Garth Brooks, Dierks Bentley, Trisha Yearwood, four of Nashville’s most acclaimed songwriters and the country music community’s top leaders gathered at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s CMA Theater Thursday (November 14) afternoon to honor broadcasting legend Bob Kingsley, 80, who died at his Texas ranch Oct. 17 following a battle with cancer.
The host of Bob Kingsley’s Country Top 40 was remembered as a dedicated philanthropist and master storyteller with a passion for country music, enthusiasm for horses and genuine love for people. Kingsley began his broadcast career while serving in the Air Force and the service began with airmen presenting Kingsley’s widow, Nan, with a folded American flag and the playing of “Taps.”
Country Radio Broadcasters (CRB) executive director R.J. Curtis paid tribute to Kingsley citing his ability as a storyteller and his humble good nature. At the 2016 Radio Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Curtis recalled another inductee giving an acceptance speech was over 25 minutes long. Yet when Kingsley took the podium, his speech was less than five minutes and was marked by humility and gratitude.
Curtis introduced Wounded Warrior Project Executive VP Bruce Nitsche, who spoke about Kingsley’s philanthropy, particularly his support of military veterans. He shared memories of Bob, including a time the Kingsleys were at his home eating blue crabs and Bob was obviously relishing the messy seafood. “He enjoyed life and he wasn’t a spectator,” Nitsche said of Kingsley’s zest for living.
While Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” played, the screen on stage filled with images of Kingsley and a who’s who of country artists including George Strait, Eric Church, Little Big Town, Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Brad Paisley, Blake Shelton, Randy Travis, Carrie Underwood and many more.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in the history of country radio that has connected more fans to the stars and the music they love than Bob Kingsley,” Country Aircheck publisher/CEO Lon Helton said. Helton also spoke of their shared love for fast sports cars and how Kingsley had purchased a Corvette and then told Helton a short while later that he was selling it because it wasn’t fast enough. “Bob, you’re 75! How fast do you need to go?” Helton asked him.
Helton also reminded those assembled that Kingsley was not yet a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. “I really hope that soon we can return the favor to the man who gave us so much through the years and put him where he belongs, enshrined in that rotunda in the Country Music Hall of Fame,” Helton said. “Weekends are never going to be the same without that voice.”
One of the most moving moments came when Helton led other prominent broadcast personalities, including Lorianne Crook, Charlie Chase, Bobby Bones, Blair Garner, Storme Warren and Cody Alan in reading “The Cowboy’s Prayer,” a favorite poem Kingsley kept on his desk.
Next in the service, Rob Simbeck and Ken Halford, who have both worked with Kingsley for decades, spoke of their love and respect for him. “Knowing Bob has been one of the very best parts of my life,” Halford said. “In fact, outside of knowing the Lord, and having my wife and my family, there’s been no greater influence or significance in my life. . .One of the most wonderful things about him was how he inspired me and so many others to be better by modeling—not demanding, but modeling—incredibly high standards.”
Halford shared a top five list of things he had learned from Kingsley: “No. 5-Speak kindly to people and speak well of them. . .His affirmations brought out the best in me and we should all be doing that for one another. I simply cannot let that rare character trait disappear. No. 4 Humility-Bob was quick to credit everyone else for his successes. . . No. 3-Laughter. Bob was quick to laugh and obviously a great storyteller. He loved a good joke. . .He wasn’t afraid to laugh first and to laugh for a long time. Laughter is truly good medicine and we should be handing out heavy doses to each other. No. 3-Bob had amazing empathy and that takes time. Bob was busy. In this busy world, it’s rare for someone to allow the time to listen enough to be empathic. Bob would make time to listen . . . No. 1-Bob loved. He wasn’t afraid to say he loved you. It’s the last thing he said to me. I pray it’s the last thing my friends and family hear me say to them. The love in his heart is really what prompted all those other characteristics I admired so much.”
