Gene Watson Features: Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins: 2000 CMA Musician of The Year

Gene Watson Features
Country Music People: 'Pig Robbins: CMA Musician of The Year 2000' (November 2000)

It is here where you have an opportunity to read ‘Pig Robbins: CMA Musician of The Year 2000’, an article written by Walt Trott, which was published in the November 2000 issue of Country Music People.

Pig Robbins
CMA Musician of The Year 2000
‘You’d be hard put to find a country artist that keyboard man Pig Robbins hasn’t played for during his 43 years as a session musician.

Hargus 'Pig' Robbins

Music Row’s lights shine a little dimmer now as we bid ‘adieu‘ to one of its brightest luminaries.  In fact, Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins (Tuesday 18 January 1938 – Sunday 30 January 2022) was right there as it developed into the street of dreams it is today.

Heartbroke hillbillies cried in their beer to his sounds on the jukebox – he’s heard on literally thousands of heart-tugging, country classics – wrapping his saddest notes around the recorded likes of Tammy Wynette (Tuesday 5 May 1942 – Monday 6 April 1998), Charlie Rich (Wednesday 14 December 1932 – Tuesday 25 July 1995), Crystal Gayle and Kenny Rogers (Sunday 21 August 1938 – Friday 20 March 2020), or pop icons such as Paul Anka, Neil Young, Annette Punicello and Andy Williams (Saturday 3 December 1927 – Tuesday 25 September 2012).

Unlike the cited singers, however, Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins (Tuesday 18 January 1938 – Sunday 30 January 2022) is not a household name despite having played piano on more hits than their combined total.  Still, he’s a legend among Nashville session pickers and probably the most-recorded pianist in the world.  That’s impressive for a blind boy from rural Tennessee.

Pig’s own musical tastes run the gamut from honky tonk pianist Moon Mullican’s ‘I’ll Sail My Ship Alone’ to the Italian movie theme music, ‘Anna (El Negro Zumbon)’, popularised in the United States by Perez Prado.

‘Years ago, I loved (pianist) Papa John Gordy who played on WSM’s ‘The Waking Crew’ and in a club (The Celtic) around Nashville’, recalls Robbins.  ‘Of course, Floyd Cramer (Friday 27 October 1933 – Wednesday 31 December 1997) became my idol, and I loved to hear Owen Bradley (Thursday 21 October 1915 – Wednesday 7 January 1998) play.  He was really a great musician, who played some very good pop’.

Robbins recently had to close the cover on his Yamaha keyboard due to a struggle with Hodgkins’ Disease, a form of cancer that has deadened the nerve endings in his fingers and feet.

‘You know, I’ve played sessions from 1957 to 2000, and that’s quite a long time for anybody to work at a steady job’, he proclaims.  ‘I’ve worked with George Jones (Saturday 12 September 1931 – Friday 26 April 2013) over a period of 40-something years.  I played on his last hit, ‘Choices’ (written by Billy Yates and Mike Curtis), before he had that car crash’

George Jones: 'Cold Hard Truth' (Asylum Records, 1999)

George Jones (Saturday 12 September 1931 – Friday 26 April 2013) recorded ‘Choices’ (written by Billy Yates and Mike Curtis) and included the track on ‘Cold Hard Truth’ (Asylum Records, 1959); the track reached No.30 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks Chart in 1999.

Contemporary artists Alan Jackson, Tracy Byrd and Travis Tritt have also called on him.

During our interview, it’s soon apparent this award-winning minstrel isn’t about to feel sorry for himself.  Pig would rather discuss music he’s made or the talented people who surrounded him through more than five decades of studio playing.

‘You know (promoter) Murray Nash talked me into joining the Musicians’ Union.  That was in 1957.  I remember I joined the union and played a session that day…then I didn’t do another for three or four months’.

The following year Pig was in the studio with George Jones (Saturday 12 September 1931 – Friday 26 April 2013), a rising star who’d relocated from Texas to Nashville to record for Mercury.

‘It was Buddy Killen (Sunday 13 November 1932 – Wednesday 1 November 2006) who got me on Jones‘ ‘White Lightning’ session.  He threw a lot of work my way after that.  Incidentally, that song became the first number one record I played on – and his, too’.

