Boasting that it's "the best you can get for free on a Tuesday," host Vince Gill opened last night's ninth annual Los Angeles installment of the All for the Hall concert by introducing his famous friends – Rock & Roll Hall of Famers James Taylor and Joe Walsh and new country traditionalists Kacey Musgraves and Chris Stapleton – and noting "every one of them has had an impact on my life."
One of those statements was true: He was right about the performers' impact, as throughout the evening, Gill stressed that musical heroes aren’t "just the artists who came before you, but also the ones that come late in your life." As far as free, not hardly. VIP tables at the event, held at the Novo by Microsoft Theater in downtown L.A., went for $10,000. But it was all for a good cause. Tthe low-key guitar pull, which switches coasts each year, benefitted the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's education program.
Gill, who co-founded the event with Keith Urban, started the evening with his lovely, haunting "A World Without Haggard," his tribute to late country-music titan Merle Haggard. Saluting those who have passed would be a theme for Gill's selections – he later sang "Sight for Sore Eyes," a song he wrote decades earlier with iconic songwriter Guy Clark, who died in May. And in the evening's most poignant moment, he asked Taylor to sing "You've Got A Friend" – the Carole King-penned tune made famous by Taylor – in honor of legendary golfer and Gill's good buddy Arnold Palmer, who died over the weekend. Gill added that he had performed the song for Palmer when the athlete received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2012. At the song’s conclusion, a teary Musgraves admitted, "I'm actually crying. That's so sweet."
Musgraves and Stapleton seemed genuinely ¬– and understandably – in awe to share a stage with such legends as Walsh and Taylor, both of whom were scoring hits before either of the younger artists was born. Musgraves jokingly asked for some tequila to calm her nerves. After Walsh reached back to perform "Meadows," from his 1972 solo debut Barnstorm, Stapleton stopped the show to genuflect in Walsh's direction, remembering saving money to take his brother to the Eagles' Hell Freezes Over reunion tour in the Nineties in Charleston, West Virginia. "It was the greatest show I ever saw in my life," he declared.
But when it came to performing, the youngsters showed they had earned their place alongside such vets. For Stapleton's first song, he lashed into a hair-raising "I Was Wrong," his guitar and razor-sharp howl conjuring up every ounce of the bluesy song's lusty remorse, while "Whiskey and You" had a raw, gut-punch intensity. Musgraves' quirky, observational humor on "Family Is Family" and "Merry Go 'Round" brought knowing, appreciative laughter from the audience and she charmed the crowd with a story about how crestfallen she was when she initially found out that Miranda Lambert had cut "Mama's Broken Heart" – which meant that it could no longer be Musgraves' first single as she had hoped. "I was really distraught about it and [said], 'I'm going to have a hole in my heart if I don't cut this.'" Fellow songwriter Liz Rose, best known for writing with Taylor Swift, quickly responded to Musgraves, "You can fill it with money." Lambert took the song to Number One and Musgraves added, "It was the best thing that ever happened to me."
Despite the sometimes downer songs, a cheerful camaraderie filled the evening, in part because of Gill's endearing nicknames for his pals. Taylor became "Jamesy," Stapleton "Chrissy," Musgraves "Kace" and Walsh "JoJo." Taylor gently strummed along to his stagemates' songs; Walsh, on electric guitar, joined Taylor for a funkified version of his 1970 blues parody "Steamroller," a song Taylor joked took longer to perform than to write, and Taylor and Gill duetted on Taylor's "Bartender’s Blues." Both Taylor and Stapleton leapt to their feet to help – unsuccessfully – Musgraves unhook a bothersome guitar strap.
Gill talked to Rolling Stone Country before the event, calling his involvement in raising money for the Hall – more than $4.3 million so far – one of the achievements he's proudest of "by a mile. The things I've done in the philanthropy side of things is way more of a blessing than any hit record. To use what you've been given to help everything else and not just yourself, that's the only way to live – to me."
Gill added that he had invited Walsh this year. He had also invited Don Henley (who declined), because after the January passing of Glenn Frey, "it was important to me to reach out to those guys. That crew, along with James, and the Troubadour … what really became the mecca of songwriting in this town was those guys. And that's where it came from for me, as much to find a way to honor Glenn too."
Though neither has visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Walsh and Taylor told Rolling Stone Country that accepting Gill's request was a no-brainer. "I said, 'You bet,'" Taylor said. "I love Vince's playing and respect him as a player and also as a citizen, as a member of a community that's better for his being part of it. There wasn't a second thought."
For all the star power on the stage, it was Taylor who grounded the often rag-tag evening, not only by his elder-statesman status, but with his self-deprecating, genial stories that unassumingly reinforced his role as one of the greatest singer-songwriters of his generation. He recalled auditioning for Paul McCartney and George Harrison in 1968 for their Apple Records with the romantic "Something in the Way She Moves": "I was as nervous as a Chihuahua on methamphetamine," he said. "It was like meeting God."
Before singing "You Can Close Your Eyes," he explained how he wrote it for Joni Mitchell, whom he dated in 1970 while he was filming Two-Lane Blacktop, a movie costarring Beach Boy Dennis Wilson that he maintains he's never seen. "That’s one of the best damn songs in American history," gushed Gill after Taylor finished the exquisite ballad.
Gill implored Taylor to close out the night, and he obliged with "Sweet Baby James." There may be a sweeter sound than Taylor and Gill harmonizing on the chorus of the lullaby Taylor wrote for his nephew more than 45 years ago, but certainly not on this evening, as they serenaded the crowd into the warm California night.