An all-star lineup, reaching across generations and genres, drew a rousing response from a sold-out PlayStationTheater audience during a stylish All for the Hall fundraising concert for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on October 6.
The stripped-down acoustic performances focused attention on the artistry of songwriting and singing—talents delivered with grace and power by the lineup of Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Brad Paisley, Paul Simon and Carrie Underwood.
“The magic of these nights is the diversity that winds up onstage,” said Gill, who co-hosted the evening with Harris. “It’s not just about hits and what’s going on in country music at the moment. It’s so healthy that we’re open-minded and welcome to all things. It’s good that we’re all different.”
Kyle Young, the museum’s chief executive officer, pointed out that the evening’s performers had won a total of 56 Grammy Awards.
“That should tell you everything you need to know,” he said, “about the caliber of artists who are volunteering their time tonight.”
The concert was modeled on the Nashville institution of a “guitar pull,” a casual set-up in which performers take turns presenting songs while the others look on, at times adding harmony or instrumentation. The format encourages relaxed interaction between performers, and the artists on this night mixed jokes, jibes and from-the-heart comments. Paisley often took guitar solos on Gill’s songs, and Gill offered solos on Paisley’s songs, focusing on sharing their mutual talents. Gill, Harris and Underwood often added harmonies to songs by others.
Paisley heralded the guitar-pull tradition, noting that on any given night in Nashville, several clubs will feature songwriters sitting on stools next to each other and performing their songs.
Simon added that while New York musicians did have a community feel, they weren’t as open to revealing themselves and their work with each other in the way Nashville artists are.
Every other performer mentioned what an honor it was to be part of a show with Paul Simon, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist and as a member of Simon & Garfunkel.
“It truly is one of the greatest thrills of my life to share a stage with this fella,” Gill said in introducing Simon. “He is one of the greatest American songwriters of all time.”
Later, Gill said it was “a bucket list moment” after performing the guitar solo on Simon’s “The Boxer,” an instrumental part originally created by the late Nashville session great Fred Carter.
Simon also performed “Sounds of Silence” and “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” a song about New York, he noted. Simon also said he agreed to perform without realizing his beloved New York Yankees would be in a playoff game that night. He then asked for the score and grimaced when told his team was behind at the moment.
Simon also spoke of the time he visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in the past, with Harris as his guide.
“I thought it was an extraordinary treasure trove of American history,” Simon said. “I’m pleased and honored to be able to be a participant tonight.”
Paisley noted that he felt “completely out of my element” being onstage with so many of his musical idols, after wisecracking that he had dreamed of this moment in the past, “except that in the dream I’m completely naked.”
Underwood began by saying she felt
“equal parts nervous and honored to be on this stage tonight.” Singing with just an acoustic guitar made her “feel exposed,” she said, adding with a laugh, “Not the underwear type of exposed, but musically exposed.”
She and her guitarist, Shawn Tubbs, then performed her current hit, “Smoke Break”—the first time Underwood ever performed it in such an instrumentally bare manner.
All of the artists spoke about the power of songs to move and motivate people—and underlined the importance of music education in public schools. Harris emphasized how music helps open the minds of schoolkids and has been proven to stimulate brain activity, making it just as important as other academic disciplines.
Underwood told of how music classes and choir practice made her excited about going to school. She did well in other areas, she said, but it was music education that made her eager to attend classes each day.
The concert didn’t feature a set list. The performers decided what to sing on the spur of the moment, inspired by what someone else had played or by the mood they were in when their turn came. As Gill noted, guitar pulls traditionally aren’t just an artist or songwriter performing their biggest hits. It’s also a chance to show off new material, or, in this evening’s case, pull out a favorite cover song, as Simon did when ending the show with the Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved,” with Gill on high harmony—and the rest of the artists eventually joining in.
Both Harris and Paisley honored recently deceased heroes of theirs. Harris opened with her rendition of Jesse Winchester’s “My Songbird,” which she had recorded in 1978 on her album Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town. Paisley included a verse and chorus of Country Music Hall of Fame member Little Jimmy Dickens’ “Country Boy” before going into his own hit “Southern Comfort Zone.”
The evening’s first standing ovation came for a group of sixth graders from the Pelham Gardens Middle School in the Bronx. Songwriter Liz Rose (“White Horse,” “You Belong with Me,” “Girl Crush”) worked with students from the school to create an original song using lyrics the students wrote. Armed with guitars and ukuleles, and with songwriter-guitarist Phil Barton helping out, the students and Rose sang the upbeat “Everybody’s Perfect,” delighting the loudly cheering crowd.
The song represented the museum’s long-running Words & Music program, which pairs professional songwriters with students, giving them a chance to express themselves while learning about the process of songwriting. With partners Education Through Music, a New York-based non-profit, the museum will work with several other New York schools through the 2015-2016 school year.
The proceeds of the All for the Hall New York concert will be earmarked for the museum’s education department, which interacted with more than 160,000 people in 2014. Between ticket sales and a spirited live auction, the event netted more than $150,000 and demonstrated the national and international reach of the Museum and its award-winning educational programs.