It was only fitting on a night when women received their due at the Country Music Hall of Fame that Reba McEntire would take a moment to give special thanks to fellow inductee Jean Shepard.
"Thank you for coming before me and paving the way for girl singers," a teary McEntire said to Shepard after being inducted by Dolly Parton. "I couldn't have done it without you and I'm honored beyond words to be inducted with you."
Those two pioneering women and Bobby Braddock, an iconic songwriter whose inclusion begins to right a wrong, were welcomed in a star-studded and humor-filled ceremony at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Parton surprised McEntire with her appearance and celebrated the redheaded spitfire who has had more than 50 top 10 hits and more No. 1 albums than any other female country artist.
"Reba and I kind of feel like sisters," Parton said. "We both through the years have had enough hair to stuff a mattress."
The 56-year-old McEntire has been a consistent force in Nashville for three decades and remains one of country music's most recognized and beloved stars. She's been name-checked as an influence in both music and business by virtually every young female country singer of note.
She started charting songs in 1976 and rode a string of No. 1 hits to a Country Music Association entertainer of the year award in 1986 and remains a presence at the top of the charts and on every nominations list. She also succeeded on television, where her self-titled sitcom still runs daily in syndication, on Broadway and is the face of several product lines.
She was celebrated by fellow Oklahomans Garth Brooks, who sang her Grammy-winning "Whoever's in New England," and Vince Gill, who sang "Somebody Should Leave." And Martina McBride and Kelly Clarkson performed "Does He Love You?" together in one of the evening's more powerful performances.
McEntire, whose induction has been colored by her father Clark's recent illness, choked up briefly talking about the championship rodeo rider. She said she once asked him what was more fun, the winning or the journey to get there. He told her it was the journey, of course.
"I agree with dad 100 percent," she said.
Without Shepard, the path McEntire and today's legion of hit-making women would have had it much tougher. Shepard broke into country music's male-dominated world in the 1950s by kicking down the door with an outsized personality and voice to match.
Of women in country music at the time, the 77-year-old Shepard said: "There wasn't none of us. I was happy to do my part. I hung in there like a hair on a grilled cheese."
Shepard, one of 10 children born to a poor sharecropping family in Oklahoma that eventually moved to California, sang from the female point of view. Her honkytonk style and plain-spoken approach won her fans "ignored in Washington and dismissed by Madison Avenue," said hall of fame director Kyle Young, who served as the evening's host.
"Together Jean and her fans were myth busters who effectively created the climate change that parted the clouds for Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette in the next decade and beyond," Young added.
When her induction was announced earlier this year, Shepard said she was frustrated that it took her decades longer to make it into the hall of fame than those who came after her like Lynn and Wynette. She remained distressed on Sunday that other important acts like Skeeter Davis and The Browns are still not enshrined.
"Don't let their efforts fall by the wayside," Shepard said. "Let's vote them into the hall while they're still here."
Like some of those legacy acts, songwriters also are an under-represented group in the hall of fame. Braddock is just the fourth pure songwriter enshrined in an institution built on their work.
Fellow hall of fame member Bill Anderson slayed the audience with some of Braddock's funniest lines before the 70-year-old delivered a classic comic performance.
"It's like getting to go to your own funeral without having to die," Braddock said. "How awesome is that?"
Braddock gave up his early infatuation with rock `n' roll and moved to Nashville in 1964, with almost everyone he knew telling him it was a bad choice. He hit the charts for the first time the next year and wrote or co-wrote five decades of hits, including some of the most important songs in country music history.
He has uncommon versatility, moving from heartbreakers like "D-I-V-O-R-C-E" and "He Stopped Loving Her Today," the Jones hit generally considered country's greatest song, to comic everyman numbers like "I Wanna Talk About Me" and his latest No. 1, "People Are Crazy," which singer Billy Currington reprised during the ceremony.
"According to BMI, nine of Bobby's songs have been played on the radio from one to three million times each," Young said. "To put that in perspective, understand that just one million plays equals radio play around the clock for six and a half years."
Former Braddock protege Blake Shelton and his wife Miranda Lambert, back from a quick honeymoon following their wedding last weekend, also saluted Braddock with the appropriate "Golden Ring," a song Tammy Wynette and Jones took to No. 1. Braddock thanked Jones, who Braddock noted cut 29 of his songs, and producer Billy Sherrill, another hall member, and all the co-writers who have shared hits with him over the years.
Braddock is the first inductee under a new system that guarantees a songwriter's enshrinement every three years. He believes many of his collaborators will soon have plaques of their own.
"I'm going to be taking them in there with me, and eventually they're going to be in there on their own," Braddock said. "