George Jones: 'White Lightning & Other Favorites' (Mercury Records, 1959)

George Jones (Saturday 12 September 1931 – Friday 26 April 2013) recorded ‘White Lightning’, which was written by J.P. Richardson (Friday 24 October 1930 – Tuesday 3 February 1959), and included the track on ‘White Lightning & Other Favorites’ (Mercury Records, 1959); the track was No.1 on the Billboard country music singles chart in 1959, and No.73 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop music singles chart in 1959.

Hargus Melvin Robbins was born Jan. 18, 1938 in Spring City, Tennessee, 16 miles south of I-40, midway between Cookeville and Knoxville.  He was a normal toddler until the age of 3 when he wounded himself: ‘I stuck a knife in one eye and they took me to two doctors, one young and one older.  The older guy said, ‘We don’t need to take it out’, but the younger guy prevailed.  Then my other eye suffered what they call a sympathetic infection’.

As a result, he lost vision in the second eye as well.  ‘I was pretty young but I can remember that green was my favourite colour.  We had an ol’ green Chevrolet that I liked a lot’.

From ages 7 to 15, Robbins attended the Tennessee School For The Blind situated in the Nashville suburb of Donelson, where he learned to play piano.  ‘The school, of course, was classically-oriented.  That is, they didn’t want you to play boogie woogie or anything.  But anybody who would play by ear did…they had a couple of grand pianos in the auditorium, though I played mostly on an ol’ upright’.

It was while scampering up a fire escape at the school that the youngster earned his nickname: ‘They used to have the old barrel-type fire escapes.  When I think about it now, if they ever had a fire we’d of all got cooked in there – they were all metal.  But I loved to play in ’em when I wasn’t supposed to, and I had this supervisor who’d catch up to me.  Then she’d say, ‘You’re as dirty as a little pig!’  So the name stuck’.

His younger brother Forrest Robbins plays drums but never pursued it professionally.  In his youth, Pig remembers listening to Mother Maybelle Carter’s recording of the classic ‘Wildwood Flower’.

‘That’s how I developed that left-handed playing style.  I stole it from Mother Maybelle Carter (Monday 10 May 1909 – Monday 23 October 1978) and the way she bent the notes together.  That’s when it first entered my mind – why not try and adapt that to the piano?  Floyd Cramer (Friday 27 October 1933 – Wednesday 31 December 1997) had done that, developing his famous piano style from a steel guitar sound that inspired him.

Then I learned from Grady Martin (Thursday 17 January 1929 – Monday 3 December 2001) that it was so cool to play in between the lines and not on top of it.  So, with all that, I kind of developed my own style that worked down through the years.

Gene Watson on the set of American television show, 'Hee Haw', in 1979

People would get so they could recognise my playing.  I guess a lot of them identify me with the single left hand melody and single note bass stuff I do (including his rhythms and punches) like on those Gene Watson tracks’.

Charlie Rich (Wednesday 14 December 1932 - Tuesday 25 July 1995)

Robbins remembers how he felt intimidated when asked to play on Charlie Rich’s recordings during the star’s Epic days, including his pop-country million sellers, ‘Behind Closed Doors’, which was written by Kenny O’Dell (born Kenneth Gist Jr.) (Wednesday 21 June 1944 – Monday 27 March 2018) (No.1 for two weeks in April / May 1973) and ‘The Most Beautiful Girl’, which was written by Norro Wilson (Monday 4 April 1938 – Thursday 8 June 2017), Billy Sherrill (Thursday 5 November 1936 – Tuesday 4 August 2015) and Rory Bourke (No.1 for three weeks in November / December 1973).

‘I was a nervous wreck because Charlie was so great.  He was such a good jazz and blues pianist and had done sessions himself in Memphis.  So, you could say I was wound up pretty tight at first with him standing over me and singing, but it worked out pretty well’.

