When Garth Brooks was told, back in 2012, that he would be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, he just shook his head. How could he get in ahead of his heroes – Randy Travis, Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley?
Two years ago, Brooks rectified one of those omissions when he inducted Travis into country’s most revered circle. On Tuesday, his eyes welling with tears and his voice breaking, Brooks filled yet another gap when he joined his wife, Trisha Yearwood, to announce that Skaggs would be the newest Hall of Fame member.
The honor has been a long time coming for the artist and master musician who was crucial to bringing country back to its roots in the 1980s — paving the way for artists like Travis, Brooks and Alan Jackson, Hall of Fame members all.
Skaggs made light of his wait in an emotional and reflective acceptance speech. “All my fans out there that thought I was already a member of the Hall of Fame,” he said, “today makes it official.”
The 63-year-old Kentucky native – who has made his mark in bluegrass as much as country – fills the modern-era category in this Hall of Fame class. The late Dottie West, known for such hits as “Country Sunshine” and “Here Comes My Baby,” was selected in the veterans-era category. The late fiddler Johnny Gimble, who performed or recorded with Hall of Fame members Bob Wills, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and George Strait, was chosen in the musician category.
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After the announcement in the Country Music Hall of Fame rotunda in Nashville, Skaggs told PEOPLE how he’d been recently surprised with the news right after a Grand Ole Opry performance. When Sarah Trahern, the CMA’s CEO, led Skaggs and his wife, Sharon White, into a private dressing room, he said he knew he was probably going to be getting some good news.
But “I wouldn’t let my mind go this far,” he said of country music’s highest honor.
Once Trahern told Skaggs he was going into the Hall of Fame, “I just started bawling,” he recalled. “I grabbed her and hugged her and grabbed Sharon and hugged her. She was just crying.”
A winner of 15 Grammys and eight CMA awards, including 1985 Entertainer of the Year, Skaggs sets this honor apart from all the rest. “This is forever,” he said.
“You hope these days will come,” he confessed, but then quickly added: “I don’t think there’s a person in this Hall of Fame that came to Nashville with the sole purpose of being inducted into the Hall of Fame. As musicians and singers and entertainers, I don’t think we think like that.”
A child prodigy who played with bluegrass masters Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs by the time he was 7 years old, Skaggs looked around at the 133 plaques in the rotunda that hold the names of his musical heroes. “These are my peeps right here,” he said. “That’s why I’m here. It’s about legacy. These are people that I’ve learned from.”
His mind also went to his close friend Keith Whitley, who died of alcohol poisoning, at age 34, in 1989. As teens, the two played together in Ralph Stanley’s bluegrass band. Whitley’s groundbreaking career in country lasted a scant three years.
“He would have been here, no doubt about it,” Skaggs said of what might have been. “He had such a short career, but even in his short career, he influenced George [Strait]. He influenced Garth … There are so many that he inspired.”
But on this day, Brooks was dwelling on the impact that Ricky Skaggs had on his musical formation.
“Skaggs raised me,” the reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year told PEOPLE after the ceremony. “I played all his stuff … Country Boy, Don’t Cheat in Our Hometown … All that stuff are things that inspired me to go on. That’s what I love about him.”
Skaggs, West and Gimble will be formally inducted into the Hall of Fame later this year.