kempin/Getty

When Strait's producer promised that Strait would take the song to No. 1, Dillon recalled, "I did the math in my head real quick, and then I thought, do you want a record career or do you want to be a songwriter? And in my heart of heart of hearts, I knew what I loved the most," he said, brushing away tears, "and I looked at him and said, 'You can have it.'"

Country Music Hall of Fame Medallion Ceremony
George Strait. Terry Wyatt/Getty

After the meeting, Dillon said, he went directly to his record label and quit. "I can honestly ... tell you," he added, "it's the smartest decision I ever made in my life."

Strait, of course, was the one who inducted Dillon into the Hall of Fame.

Country Music Hall of Fame Medallion Ceremony
Emmylou Harris and Charlie Worsham. Jason Kempin/Getty

To celebrate Stuart, Hall of Fame member Emmylou Harris and artist-musician Charlie Worsham joined forces for "Tempted," his biggest radio hit, and Ashley McBryde offered "The Observation of a Crow" from Stuart's groundbreaking 1999 album The Pilgrim. Pastor Evelyn Hubbard, a Stuart collaborator from his native Mississippi, performed "It's Time to Go Home," a cut from Soul's Chapel, his 2005 gospel album.

Country Music Hall of Fame Medallion Ceremony
Ashley McBryde. Terry Wyatt/Getty

Stuart chose his wife, fellow Hall of Famer Connie Smith, to drape his gold medallion around his neck, honoring him for a career that began at age 13, when the mandolin prodigy joined Lester Flatt's bluegrass band. Stuart built his reputation on collaborations with a long list of other Hall of Fame members, including Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Bill Monroe, Porter Wagoner and Mac Wiseman. Then, in 1989, he broke out as a solo artist, and he has since earned both popular and critical acclaim for his musicianship and his creative explorations of multiple genres, most notably traditional country.

"The question gets asked, how do you describe this moment?" Stuart said in his acceptance remarks. "Well, this is the ultimate. There's this, and there's everything else."

Country Music Hall of Fame Medallion Ceremony
Connie Smith and Marty Stuart. Jason Kempin/Getty

Hank Williams Jr. gained entrance into the Hall of Fame exactly 60 years after his legendary father posthumously joined the Hall's first class in 1961. Hank Jr. began his career in his teens under the withering shadow of his dad, whom he lost at age 4, but he found his own voice — and became an essential innovator in country's outlaw movement — after a near-fatal mountain-climbing accident in 1975.

Country Music Hall of Fame Medallion Ceremony
Shooter Jennings. Jason Kempin/Getty

Another famous second-generation artist, Shooter Jennings, son of outlaw Waylon Jennings, honored Williams with "Feelin' Better," a single off The New South, his 1977 album that heralded his new renegade spirit and break from mainstream country sounds.

Country Music Hall of Fame Medallion Ceremony
Eric Church. Jason Kempin/Getty

Fellow renegade Eric Church followed with a Williams signature song, "A Country Boy Can Survive," which Williams took to No. 2 in 1982, and Alan Jackson contributed "The Blues Man," which he covered and released on his 1999 album of tributes, Under the Influence.

Country Music Hall of Fame Medallion Ceremony
Alan Jackson. Terry Wyatt/Getty

After the towering Williams genuflected before the 4-foot-9 Hall of Famer Brenda Lee to receive his gold medallion, he kept his acceptance remarks brief — and completely in keeping with his outlaw spirit.

"Well, the good thing is, this didn't happen yesterday, which was the opening day of deer season," said Williams, who was dressed in a camouflage-print tuxedo jacket.

Country Music Hall of Fame Medallion Ceremony
Hank Williams Jr. and Brenda Lee. Jason Kempin/Getty

He also wasn't one to indulge in a list of people to thank. "I know who they are, they know who they are," Williams said succinctly.

His finish was simply a clever reference to three of his biggest hits: "'All my rowdy friends' are coming over tonight. I was 'born to boogie,' and this" — he motioned to his just-unveiled Hall of Fame plaque — is a 'family tradition.'"

Country Music Hall of Fame Medallion Ceremony
Hank Williams Jr. Jason Kempin/Getty

The 2020 Hall of Fame class was announced last year, but the pandemic caused the postponement of the ceremony. The 2021 classRay Charles, the Judds, and musicians Eddie Bayers and Pete Drake — was announced in August, and that induction is set for next year.

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