That’s Pig playing all those great intros on Charlie’s Epic hits.  He also played on the early successes of Lee Greenwood including ‘It Turns Me Inside Out’, which was written by Jan Crutchfield (Saturday 26 February 1938 – Tuesday 30 October 2012) (No.17, 1981) and ‘IOU’, which was written by Kerry Michael Chater (Tuesday 7 August 1945 – Tuesday 1 February 2022) and Austin Roberts (No.6, 1983).  (Before hitting the big time, Greenwood had paid his dues as a lounge pianist).

Ronnie Milsap

Another keyboard artist Pig has worked with is Ronnie Milsap, also sightless – as recently as a year-and-a-half ago.  He also played on Milsap‘s earlier records, ‘when he first started off, back when he was more country’.

Jokingly, he adds, ‘I used to tell people I started him out here in town, and that I played for Ronnie until he discovered he could play and sing for himself’.

When Robbins was trying to get a foothold in the studios, he appreciated people like Buddy Killen (Sunday 13 November 1932 – Wednesday 1 November 2006) recommending his playing to others, including Mercury’s then A&R honcho Shelby Singleton (Wednesday 16 December 1931 – Wednesday 7 October 2009).

‘Basically, there were only two studios back then, RCA’s Studio B and Bradley’s (Quonset Hut).  Jerry Kennedy, Owen Bradley (Thursday 21 October 1915 – Wednesday 7 January 1998) and Chet Atkins (Friday 20 June 1924 – Saturday 30 June 2001) started calling.

If Floyd (Cramer) (Friday 27 October 1933 – Wednesday 31 December 1997) was tied up at another studio, Chet would call me.  Owen played piano, of course, but except for playing some for Brenda Lee, Patsy Cline (Thursday 8 September 1932 – Tuesday 5 March 1963) and Burl Ives (Monday 14 June 1909 – Friday 14 April 1995), he’d prefer to concentrate on producing.  In the 60s, Owen got me on Ernest Tubb’s records.

When you play on hits, people start using you more.  Finally, I started earning enough to call it makin’ a living.  As I got to do sessions with artists like The Wilburn Brothers, The Glaser Brothers (Tompall Glaser: Sunday 3 September 1933 – Tuesday 13 August 2013, Jim Glaser: Wednesday 16 December 1936 – Saturday 6 April 2019, and Chuck Glaser: Thursday 27 February 1936 – Monday 10 June 2019), Porter Wagoner (Friday 12 August 1927 – Sunday 28 October 2007) and Dolly Parton, they asked me to play with them at the Opry.  I played on there about three years and, to me, it was a big thrill.  That was when Marvin Hughes was their staff pianist’.

Of course, Pig played on numerous Opry star classics, among them the following:

George Hamilton IV’s ‘Abilene’, which was written by Bob Gibson (Monday 16 November 1931 – Saturday 28 September 1996), Lester Brown and John D. Loudermilk (Saturday 31 March 1934 – Wednesday 21 September 2016) (No.1 for four weeks in 1963)

• Porter Wagoner‘s ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’, which was written by Curly Putman (Thursday 20 November 1930 – Sunday 30 October 2016) (No.4, 1965)

• Dolly Parton’s ‘Coat of Many Colors’ (written by Dolly Parton) (No.4, 1971)

• Tom T. Hall‘s ‘Homecoming’, which was written by Tom T. Hall (Monday 25 May 1936 – Friday 20 August 2021) (No.5, 1969)

• Loretta Lynn‘s ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’, which was written by Loretta Lynn (Thursday 14 April 1932 – Tuesday 4 October 2022) (No.1 for one week in December 1970)

Pig Robbins also played on Loretta Lynn‘s team efforts with Conway Twitty (Friday 1 September 1933 – Saturday 5 June 1993), notably the following:

• ‘After The Fire Is Gone’, which was written by L.E. White (1930 – Tuesday 7 September 2004) (No.1 for two weeks in March / April 1971)
• ‘Lead Me On’ (written by Leon Copeland) (No.1 for one week in November 1971)
• ‘Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man’ (written by Becki Bluefield and Jim Owen) (No.1 for one week in August 1973)
• ‘As Soon As I Hang Up The Phone’, which was written by Conway Twitty (Friday 1 September 1933 – Saturday 5 June 1993) (No.1 for one week in August 1974)
• ‘Feelin’s’ (written by Troy Seals, Dan Goodman and Will Jennings) (No.1 for one week in September 1975)

He remembers playing for Twitty, including his first number one country cut, ‘Next In Line’, which was written by Wayne Kemp (Sunday 1 June 1941 – Monday 9 March 2015) and Curtis Wayne (No.1 for one week in November 1968), in 1968‘I worked with him mainly when Owen was producing him’, recalls Robbins.  ‘He was an alright guy.  He liked to crack a joke, but he’d come in ready to work.  Conway was always prepared’.

