Singer/songwriter Garth Brooks performs at CBS' Teachers Rock Special live concert at the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on August 14, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE (USA TODAY) -- In an emotion-filled tribute that had in him tears from the start, Garth Brooks joined the Country Music Hall of Fame Sunday, with his hero George Strait welcoming him to the group.
The event: Strait, Bob Seger and James Taylor pay tribute to the country superstar, one of three artists who joins the hall's ranks in a star-studded ceremony at the hall of fame and museum.
Two more honorees: Harmonica great Charlie McCoy (who joined the hall in 2009) inducts Hargus "Pig" Robbins, the blind pianist who has played on records by Patsy Cline, Bob Dylan, Alan Jackson, Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty. Merle Haggard (1994) inducts Connie Smith, whose hits include '60s classics Once a Day and Cincinnati, Ohio.
Seger's spike: When Seger, who paid tribute to Brooks, went into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he described it as "a career spike in my own head," he says. "I thought, 'I'm a Hall of Famer now; I've got to make a great album.' I kind of think that might happen with Garth."
Brooks, however, wasn't so sure: "I look at it as a continuation of trying to make country music as proud of you as you always have," he says when he arrives at the ceremony. "You represent it the best that you can. And the only difference in our life now is that she (wife Trisha Yearwood) has to say 'Hall of Famer' before she calls my name any time." ("Not going to happen," Yearwood says.)
"I don't feel any different," says Brooks, who'll end a three-year residency at the Wynn Las Vegas in November. "But we should talk tomorrow."
Garth's goal: Brooks says he came to Nashville for one reason: "To get George Strait to cut Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old). Guess what George is singing tonight?"
In the crowd: Marty Stuart (Smith's husband), Ricky Skaggs, Crystal Gayle and Gene Watson. The list of Country Music Hall of Famers was even lengthier: Emmylou Harris, Brenda Lee, Barbara Mandrell, Sonny James, Bobby Braddock, Harold Bradley, Jim Foglesong, Vince Gill, Merle Haggard, Jean Shepard, Ray Walker and Curtis Young of The Jordanaires, and Jimmy Fortune of the Statler Brothers. Missing: George Jones, who had planned to be on hand to induct Brooks.
When he knew for sure: Robbins first felt like he might be good at what he did after he played on his first No. 1, Jones' 1959 single White Lightning. "When you play on a hit, it kind of mushrooms," he says.
Before singing that hit with John Hobbs on piano, Ronnie Dunn walked onstage with two jars, handing one to the band and keeping one for himself. "I'm going to try to set a record by drinking this much moonshine in a three-minute song," he says. "Just like we practiced."
The induction: "He knew the floor plan to a hundred studios, at least," McCoy says of Robbins, telling the story of a time the electricity went out, leaving musicians in the dark in the windowless recording room. McCoy recalls Robbins saying, 'OK, anybody that wants to go to the restroom, I'll take you there for a dollar.' "
"There are many songwriters who made a whole lot more royalties because Pig played on their song," says McCoy, formally presenting the medallion. "There are many artists who had much better careers because Pig played on their records."
Announces Robbins: "I stole enough licks off of Floyd (Cramer) that I ought to be ashamed of myself, but I'm not."
"All the girl singers want to sing like Connie": Lee Ann Womack, who grew up listening to her DJ father play Smith's records on the air and at home, picked a '70s cut, You've Got Me (Right Where You Want Me), for her tribute number. "Oh, all the girl singers want to sing like Connie," she says.
Hag's tribute: During his induction speech, friend Haggard tells the crowd, "I've admired her sincerity and her spirit and her commitment to traditional country music. If you're talking about country singers, there ain't none better."
Smith notes that Shepard, a 2011 inductee, told her she wants Smith's plaque hung next to hers on the wall. "I thought I couldn't have a better compliment than that."
Strait shooter: "You just didn't try hard enough," Strait tells Garth, having learned that the singer/songwriter pined to have him record Much Too Young, which would become Brooks' debut hit. "I need songs like this."
Strait recalls initially hearing about Brooks' shows, where he swung on ropes and smashed guitars, and thinking, "This is country music: Can he do that?" He tells Brooks, "You've brought so many fans to our music; it helped all of us."
"I wouldn't miss it": Brooks' wife invited Taylor to perform at this ceremony. "Trisha called up and said, 'Would you be here?" Taylor recalls, introducing Brooks' hit The River. "I said, 'God, I wouldn't miss it.'" Yearwood joins him as a background singer for his performance and stays on to sing That Summer with Seger.
"What I love about Garth is his passion -- he's never afraid to be passionate," Seger says. Even with Brooks' historic success, "he's still a really good guy, he wears it well."
Garth's moment: Brooks recalls hearing Strait's Unwound for the first time, as he rode with his father to the local IGA grocery store after his freshman year in college. "From that point forward, I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life," he says. "I wanted to be George Strait so damn bad."
The future: Brooks offers an oblique hint about a return to the road "some day coming up."
"In music, this is the greatest day in my music career," he says. "The greatest days of my life are sitting in the front row," pointing to his three daughters.
The closing number: The night's performers and all the Hall of Famers in attendance take the stage for the ceremony's traditional closing number, Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Smith, Brooks, Lee, Walker, Haggard, Seger and Strait alternate on lead vocals.