Country Roots Run Side By Side with Gospel, R&B at Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio has closer ties to Country music than one might realize. 

Written by Chuck Dauphin
Country Roots Run Side By Side with Gospel, R&B at Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
Photo courtesy Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Located in Cleveland, Ohio directly on the banks of Lake Erie, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame offers visitors a unique opportunity to gain a history of the format, with artists represented in the Hall from Madonna, The Beach Boys, and Jefferson Airplane. Wait a minute, I know what you’re thinking. This is a Country Music website. What does the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame have to offer me in the way of telling the story of Country Music? According to the Hall’s Dr. Jason Hanley – a lot.

“I think one of the important things to realize that Country Music goes back to Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family,” Dr. Hanley begins. “That is an ingredient in Rock & Roll. It sits side by side of all the other great traditions of American music that make up Rock & Roll. That includes everything, from Rhythm and Blues to Gospel, Country, Bluegrass, Blues Music – all of these things find themselves in this amazing mixture. It comes from different cities throughout the United States, it’s one thing in Memphis, another in New Orleans, and a totally different thing in Cincinnati. Once Rock & Roll gets going, Country Music continues to parallel it. They develop side by side.”

A visitor in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; Photo courtesy Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

A visitor in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; Photo courtesy Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

And, to further illustrate that point, take a look at the names of the members of both Halls of Fame, and you will see more of an overlap than you might have thought. “Rock & Roll has always been connected to Country sounds, and Country has been influenced by Rock & Roll – so much so that you’ve got several Country musicians who have been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as early influences, such as Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys, and there’s a ton of country-influenced records from people that might be considered Rock & Roll artists. That includes everything from Ray Charles to Solomon Burke, Linda Ronstadt, The Byrds, The Band. All of those artists were looking at Country, and Country musicians were looking at rock & roll. I think that there’s a lot of artists, that if you look at their albums today, that’s still true. Take a look at Taylor Swift. She’s an artist that jumps between all of those in her career.”

Going back to the early days of Rock & Roll, Country had a huge role in the recipe. Bill Haley – whose 1953 recording of “Crazy Man, Crazy” is regarded as the first radio hit of the Rock era – was heavily influenced by the banjo and mandolin playing of his father, and Dr. Hanley says there were others that mined from many different styles of music. “ I’ve always said that in the early days of Rock & Roll, all of those artists were doing all kinds of different styles. One of my favorite artists is Elvis. I always look at him as an example. He sang Gospel Music. He was playing ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’, and also doing Country songs, and Rhythm and Blues. He found a way to mix it all together, yet develop his own style. Take the Everly Brothers, as well. They started as a Country family band in Kentucky on the radio. They did so much in the realm of both Country and Rock & Roll. We did a tribute to them in 2014 as part of our Music Masters series. It was a fantastic night.” Rodney Crowell was our Musical Director that evening, but everybody was on the show from Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, and Alison Krauss to Graham Nash and Peter Asher. It was an incredibly diverse bill of people who were influenced by the music of The Everly Brothers.”

Recently, the Hall saluted another icon who crossed many different musical boundaries. “This past year, we honored Johnny Cash as part of the Music Masters program. We had John Carter Cash was here as our band leader for that. The Oak Ridge Boys were here, and we also had the band Social Distortion doing ‘Ring of Fire.’ It was such a punk-rock version, but all the elements were still present in the performance. A lot of the sounds, the themes, and the attitude flows back and forth freely between Country and Rock & Roll.”

Elvis Presley's custom SuperTrike motorcycle; Photo courtesy Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Elvis Presley’s custom SuperTrike motorcycle; Photo courtesy Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

As far the exhibits go that might be of interest to Country fans, Dr. Hanley says “One that is a fantastic part of our Museum is in the “Cities and Sounds” section. We’ve got a great exhibit on Memphis. While Rock & Roll is a mixture of a lot of sounds, there’s no doubt that if you’re talking about Memphis in the 1950s, you are talking about a mixture of Country Music and the Blues coming together. The exhibit features Sun Records and the Memphis Recording Service. We’ve got items in there from Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley. We’ve actually got the piano that Jerry Lee Lewis used to play ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,’ which just happens to be the same piano that was used in the Million Dollar Quartet recordings and photographs as well. That’s an incredible exhibit to see, one that shows you where Rock & Roll, Country, and Rockabilly was all one thing. We also have a great exhibit on Johnny Cash that is featured here for this year. It goes back to his days at Sun, and even has the desk that he would sit down at in his house. It’s the one that he used in his ‘Hurt’ video, which is another example – Johnny Cash recording a Nine Inch Nails song, and making it his own in a way that I don’t think anyone would have ever predicted. Johnny Cash made that performance so powerful, working with a rock / hip hop producer named Rick Rubin.”

To sum it up, whether you’re a fan of artists such as George Jones and Buck Owens or Carrie Underwood and Sam Hunt, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame offers something for you. “The Country Music fan will see the sounds of Country Music all over the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.” Says Dr. Hanley. “Even for the Country fan that might not like Rock & Roll, I think you will be very surprised. Take the Rolling Stones, who were huge fans of Country. Aerosmith played Country Music. You’ll find a way to explore through the museum as a Country fan that will offer some interesting touch points about where Rock & Roll and Country divide, then come back together over the years. It’s an experience unlike any other that you’ll have, and you’ll find so many ways to expand your horizons of the music that we all know and love.”

For more information about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, visit