Remembering Pig: A Piano Player Without Equal

Session superstar Hargus Robbins passes away at age 84

Hargus “Pig” Robbins (Image: Wikipedia)

Hargus Melvin Robbins —  otherwise known as Hargus “Pig” Robbins — wasn’t well known to the public at large.

Yet, as one of Nashville’s most storied session players, his piano playing became an indelible part of literally dozens of albums by many of the biggest names in the business, among them Bob Dylan, J.J. Cale, Sturgill Simpson, Charlie Rich, Alan Jackson, Merle Haggard, John Hartford, Mark Knopfler, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Neil Young, Loretta Lynn, and literally scores of others.

Robbins, who was born January 18, 1938, died on January 30 at the age of 84, the result of a series of health issues he suffered from in recent years. Blind since the age of four due to an accident that involved a knife belonging to his father, he was given the name “Pig” due to his unkempt appearance while attending the Nashville School for the Blind, where he first learned to play piano at the age of seven. After participating in his first recording session in 1957 at the age of 19, he went on to contribute his distinctive style to any number of landmark recordings, beginning with George Jones’s early hit “White Lightning” in 1959.

His other notable contributions included Roger Miller’s Grammy Award-winning single “Dang Me,” Dylan’s “Pledging My Time” from the landmark album Blonde On Blonde, Crystal Gayle’s breakthrough hit “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” Patsy Cline’s indelible classic “I Fall To Pieces,” Charlie Rich’s searing ballad “Behind Closed Doors,” and Dolly Parton’s signature song “Coat of Many Colors.” In a further demonstration of his verve and versatility, he also helped sow the credibility for Ween’s album, 12 Golden Country Greats.

 

AUDIO: Ween 12 Golden Country Greats (full album)

Parton had reportedly requested his services for her latest album, but sadly, his health issues prevented him from participating.

It’s no surprise that during one particularly notable scene in Robert Altman’s classic cinematic spoof Nashville, Henry Gibson’s feisty country singer character Haven Hamilton fires a session piano player named “Frog” and then berates the engineer by insisting, “When I ask for Pig, I want Pig!” 

It’s also little wonder that Robbins received numerous real life honors during his lifetime, including induction into The Country Music Hall of Fame in 2012. He was also the recipient of a Grammy for Best Country Instrumentalist and two CMA awards as Instrumentalist of the Year in 1976 and 2000. 

In addition to his contributions to the work of others, Robbins maintained a consistent recording career of his own, beginning with his first single, 1959’s “Save It,” released under the name Mel Robbins and later covered by The Cramps on their 1983 album Off the Bone. He went on to issue eight albums under his own aegis between 1963 and 1979.

Indeed, Robbins was more than simply a session man, even one who was a prime member of Nashville’s musical elite. His playing had a distinct feel that made his contributions an incisive element in every song on which he performed.

 

AUDIO: Hargus “Pig” Robbins A Pig In A Poke (1978)

Kyle Young, CEO, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, noted that distinction in a statement. 

“His playing was always distinctive,” Young said. “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.”

Sarah Trahern, Country Music Association CEO, affirmed the special significance of Robbins’ work while announcing Robbins’ passing.

“Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins was a defining sound for so much of the historic music out of Nashville,” she insisted. “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.”

He will indeed be missed.

 

AUDIO: Mel “Pig” Robbins “Save It” 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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