MUSKOGEE — Kristin Chenoweth turned down invitations to present a prize at Wednesday night’s CMA Awards and perform at Thursday’s taping of the “CMA Country Christmas” TV special in Nashville, Tenn., for a better offer closer to her heart and home.
The Broken Arrow native returned to her home state for her induction Thursday into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame. And for the crowd of more than 2,000 music lovers who attended the hall’s Annual Induction Ceremony and Concert, the Country Music Association’s loss was certainly their gain.
As the headliner of the hall’s 2011 class, the Emmy- and Tony-winning singer/actress capped the more than three-hour celebration with an eclectic set of Broadway show tunes, pop standards and contemporary country songs. It was an especially fitting finale considering the diversity of the honorees, whose musical styles range from American Indian fusion to contemporary jazz to surf rock.
“People ask me what the best moment in my career has been so far all the time ... and this is something I’ve always wanted since I was a little girl because music is an extension of me. I love it so much. And it is my honor and pleasure to be here and be a part of this prestigious club,” Chenoweth said after a video tribute from fellow Oklahoma Music Hall of Famer and singer/actor Sam Harris, who told her, “You are singular.”
Chenoweth, 43, opened her set belting the show tune “Should I Be Sweet?” from her 2001 debut album “Let Yourself Go,” and the diminutive blonde’s huge voice and oversized personality immediately seemed almost too big for the Muskogee Civic Center. She was unfazed by the occasional spates of microphone feedback, sometimes even using them as an excuse to show off her witty sense of humor.
“It is so nice to be here. Don’t worry if you don’t like opera, it’s almost over,” she quipped, switching from musical theater to contemporary country with “What Would Dolly Do,” a feisty tribute to Dolly Parton she co-wrote for her 2011 debut country album “Some Lessons Learned.”
The night was a mixture of sweet and bittersweet. The hall of fame inducted Thursday eight new members, including four posthumous honorees.
Along with Chenoweth, the class of 2011 includes basketball great and popular jazz bassist the late Wayman Tisdale and Rock; Roll Hall of Famers Nokie Edwards and the late Bob Bogle, both members of surf-rock pioneers The Ventures; and Gene Triplett, longtime entertainment editor of The Oklahoman.
The class of 2011 also features the late guitarist/keyboard player Jesse Ed Davis, who performed with Leon Russell, George Harrison and John Lennon; the late composer, lyricist and performer Ralph Blane, who wrote the holiday classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and the Oscar-nominated “The Trolley Song” from the musical “Meet Me in St. Louis”; and Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame Rising Star Award recipient Cheevers Toppah, a Kiowa/Navajo singer and Grammy nominee.
“A friend of mine called me the other day and he said, ‘Everywhere I go, Jesse’s with me. He’s in the car, on the radio, in the pharmacy, in the market. And it’s true. Everybody has heard him, and you don’t know that you’ve heard him,” said Kelly Davis, the widow of the respected session musician, who died in 1988 after overdosing on heroin.
The Russell Saunkeah Band opened its musical tribute to Davis with Jackson Browne’s jangly classic rocker “Doctor My Eyes” and Taj Mahal’s “Six Days on the Road,” two of the many hits on which the Norman-born guitarist played. The group paid homage to Davis’ musical prowess and Kiowa-Comanche heritage with the bluesy anthem “Alcatraz,” which Leon Russell wrote and Davis recorded for his 1972 album “Ululu.” American Indian poet/activist John Trudell helped close the set with “Rockin’ the Res,” one of his collaborations with Davis as Graffiti Man.
Bob Spalding, who has played lead and bass guitar with The Ventures since 1981, accepted the induction award and performed on behalf of Bogle his wife and six children, five of whom were in attendance. Bogle, who died in 2009 at the age of 75, was born in Wagoner but was just a child when his family moved to the West Coast.
“Bob reconnected with Oklahoma about 25 years ago ... when The Ventures played around the Tulsa area, and many of his relatives that he had never met from Wagoner came and saw him along with their friends. And it really touched him. It was a great welcome back to Oklahoma for him, and he never forgot that,” Spalding said.
Along with bringing Lahoma native Edwards into The Ventures’ lineup, Bogle and co-founder Don Wilson later invited future Oklahoma Music Hall of Famers Russell and David Gates to play on some of the influential band’s albums.
“Even though he left fairly early, Bob gravitated toward the talents of the wonderful Oklahoma musicians that you have to offer,” Spalding added before strapping on his guitar to lead a quartet in speeding through an extended rendition of The Venture’s famed, grooving instrumental “Walk Don’t Run.”
Tulsa actress and teacher Billie Sue Thompson, who taught Chenoweth as a teacher at Broken Arrow High School, accepted the honor on behalf of Blane, who died in 1995 at the age of 81.