Hargus “Pig” Robbins, one of country music’s most prolific session piano players died on Sunday in Franklin, Tenn. He was 84.
His death, at the 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 there between the late 1950s and the mid-2010s.
Many became No. 1 country singles, including Hank Snow’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” (1962), Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home a-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” (1966) and Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” (1974). Several crossed over to become major pop hits, among them Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” (1961) and Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler” (1978).
Hargus "Pig" Robbins is as elemental to country music's rise into a popularly beloved genre as steel guitars and telling the truth, a legendary blind pianist and member of the vaunted "Nashville A-Team" of session musicians who deftly guided the sound's pop interests from western swing through countrypolitan and into the modern era.
He played on eight decades worth of albums by artists from Bob Dylan (1966's Blonde on Blonde) and Dolly Parton (Coat of Many Colors in 1971, Jolene in 1974) to Kenny Rogers (The Gambler, 1978) and Shania Twain (1995's The Woman In Me) and a who's who of others.
In an official press release, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum CEO Kyle Young noted, "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."
“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. Our hearts go out to his friends and family during this difficult time," added Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern.
On January 18, 1938, Robbins was born in Spring City, Tennessee. He learned to play piano at the age of seven while a student at the Nashville School for the Blind.- “I got [the nickname] ‘Pig’ at school.” Robbins was once quoted as saying. “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.”
At 19, Robbins gained renown as a Nashville club musician, and two years later, via his vibrant, honky-tonk style performance on George Jones’ #1 hit “White Lightning,” he became a staple in the studio. Success continued quickly for Robbins as country music became a national touring commodity. When legendary Nashville producer Owen Bradley needed someone to fill in for the then touring Floyd Cramer, hired Robbins to play piano on Patsy Cline's 1961 breakout hit “I Fall to Pieces.”
He also won a Grammy as Country Instrumentalist of the Year in 1977, plus the CMA’s Instrumentalist of the Year in 1976 and 2000.
Robbins' ability to play subtle yet almost instantaneously memorable melodies seamlessly fit with Nashville's elite musicians. Since he was a child, he studied blues and jazz alongside country's various forms. This provided him with an approach to music that saw him play in not a virtuoso style but in deep service to the song itself. “If you’re going to be a good player, you have to come up with something that will complement the song and the singer," he noted upon being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2012.
Famously, in In Robert Altman's 1975-released country and gospel music business satire, Nashville, a piano player nicknamed "Frog," is fired by Henry Gibson's egotistical country vocalist character, who yells at the studio engineer: "When I ask for Pig, I want Pig!"
Fellow Nashville A-Teamer Charlie McCoy once noted, “Pig Robbins is the best session man I’ve ever known. Anytime Pig’s on a session everyone else plays better.”