Simbeck recalled meeting Kingsley for the first time when he was hired to write his bio in 1995. They were scheduled to do the interview during Country Radio Seminar. “He was late, and I later learned that the culprit—as it generally was—was that he had to get through a crowd of radio people,” Simbeck recalled. “Walking through a gathering of radio people with Bob Kingsley was like walking through a crowd of historians with Abe Lincoln. He was going to get stopped, and he treated each of those stops warmly whether he had known the person 24 years or 24 hours.”
The last No. 1 song that Kingsley intro’d on Country Top 40 was Dierks Bentley’s “Living.” That intro was played just before Bentley took the stage to perform the song. He recalled how much it meant to him years earlier when he first heard Kingsley say his name on the countdown. “He did a lot for everyone’s careers and I’m grateful for all that he did for mine,” said Bentley, who praised Kingsley’s storytelling and ability to connect artists with their fans.
“The country music community has lost an iconic champion,” noted Country Music Association (CMA) CEO Sarah Trahern “Our biggest loss, I fear, is to the next generation, who won’t grow up with him counting down the hits for us.”
Country Aircheck’s Chuck Aly, who served with Kingsley on the Academy of Country Music Board, spoke of the community’s grief in the wake of Kingsley’s passing. “If you’re doing it right, when you leave, people hurt. And the more right you do it, the more people hurt,” he said, noting Kingsley’s empty seat at last week’s ACM board meeting. As an original board member, he’d held that seat over 50 years.
Accompanied by Johnny Garcia on guitar, Yearwood turned in a powerfully moving performance of “The Song Remembers When” before introducing a special songwriting segment. Kingsley and his wife Nan were well known for hosting Bob Kingsley’s Acoustic Alley, an annual guitar pull featuring well known songwriters, which has long been one of the highlights of Country Radio Seminar so it seemed only fitting that his Celebration of Life include some of his favorite songwriters. Jeffrey Steele spoke of first meeting Kingsley when the broadcaster approached him at the Palomino Club to compliment his songwriting and the two struck up a lifelong friendship. When his teenage son died in an ATV accident nearly 13 years ago, Steele said Kingsley was the first person at his door. Steele performed the poignant ballad “Friend.”
Chris DiStefano admitted he was nervous about playing at the service, but he shouldn’t have been. His rendition of “Something in the Water,” a hit he co-wrote with Carrie Underwood, was one of the highlights of the event. Rhett Akins commented that the song he was performing wasn’t sentimental, but it was one Kingsley always requested and he launched into his 1995 hit “That Ain’t My Truck.” Bob DiPiero spoke of Kingsley’s deep love for country music before delivering the Shenandoah hit “Church on Cumberland Road” bolstered by some impressive guitar licks from Steele.
Next up, there was a video salute from Kingsley’s longtime friend Red Steagall. “He was a perfect gentleman in every sense of the word and I will always treasure his friendship,” Stegall recalled in his heartfelt tribute. “He was my brother. I will always be indebted to him for the positive effect he had on my life and for bringing my beloved Nan into our social circle. . . [My wife] Gail and I will be forever thankful for her presence in our lives. So with heavy heart, I won’t say goodbye brother, but I’ll just look forward to the day when our ponies will again make tracks on the same trail.”
Throughout the service, there were video montages that showed Kingsley’s career achievements and passions, including photos with his beloved cutting horses and dogs at his Blue Stem Ranch in Weatherford, Texas. George Strait’s “The Cowboy Rides Away” played as the images of Kingsley competing in cutting horse events flooded the screen.
Well known for sharing the stories behind the songs, an audio clip from Kingsley recounted how Garth Brooks heard songwriter Tony Arata perform “The Dance” at a writer’s night and told him if he ever got a record deal, he would cut the song. Of course, he kept that promise. Brooks took the stage to perform a hearfelt rendition of “The Dance” before welcoming Nan Kingsley to the stage. She spoke of how they met and fell in love on Aug. 23, 1983. “I will miss him but I feel such strength and gratitude for having the time that we had together,” she said. “Without him I wouldn’t have been exposed to any of this.”
The event concluded with Radney Foster joining Brooks on stage to lead the crowd in the country classic “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”