Bob Dylan: 'Blonde On Blonde' (Columbia Records, 1966)

Although music writers have said that his session work with Bob Dylan on ‘Blonde On Blonde’ (Columbia Records, 1966) put him more in demand by pop and rock producers, Pig muses, ‘I don’t know if it did or not.  A lot of people have mentioned that down through the years’.

Rather, Robbins credits Billy Sherrill’s splendid production work on David Houston’s ‘Almost Persuaded’ as being a milestone in his career:  ‘I think that (1966) record did a lot for my session work’.  (Sure enough, but Pig was also an integral part of the million-selling Roger Miller (Thursday 2 January 1936 – Sunday 25 October 1992) award winner, ‘King of The Road’, a year earlier.)

Another of Robbins’ champions is guitarist Ray Edenton, himself an A Team player.

‘Being blind, you have to pay more attention to things than we do’, notes Edenton.  ‘He’s a natural picker, one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever heard.  Pig also has a great attitude in the studio’.

In turn, Robbins reflects on his studio days: ‘You can have problems, sure.  But I always left them at the doorstep.  What I found inside was a good group of people to work with – and they were usually up’.

The Nashville Numbering System proved to be an asset to most local pickers.  (It’s a simplified method of noting chord progressions in lue of normal written arrangements, as used in Los Angeles or New York.)

‘I got it down good’, chuckles Pig, who had to commit it to memory. ‘Absolutely, it was all memory.  Some people would say, ‘How could you remember all that stuff?’  I did, but I didn’t retain it.  By the end of a session, I couldn’t remember the first number we did’.

‘Mainly, I always listen to the song – the words and the melody.  Basically, what I was after was the chord structure, you know.  Then, when whoever was leader might say, why don’t you take the second verse, or chorus, I was ready’.

How much does intuition come into play as a musician?

‘I don’t know. I think it’s just a feel you have, and what you’ve gained from experience after so many years.  You kind of develop the way you have of doing things, in approaching so many songs.  I certainly don’t have perfect pitch – and I always had to hire an acoustic piano tuner’.

Is music one of the purest forms of communication?

‘In today’s music, it’s not too pure anymore, with all the stuff they’re putting out there.  Music can take you where you want to go.  It touches people and can get you laughing or crying.  In recording, you’re selling feelings and emotions with the music you make’.

Trying to determine who his favourite studio co-workers are draws a blank: ‘Hey, if you don’t mention ’em all, somebody will get pissed off!’

Hargus 'Pig' Robbins: 'Unbreakable Hearts' (Elektra Records, 1979)

Yet his self-produced 1979 Elektra album, ‘Unbreakable Hearts’ (Elektra Records, 1979), is somewhat tell-tale in that he surrounded himself with fellow pickers, Harold Bradley (Saturday 2 January 1926 – Thursday 31 January 2019), Ray Edenton (Wednesday 3 November 1926 – Wednesday 21 September 2022), Bob Moore (Wednesday 30 November 1932 – Wednesday 22 September 2021), Lloyd Green, Weldon Myrick (Monday 10 April 1939 – Monday 2 June 2014), Billy Sanford, Pete Wade, Henry Strzelecki (Tuesday 8 August 1939 – Monday 29 December 2014), Tommy Allsup (Tuesday 24 November 1931 – Wednesday 11 January 2017), Bobby Dyson, Jimmy Capps (Thursday 25 May 1939 – Monday 1 June 2020), and percussion chiefs Jerry Kroon and Kenny Malone (Thursday 4 August 1938 – Thursday 26 August 2021).

