Hargus Robbins, pianist on country music hits, dies at 84
NASHVILLE — Hargus “Pig” Robbins, one of country music’s most prolific session pianists and a key contributor to Bob Dylan’s seminal 1966 album, “Blonde on Blonde,” died Sunday in Franklin, Wash. Tennessee. He was 84 years old.
His death, at Williamson Medical Center just outside Nashville, was confirmed by his son, David. The cause has not been identified, he said.
A longtime member of Nashville’s so-called A-Team of first-call studio musicians, Mr. 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 “Don’t Come Home Drinking (With Love On Your Mind)” (1966) and Dolly Parton “I will Always Love You” (1974). Several have crossed paths to become major pop hits, including Patsy Cline’s “I’m falling apart” (1961) and Kenny Rogers “The player” (1978).
An instinctive melodist who valued understatement over flash, Mr. Robbins helped make the piano an integral part of Nashville’s smooth, clean sound of the 1960s. He was one of the main reasons why folk and rock artists as Joan Baez and Mr. Dylan began traveling to Nashville to adopt the impromptu approach to recording popularized here.
Former Kingston Trio member John Stewart called Mr. Robbins “Hargus Robbins’ first take” when listing the Nashville sessions that appeared on the closing track of Mr. Stewart’s acclaimed 1969 album, ” California Bloodlines”. Mr. Stewart recognized Mr. Robbins’ talent for playing musical passages perfectly the first time.
Mr. Robbins’ influence was perhaps most pronounced when the Nashville Sound evolved into the more soulful “countrypolitan” style heard on records like George Jones’ 1980 hit single ‘He Stopped Loving’. Her Today”.
Rippling, jazzy intros from Mr. Robbins to Charlie Rich “Behind Closed Doors” (1973) and Crystal Gayle “Don’t it make my brown eyes blue” (1977) have become enduring expressions of the Southern musical vernacular of their time. Both records were No. 1 country and pop crossover singles.
“Of all the musicians in my sessions, he was the greatest,” producer and A-Team guitarist Jerry Kennedy said of Mr. Robbins in an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Famewhere Mr. Robbins is enshrined.
“He’s been a backbone for Nashville,” added Mr. Kennedy, who has worked with Mr. Robbins on hits by Roger Miller and Jerry Lee Lewis as well as “Blonde on Blonde.”
Mr. Robbins acquired his 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 out a fire escape and play when I wasn’t supposed to and get dirty like a pig,” said Mr. Robbins in an interview quoted in the Encyclopedia. country music.
He lost sight in one eye at the age of 3, after accidentally stabbing himself with a knife. The injured eye was eventually removed and Mr Robbins also lost sight in his other eye.
He studied classical music at the School for the Blind, but he also played jazz, honky-tonk and barrel blues.
His varied tastes served him well, equipping him to work on soulful recordings like Clyde McPhatter’s 1962 pop hit “Lover Please” (where he was inscrutably credited as Mel “Pigue” Robbins ), and by Arthur Alexander “Anna (Go to him)”, a 1962 Top 10 R&B single covered by the Beatles.
Having had the chance to stretch stylistically on “Blonde on Blonde,” Mr. Robbins performed with raucous abandon on “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” the woozy, carnivalesque pop hit No. 2 hooked by the tagline “ Everyone has to get high.” He used tender lyricism, by contrast, on elegiac ballads like “Just Like a Woman” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”
Hargus Melvin Robbins was born on January 18, 1938 in Spring City, Tennessee, to Raymond and Olis (Boles) Robbins.
His first big break came in 1959 when music publisher Buddy Killen got him an invitation to play on Mr. Jones’s. “White Lightning.” Boosted by Mr. Robbins’ playful boogie-woogie piano, the record became a No. 1 country single.
Another opportunity arose two years later, when producer Owen Bradley, needing someone to replace A-Team pianist Floyd Cramer, hired Mr. Robbins to play on the session of “I Fall to Pieces ” by Mrs. Cline. Mr. Cramer soon embarked on a solo career, creating an opening for Mr. Robbins in the A team.
Mr. Robbins flirted with a solo career in the 1950s, recording rockabilly originals under the name Mel Robbins. “Save It”, an obscure 1959 single, was covered by garage-punks The Cramps on their 1983 album, “Off the Bone”.
One of his instrumental albums, “Country Instrumentalist of the Year”, won a Grammy Award for Best Country Instrumental Performance in 1978.
Working as a session musician was nonetheless his profession, as memorably evidenced in a scene from Robert Altman’s 1975 film “Nashville.” In Mr. Robbins’ place, the narcissistic country singer played by Henry Gibson shouts, “When I ask for Pig, I want Pig!”
Mr. Robbins was named Country Instrumentalist of the Year by the Country Music Association in 1976 and 2000. Even after being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2012, he continued – then in his 70s – to work in the studio with the latter-day hitmakers like Miranda Lambert and Sturgill Simpson.
Besides his son, he is survived by three brothers, Billy, Forrest and Boyd. His wife, Vicki West Robbins, whom he married in 1967, died in August 2019.
Losing his sight may or may not have helped Mr. Robbins cultivate a heightened musical sensitivity. His playing, in any case, revealed a willingness to listen and to imagine which made him respond to his collaborators with a singular depth of feeling.
“Pig Robbins is the best session man I’ve ever known,” fellow A-team member Charlie McCoy said at a reception held in Mr. Robbins’ honor at the Country Music Hall of Famous. “Every time Pig is on a session, everyone plays better.”