NASHVILLE There is joy in Nashville tonight, but there’s also a raised eyebrow or two.

While embracing Harold Bradley, Sonny James and George Strait — who will join the performers, songwriters, broadcasters and executives in the Country Music Hall of Fame during ceremonies at this evening’s Country Music Assn. Awards — many fans and insiders wonder how the election process has left more than a few industry icons out. Notables like:

  • Buddy Killen, who created Tree Publishing Co. (Nashville’s most successful homegrown publisher), produced the biggest hits of Joe Tex, T.G. Sheppard and many others, and helped build the careers of at several other major artist-songwriters. Killen died of cancer Wednesday at his Nashville home.

  • Garth Brooks — at 115 million albums sold in the U.S. and counting, the biggest-selling artist in country music history.

  • Allen Reynolds, who produced the biggest hits of Brooks, Crystal Gayle, Don Williams and Kathy Mattea.

  • Ray Charles, whose three huge albums of country songs in the middle of his great career made the genre respectable to millions of people around the world who had hitherto mocked it.

  • Jerry Kennedy, who shepherded most of the biggest country hits of Roger Miller, the Statler Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis and Tom T. Hall, and played lead guitar on hundreds of major country hit records.

Above all, arguably country music’s greatest record producer and one of its most successful songwriters will be on the outside looking in.

Recipient of more than 90 BMI writer performance awards, Billy Sherrill was co-author of some of country music’s greatest classics, including “Stand By Your Man,” “Almost Persuaded” and “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.”

And yet, even these worthy accomplishments are dwarfed by all the memorable records he produced for Tammy Wynette, Charlie Rich, George Jones, Tanya Tucker, Johnny Paycheck, Johnny Duncan, David Houston, Janie Fricke, Barbara Mandrell and more.

Some, such as Wynette, Mandrell and Tucker, were Sherrill’s discoveries. Others, such as Jones, Paycheck and Rich, were artists whose careers were in various stages of stagnation or decline before Sherrill took hold of them to assure their country immortality.

Oh, and by the way, Sherrill produced the record considered by many to be the greatest country hit of all time, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

Yet as the years go by, Hall of Fame voters continue to ignore Sherrill. Why?

“He didn’t kiss ass,” says Joe Chambers, a successful Nashville songwriter who worked in CBS A&R under Sherrill for a number of years. “Billy took country music to the next level. Some people didn’t like that. Some people loved it.”

“He was a loner who never tooted his own horn,” adds Norro Wilson, himself one of Nashville’s songwriting and producing greats and a sometime writing partner with Sherrill. “But the work that he did and the changes he made in the sounds of country records speak for themselves. It’s an ungodly oversight.”

According to its rules, the CMA inducts a nonperforming artist into the Hall only once every three years. Sherrill’s next opportunity is in 2007.

Members of the CMA board of directors would only discuss Sherrill’s status on the condition they not be identified. One of them, while acknowledging that Sherrill has written some big hits and produced some great records, doesn’t seem in any great rush to motivate fellow board members to help enshrine Sherrill.

A second board director insists: “There has never been an anti-Sherrill movement. I believe he (once) made it through the first round of nominations.” The director adds that he thought many others deserved induction but Sherrill’s time would come.

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