Hargus Robbins, pianist on country music hits, dies at 84

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Hargus Robbins, pianist on country music hits, dies at 84
A revered member of Nashville’s A-Team of studio musicians, he was a major contributor to Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” album.

by Bill Friskics-Warren

NASHVILLE, TENN.- Hargus “Pig” Robbins, one of country music’s most prolific session piano players and a key contributor to Bob Dylan’s landmark 1966 album, “Blonde on Blonde,” died Sunday. He was 84.

His death was announced on the website of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. It did not say where he died or specify the cause.

A longtime member of Nashville’s so-called A-Team of first-call studio musicians, Robbins appeared on thousands of popular recordings made here between the late 1950s and mid-2010s.

Many became No. 1 country singles, including Hank Snow’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” (1962), Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” (1966) and Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” (1974). Several also crossed over to become major pop hits, Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” (1961) and Kenny Rogers' “The Gambler” (1978) among them.

An instinctive melodicist who valued understatement over flash, Robbins helped establish the piano as an integral part of the smooth, uncluttered Nashville Sound of the 1960s. He also was a big reason that folk and rock acts like Joan Baez and Dylan began traveling to Nashville to adopt the impromptu approach to recording popularized here.

Former Kingston Trio member John Stewart referred to him as “first-take Hargus Robbins” when, on the closing track of Stewart’s acclaimed 1969 album, “California Bloodlines,” he listed the Nashville session musicians who appeared on it. Stewart was acknowledging Robbins' knack for playing musical passages flawlessly the first time through.

Robbins' influence was maybe most pronounced as the Nashville Sound evolved into the more soul-steeped “countrypolitan” style heard on records like George Jones' 1980 blockbuster single, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

Robbins' rippling, jazz-inflected intros to Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors” (1973) and Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” (1977) became enduring expressions of the Southern musical vernacular of their era. Both records were No. 1 country and crossover pop singles.

“Of all the musicians on my sessions, he stood the tallest,” producer and A-Team guitarist Jerry Kennedy said of Robbins in an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame.

“He has been a backbone for Nashville,” added Kennedy, who worked with Robbins on hits by Roger Miller and Jerry Lee Lewis, and on “Blonde on Blonde.”

Robbins acquired his distinctive nickname, Pig, while attending the Tennessee School for the Blind in Nashville as a boy.

“I had a supervisor who called me that because I used to sneak in through a fire escape and play when I wasn’t supposed to and I’d get dirty as a pig,” Robbins said in an interview cited in the Encyclopedia of Country Music.

He lost vision in one of his eyes when he was 3, after accidentally poking himself in the eye with a knife. The injured eye was ultimately removed and Robbins eventually lost sight in his other eye as well.

While at the School for the Blind he studied classical music, but he would also play jazz, honky-tonk and barrelhouse blues.

Robbins' wide-ranging tastes served him well, equipping him for work on soul recordings like Clyde McPhatter’s 1962 pop hit, “Lover Please” (where he was inscrutably credited as Mel “Pigue” Robbins), and Arthur Alexander’s “Anna (Go to Him),” a Top 10 R&B single from 1962 covered by the Beatles.

Afforded the chance to stretch out stylistically on “Blonde on Blonde,” Robbins played with raucous abandon on “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” the woozy, carnivalesque No. 2 pop hit hooked by the tagline “Everybody must get stoned.” He employed a tender lyricism, by contrast, on elegiac ballads like “Just Like a Woman” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”

Hargus Melvin Robbins was born Jan. 18, 1938, in Spring City, Tennessee.

His first big break came in 1959 when music publisher Buddy Killen secured him an invitation to play on Jones' “White Lightning.” Spurred by Robbins' rollicking boogie-woogie piano, the record became a No. 1 country single.

Another opportunity came two years later, when producer Owen Bradley, needing someone to fill in for A-Team pianist Floyd Cramer, hired Robbins to play on the session for Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces.” Cramer soon embarked on a solo career, creating an opening for Robbins on the A-Team.

Robbins flirted with a solo career in the ’50s, recording rockabilly originals under the name Mel Robbins. “Save It,” an obscure single from 1959, was covered by garage-punks the Cramps on their 1983 album, “Off the Bone.”

One of Robbins' instrumental albums, “Country Instrumentalist of the Year,” won a Grammy Award for best country instrumental performance in 1978.

Working as a session musician was nevertheless his stock in trade, as a scene from Robert Altman’s 1971 movie “Nashville” memorably attests. Upbraiding his recording engineer when a hippie piano player nicknamed Frog shows up to work on their session instead of Robbins, the narcissistic country singer played by Henry Gibson shouts, “When I ask for Pig, I want Pig!”

Robbins was named country instrumentalist of the year by the Country Music Association in 1976 and 2000. Even after he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2012, he continued — then in his 70s — to do studio work with latter-day hitmakers like Miranda Lambert and Sturgill Simpson.

Information on survivors was not immediately available.

Losing his eyesight may or may not have helped Robbins cultivate a keener musical sensibility. His playing, in any case, revealed a commitment to listening and imagination that had him responding to his collaborators with a singular depth of feeling.

“Pig Robbins is the best session man I’ve ever known,” said Charlie McCoy, a fellow A-Teamer, at a reception held in Robbins' honor at the Country Music Hall of Fame. “Anytime Pig’s on a session everyone else plays better.”

“If you’re going to be a good player,” Robbins said at the event, “you have to come up with something that will complement the song and the singer.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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