Probably the greatest, and definitely the most influential, country music piano player of all time.
The piano may be a ubiquitous part of the classic country sound, but this has not always been the case. In fact, it was part of the sweetening process as hillbilly music went uptown in the ‘50s and 60s, and leading this charge was Floyd Cramer in the ‘50s and Hargus “Pig” Robbins from the ‘60s to the present day. Sadly, Hargus “Pig” Robbins died on Sunday 30th January 2022, at the age of 84. The ubiquitousness of his sound is not limited to the countrypolitan sound of the ‘60s when he was on recordings by the likes of Patsy Cline, George Jones, Charlie Rich, and Dolly Parton, but he was also with Dylan when he recorded ‘Blonde On Blonde’, and when the great rock piano player Leon Russell recorded his country album ‘Hank Wilson’s Back, Vol 1” Pig was his Nashville piano player of choice. He helped J J Cale develop his signature ‘70s sound, recorded with Levon Helm and Neil Young in the ‘80s, Mark Knopfler in the ‘90s, and Miranda Lambert and Sam Bush in the 2010s.
Hargus Melvin Robbins was born on January 18th, 1938, in Spring City, Tennessee, and he was completely blind by the time he was four years old having first lost one eye in a knife accident involving his father. He started playing classical piano when he was seven and was drawn to the country sounds of his hero, Tex Ritter and subsequently played the bars and clubs of Nashville which led to him joining the Musicians Union. His first big break was backing George Jones on his first number one recording, ‘White Lightning’, in 1959. Other sessions followed, and even though Robbins recorded a number of solo albums in the ‘60s and ‘70s, he concentrated on Nashville sessions, particularly when Floyd Cramer started to build his own solo career leaving the best piano sessions in Nashville to Hargus “Pig” Robbins.
Robbins was a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and was twice the CMA’s Musician of the Year, and many consider him to be the greatest country music pianist of them all. Guitarist Harold Bradley is quoted as saying “Pig has come up with more identifiable licks than anyone. And he’s also the best rhythm piano player in town.”, and Bob Dylan was reputedly so in awe of him during the ‘Blonde On Blonde’ sessions that he refused to refer to him as Pig, and communicated with him via Al Kooper. Charlie Rich is no slouch as a piano player himself, but he got Pig to play on his ‘Behind Closed Doors’, and that other classic country piano song, Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’, is all Robbins. Perhaps the greatest compliment to his status was the fact his name was referenced as part of a joke in Robert Altman’s ‘Nashville’, fame indeed.
Have to admit I’d never heard of him until he gets name-checked in the closing album credits at the end of “Never Goin’ Back” by John Stewart on the great California Bloodlines. Undoubtedly one of my favourite Americana albums.
You got it in one Philip. A true backroom musician but very influential across a broad spectrum of recordings.