Vince Gill was having some trouble with the teleprompter during the taping of Ken Burns’ all-star “Country Music: Live at the Ryman” concert in Nashville on Wednesday night.
“That’s why I didn’t go to college — I suck at reading,” he joked with characteristic self-deprecating humor after flubbing one of his lines. The show was taped for broadcast on PBS stations at a later date.
Fortunately, the Oklahoma native was in peak form doing everything else during an evening that celebrated a type of music that routinely reconnects with its roots and, as Burns put it, “has never been one style.” Throughout an evening that interspersed brief clips of Burns’ upcoming eight-part historical documentary Country Music — premiering September 15th on PBS — with live performances of songs discussed in the documentary, Gill frequently sat in the background with his Telecaster, guiding a band of session pros through tunes that touched on many different styles and eras of country sounds.
But Gill provided the night’s emotional and musical high point when he sang Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” which the singer penned for her musical mentor Porter Wagoner as she was planning to take the reins on her own career. Considering Whitney Houston recorded a second definitive take on the song for The Bodyguard soundtrack in 1992, “I Will Always Love You” is not exactly a safe choice for anyone to sing in 2019. Yet Gill’s rendering, suffused with the heartache and vulnerability he does so well, was sublime — a breathtaking version of a song that earned the singer a standing ovation and set itself apart from its two most well-known versions.
“Vince, that was really good. You’re gonna do alright in this thing,” said Marty Stuart immediately afterward, providing a little levity for audience members who’d more or less been reduced to blubbering messes for the prior three minutes.
Stuart himself provided another highlight, mimicking the steady, chugging rhythm of a train with his wickedly fast mandolin runs on a solo version of “Orange Blossom Special” that paid tribute to both Johnny Cash and his bluegrass background as a member of Lester Flatt’s band.
“The only two jobs I had in my life as a working musician were with Lester Flatt and Johnny Cash,” he said before the performance, explaining that he had to adapt the fiddle-based song for mandolin because he’d once lied to Cash about being an adept fiddler before they went on tour. “Do all fiddles squeak, or just yours?” Cash wrote in a letter to Stuart at the end of the run.
Many other remarkable performances took place throughout the evening, including Rhiannon Giddens’ smoldering version of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” Dwight Yoakam’s tender take on Merle Haggard’s “Hungry Eyes,” and Rosanne Cash’s wistful version of her father’s hit “I Still Miss Someone.”
“At its best, country music and its songs can remind us that we’re all in this together,” said Burns from the podium as the show neared its conclusion.
As the entire generation-spanning cast returned to the stage for a stomping and clapping version of — what else — “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” with all the performers singing a line, anyone in the room would have found it hard to prove him wrong.
“Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man” – Rhiannon Giddens and Ketch Secor
“In the Jailhouse Now” – Ketch Secor
“Tumbling Tumbleweeds” – Riders in the Sky
“New San Antonio Rose” – Asleep at the Wheel
“Uncle Pen” – Marty Stuart and Ricky Skaggs
“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” – Holly Williams
“Orange Blossom Special” – Marty Stuart
“Crazy” – Rhiannon Giddens
“Hungry Eyes” – Dwight Yoakam
“Streets of Bakersfield” – Dwight Yoakam and Dierks Bentley
“Coal Miner’s Daughter” – Kathy Mattea
“Sunday Morning Coming Down” – Larry Gatlin
“Pancho & Lefty” – Rodney Crowell
“Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” – Dierks Bentley
“I Will Always Love You” – Vince Gill
“Don’t Get Above Your Raisin'” – Ricky Skaggs
“I Still Miss Someone” – Rosanne Cash
“Will the Circle Be Unbroken” – Full Cast