Remembering a Session Legend: Pig Robbins

Pig Robbins is perhaps the most revered American session musician of the last 100 years. Studio legend Charlie McCoy summed it up like this: “He’s the best session player I’ve ever worked with. When he’s on a session, everybody else plays better.” As the anchor of the legendary Nashville “A-Team”, Robbins provided a distinctive swagger to countless classic tunes. His style was unmistakable, and his brilliance was undeniable. Sadly, Pig Robbins was called home in January of 2022. He was 84 years old.

The career of Pig Robbins ventures well into the unbelievable category. After surviving a devastating knife accident that left him blind as a toddler, Pig went on to capture a spot at the very zenith of the professional recording industry. As a session pianist, Pig was in high demand for the biggest artists in the world. Not only did Robbins work with country legends like Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, and George Strait, but he also recorded with rock icons such as Neil Young, Jerry Lee Lewis, Mark Knopfler, and Bob Dylan. The life of Pig Robbins was one of incredible accomplishment, extreme talent, and profound perseverance. He is remembered here with his own words and by those who knew him best.

Pig received innumerable accolades throughout his life in music but undoubtedly one of his greatest honors was his 2012 induction into Country Music Hall of Fame. His early life and rise to prominence are illuminated per the Hall of Fame archives: “He was born Hargus Melvin Robbins in Rhea County, Tennessee, on January 18, 1938. A knife accident at age three robbed him of his sight, and he went on to study classical piano at the Tennessee School for the Blind, beginning at age seven. At the same time, however, he began to develop his own style by listening to pop and jazz pianists including Floyd Cramer, Owen Bradley, Marvin Hughes, Ray Charles, and Poppa John Gordy on the radio and on records”.

Pig was beloved by music lovers and absolutely idolized by fellow musicians. Session keyboardist Ron Oates noted, “Pig can go straight to the heart of a song and grab something that was waiting only for him to add to the arrangement. Whatever he plays is so ‘natural,’ so ‘right’—but no one else would have ever thought of it.” Robbins simply possessed qualities conducive to hit records. He had an instinct that was unique, and an ear that was unrivaled. Fellow Hall of Famer Harold Bradley once remarked, “Pig has come up with more identifiable licks than anyone. And he’s also the best rhythm piano player in town”. Robbins’ bio proceeds to corroborate his genius; “The pianist’s intros to Charlie Rich’s ‘Behind Closed Doors’ (1974) and Crystal Gayle’s ‘Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue’ (1977) are only two examples of his many memorable stylings”.

Regarding his swine inspired moniker, Robbins stated, “I got ‘Pig’ at school. I had a supervisor who called me that because I used to sneak in through a fire escape and play when I wasn’t supposed to, and I’d get dirty as a pig.” He was actually quite fond of the pedestrian nickname, and it suited the man perfectly. He had no ego. The Country Music Hall of Fame archive continues, “Robbins eventually played in Nashville clubs, and he gained entrée into studio recording in 1959 with his lively playing on George Jones’s #1 hit ‘White Lightning.’ From that point, Robbins’s session calls increased, especially after studio pianist Floyd Cramer began spending much of his time as a successful touring artist. Robbins fit naturally into Nashville’s A-Team, an elite group of top studio players who long dominated the city’s recording scene.”

The A-Team were the greatest bunch of pickers around and Pig was the backbone of it. According to his Hall of Fame bio, “Over the next several decades, Robbins often worked hundreds of sessions each year, lending his distinctive touch and impeccable musical taste to hits by Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Connie Smith, the Statler Brothers, and dozens of other country stars…’He’s part of the reason I’m here,’ said Smith, also elected to the Hall of Fame in 2012. ‘He just has a feel for what’s needed, and he never misses.” Music Row stalwart Jerry Kennedy exclaims, “Pig made me feel that I had the very best out there in the studio. Having Pig tying a bow around a session was always a great feeling.”

“While supporting others in the studio, Robbins recorded as a featured instrumental artist, making albums for the Chart and Time labels in the 1960s. During the late 1970s, Elektra Records released three of his albums: the Grammy-winning Country Instrumentalist of the Year (1977), Pig in a Poke (1978), and Unbreakable Hearts (1979). The pianist was CMA’s Instrumentalist of the Year in 1976 and 2000,” his bio states. As a session man Pig also provided piano on country music keystones such as “Jolene” by Dolly Parton, Roger Miller’s “King of the Road,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter” by Loretta Lynn, Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler,” Tammy Wynette’s “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” Tanya Tucker’s “Delta Dawn,” and “Crazy” by Patsy Cline. Pig also played on “He Stopped Loving Her Today” by George Jones. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is routinely regarded as the greatest country song of all time.

“If you’re going to be a good player, you have to come up with something that will complement the song and the singer”. That was Pig Robbins. A selfless collaborator whose heart was even larger than his musical range. Jerry Kennedy, who worked regularly with Robbins as a session guitar player and producer in the ’60s and ’70s, says simply, “He was not only a great professional piano player, he was a great man. Pig was everything you would want to see in a human being”. Sarah Trahern, CEO of the Country Music Association, added “Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins was a defining sound for so much of the historic music out of Nashville. His talent spoke for itself through his decades-spanning career and work as a session pianist with countless artists across genres.”

The collaborations of Pig Robbins run the gamut of generational performers and span several generations. They include, but are not limited to, Shania Twain, Joan Baez, Kenny Chesney, Paul Anka, Chet Atkins, J.J. Cale, John Denver, Mark Chesnutt, Merle Haggard, Lefty Frizzell, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Johnny Paycheck, Del Shannon, Randy Travis, Little Jimmy Dickens, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams Jr., Mac Davis, Barbara Mandrell, Ronnie Milsap, Don McLean, Charley Pride, the Everly Brothers, Bobby Bare, Gordon Lightfoot, Keith Whitley, Miranda Lambert, Ray Charles, and Alan Jackson. However, as his Hall of fame bio states, “Arguably the most famous recording to feature Robbins’ work was Bob Dylan’s famed 1966 album ‘Blonde on Blonde’. The pianist’s distinctive style was noticeable on many of the tracks, including saloon-style sway of ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’.

In a 2007 interview with Bill Lloyd, Pig was asked if he knew much about Dylan before the “Blonde on Blonde” sessions? He replied, “Not really. I’d heard the name, but not much other than that.” Music journalist Chris Willman would later report, “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 had too much respect for the pianist 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.’

There was no one like Pig Robbins. To quote guitarist Ray Edenton, Pig had “the greatest memory of any musician I know. He couldn’t write chords down, of course, but on most sessions he only needed to hear a song once, and he’d have it. On show tunes that might have three key changes, four tempo changes, and lots of chord changes, some of us would have to stop and ask him, ‘What goes here?’ And he’d tell us.” Chris Willman expounded further; “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.’

Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum shares his thoughts regarding the revered keeper of the keys: “Like all successful session musicians, Pig Robbins was quick to adapt to any studio situation. 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.” It seems “Studio A” at that great record label in the sky has a new piano player.

 

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