Hargus “Pig” Robbins, a Country Music Hall of Fame member who played piano on thousands of Nashville sessions and was renowned to Bob Dylan fans for his work on “Blonde on Blonde,” has died at age 84. No cause of death was immediately given.
Robbins’ first major hit as a session man had him playing on George Jones’ classic “White Lightning,” and from there he moved on to providing the piano parts on Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy” and “Back in Baby’s Arms.” Smashes of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s that included his distinctive piano parts included Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” Loretta Lynn’s “You’re Looking at Country” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Lynn and Conway Twitty’s “After the Fire is Gone,” Jones’ “She Thinks I Still Care” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors,” Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” and “Dang Me,” Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler,” Porter Wagoner’s “Green, Green Grass of Home,” Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and Tanya Tucker’s “Delta Dawn.”
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Among rock fans, the blind pianist was also known for playing on records by Leon Russell and Cliff Richard, but his best-recognized recording in any genre may be “Blonde on Blonde,” universally recognized as one of Dylan’s greatest albums, and which featured his standout playing (and hollering) on “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.”
Robbins was still playing on sessions by the leading lights of country as recently as his work on Sturgill Simpson’s “Hightop Mountain” in 2013 and Miranda Lambert’s “The Weight of These Wings” in 2016, as well as recordings from the ’90s through 2010s by Ween, Shania Twain, Alan Jackson, k.d. lang, Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Marty Stuart.
His renown was such that his name was used for a gag in Robert Altman’s film “Nashville” in 1975. Henry Gibson, playing a veteran country singer in the movie, is unhappy with a long-haired session player named Frog, and finally exclaims: “When I ask for Pig, I want Pig. Now you get me Pig, and then we’ll be ready to record this here tune.”
“Like all successful session musicians, Pig Robbins was quick to adapt to any studio situation,” said Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “He worked quickly, with perfection less a goal than a norm. And while he could shift styles on a dime to suit the singer and the song, his playing was always distinctive. Pig’s left hand on the piano joined with Bob Moore’s bass to create an unstoppable rhythmic force, while the fingers on his right hand flew like birds across the keys. The greatest musicians in Nashville turned to Pig for guidance and inspiration.”
When Robbins was inducted into the Country Hall of Fame, session guitar Harold Bradley, also a member of the Hall of Fame and Nashville’s “A-team,” said, “Pig has come up with more identifiable licks than anyone. And he’s also the best rhythm piano player in town.”
Other credits include Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” Shania Twain’s “The Woman in Me,” Neil Young’s “Old Ways,” k.d. lang’s “Shadowland,” Tom T. Hall’s “I Love,” Jerry Reed’s “Eastbound and Down,” Ray Price’s “Night Life,” Loudon Wainwright III’s “Attempted Mustache,” John Anderson’s “Wild & Blue,” Merle Haggard’s “Going Where the Lonely Go,” Waylon Jennings’ “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean,” Alan Jackson’s “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” and “Here in the Real World,” the Osborne Brothers’ “Rocky Top” and Hank Snow’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.”
Born in Spring City, Tennessee in 1938, Robbins was 3 years old when he lost his sight. “I stuck a knife in one eye,” he explained, and when a doctor decided the eye needed to be surgically removed, “the other one went out from sympathetic infection.” He attended the Tennessee School for the Blind, and at about age 7, took up the offer given to students to take piano lessons, although, as a fan of Roy Acuff and other country stars, as well as boogie-woogie, he chafed at the requirements that he only learn classical music. “They had these practice rooms and I’d get as far away from the teacher as I could,” he said.
Robbins got his nickname from constantly playing around the fire escapes at the school. “When I’d come out and be real dirty from all that soot, the supervisor would know exactly where I’d been, and she said ‘You’re as dirty as a little pig.’” The other students picked up on it. Did the moniker bother him? Not at all, he said.
In the late 1950s, Robbins released a series of vocal records under the name Mel Robbins, including “Save Me,” a song that would be covered decades later by the psycho-rockabilly group the Cramps. He released eight instrumental studio albums of his own between 1963 and 1979, on the Time, Chart and Elektra labels.
But his chief emphasis throughout his career was session work. The big shift came when Floyd Cramer, who had his choice of the top sessions in Nashville, started having a successful solo career. “Floyd Cramer started switching from sideman to artist,” Robbins explained in a 2007 interview with Bill Lloyd at the Hall of Fame, “and that kind of opened up… the door for me, for sure. … I finally figured out I could make more money from sessions than I could singing.”
Robbins talked in that same interview about recording with Dylan in 1965 for “Blonde on Blonde” in sessions that opened up the door for rock cats to come to Nashville and enlist the Nashville cats to provide a different touch on their records. Asked if he new much about Dylan before the sessions, Robbins replied, “Not really. I’d heard the name, but not much other than that. But when he came in here, it was a lesson, to me. He was just totally different. He’d come in here with a song seven or eight minutes long. I remember they booked the sessions like 6 (to) 10 at night, and maybe he wouldn’t show up till 9:00. He would say ‘OK, boys, let me have the studio, I’ve got to write a song,’ and we’d wander the halls till 12 or 1 before we’d ever strike a note.”
Lloyd noted a story passed on by another key member of the Dylan sessions, Al Kooper: Dylan would usually relay messages to Robbins via Kooper because he admired the pianist too much to address him as “Pig.”
Robbins was not unsympathetic to Dylan’s unusual-to-him way of doing things… or bashful about imbibing what fueled the sessions. At his Hall of Fame interview, after a snippet of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” was played, with its familiar refrain of “Everybody must get stoned,” Robbins chimed in: “And we were.”
The pianist was voted the Country Music Association’s Instrumentalist of the Year in 1976 and 2000. Proud of that first honor, he began a three-album run with Elektra in the late ’70s with an album he actually titled “Country Instrumentalist of the Year.“
Charlie McCoy, another session player who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, sang Robbins’ praises: “He’s the best session player I’ve ever worked with. When he’s on a session, everybody else plays better.”
The soft-spoken Robbins could have a colorful way with words. Asked how it felt to be playing piano for Charlie Rich on songs like “Behind Closed Doors” when Rich was a terrific pianist himself, Lloyd said, “Oh, he’s a great piano player. I’ll tell you, with him standing about three feet behind me (in the studio), the pucker factor was very high.”
Other artists Robbins played with included Joan Baez, Kenny Chesney, Johnny Cash, George Strait, Mark Knopfler, Paul Anka, Chet Atkins, J.J. Cale, John Denver, Duane Eddy, Lefty Frizzell, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Johnny Paycheck, Del Shannon, Randy Travis, Little Jimmy Dickens, the Statler Brothers, Ernest Tubb, Ray Charles, Hank Williams Jr., Mac Davis, Barbara Mandrell, Ronnie Milsap, Jerry Lee Lewis, Don McLean, John Hartford, Charley Pride, the Everly Brothers, Connie Smith, Bobby Bare, Gordon Lightfoot and Keith Whitley.
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