Not only did it showcase his keyboard wizardry, whether on acoustic or electric piano, clavinet, organ or harpsichord, but it gave him the chance to vocalise in a variety of styles.  Both the plaintive title tune and the novelty number, ‘Chunky People’, made Billboard’s singles chart (No.83, 1979), while the LP, ‘Unbreakable Hearts’ (Elektra Records, 1979), became a Top 40 entry on the trade journal’s album chart.

Hargus 'Pig' Robbins: 'A Bit of Country Piano' (Time Life, 1963)
Hargus 'Pig' Robbins: 'One More Time' (Chart Records, 1969)
Hargus 'Pig' Robbins: 'Pig In A Poke' (Elektra Records, 1978)

Other instrumental Robbins albums include the 1963 Time collection, ‘A Bit of Country Piano’ (Time Life, 1963), Chart Records’ ‘One More Time’ (Chart Records, 1969) and Elektra’s ‘Pig In A Poke’ (Elektra Reecords, 1978).

The Nashville Superpickers: 'The Nashville Superpickers - Live From Austin City Limits' (Flying Fish Records, 1979)
The Nashville Superpickers: 'The Nashville Superpickers: Audiograph Live' (Audiograph Records, 1982)

He’s heard prominently on The Nashville Superpickers’ ‘The Nashville Superpickers – Live From Austin City Limits’ (Flying Fish Records, 1979) and a second set, ‘The Nashville Superpickers: Audiograph Live’ (Audiograph Records, 1982), both featuring session musicians Buddy Emmons (Wednesday 27 January 1937 – Wednesday 29 July 2015), Phil Baugh (Sunday 13 December 1936 – Sunday 4 November 1990), Henry Strzelecki (Tuesday 8 August 1939 – Monday 29 December 2014), Buddy Spicher and Terry McMillan (Monday 12 October 1953 – Friday 2 February 2007).

Hargus 'Pig' Robbins listening to a playback during a recording session in Nashville

Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins listening to a playback during a recording session in Nashville

Instrumentally, Robbins has never carried a lot of equipment.  ‘I never did get into it all that much, where I had to have a lot of cartage and you needed a truck.  I liked my little ol’ Yamaha as far as action’s concerned.  It’s probably as good as any Steinway.  Never was too fond of Baldwin, really…but I’m retired now’.

Robbins is coming off the chemotherapy and radiation treatments: ‘They diagnosed me with Hodgkins Disease of the lymph nodes.  I’m not bitter about it.  It’s one of those things that happens, and you’ve got to roll with the flow’.

As recently as April 6, Pig was playing his DX-7 and synthesiser in the studio, backing Junior Brown for his latest Curb album: ‘Hey, I’m still remembered!  I was lucky to get a couple of calls this week, from Tony Brown and Blake Mevis, who wanted me to play’.

The word’s finally getting out, however, that Pig is no longer in the market.  Nowadays he’s spending valuable time with wife Vicky and their son David.  He’s irreplaceable, of course, but Pig is quick to praise an up-and-coming studio keyboard player who, coincidentally, is also sightless: ‘There is a new fellow out there who’s impressed me a lot.  He’s a young, blind guy in his 20s whose name is Gordon Mote’.

Fellow pianist Bobby Ogdin reflects the admiration and respect in which Robbins is held by session musicians in Nashville.

‘This is a huge loss to the recording scene’, laments fellow session pianist Bobby Ogdin.  ‘Pig was unquestionably the best there is, and probably the best there ever will be.  He managed to always play the elusive ‘perfect parts’ in every song.  He was the master of the intro and fills…he could fascinate you with the complexity of simplicity.  He did it all, and he did it all in perfect tempo – and with perfect humour’.

Country Music People: 'Pig Robbins: CMA Musician of The Year 2000' (November 2000)

This article, ‘Pig Robbins: CMA Musician of The Year 2000’, which was written by Walt Trott, and was published in the November 2000 issue of Country Music People, was republished within Gene Watson’s Fan Site with the prior permission of Country Music People.

Walt Trott
Country Music People
November 2000

Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins
Tuesday 18 January 1938 – Sunday 30 January 2022