Country music’s old guard got a taste of the future Tuesday, as the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum held its annual “All for the Hall” gala at the Novo Theater in downtown Los Angeles.
Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, and Sheryl Crow were joined by Luke Combs at the intimate, guitar-pull-style event, which benefits the Hall of Fame’s music education programs that now serve more than 130,000 students annually.
“This is the best you can get on a Tuesday,” quipped Gill, as he welcomed the small but captive crowd of 2,000 or so sponsors, patrons, and fans to the show. Gill served as the unofficial emcee and hype man for the night, introducing each artist as they joined him onstage, and frequently chiming in with his guitar and anecdotes as they each took turns sharing stories and trading songs.
Combs received the night’s loudest ovation by far. The singer, who had flown in from Nashville just for the event, had to tell a group of fans in the balcony to “calm the redneck down” at one point, after their cheers interrupted the proceedings.
Dressed down in a baseball cap and jeans, the 29-year-old called it a “humbling experience” to be in the room with three of his musical idols. “I’m the most inadequate musician in the whole place,” he deadpanned at the start of his set, before launching into “Dear Today,” an unreleased song he first teased on Instagram back in July.
Combs debuted another new song later in the night, which he said was inspired by his parents. The moving, acoustic ballad features the lyrics, “It’s me they love to give the credit to, but it don’t mean a thing without you.”
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The as-yet-untitled track is expected to appear on Combs’ upcoming sophomore album What You See Is What You Get, due out in November. “When you’re on a stage with three Hall of Famers, you probably shouldn’t debut a song you’ve never done before,” he joked, adding that he had just decided to perform it while he was getting ready in the green room. “The good thing is, if I mess up,” he said, “nobody’s gonna know.”
While Gill joked that he only invited Combs “to help with ticket sales,” it was clear the 62-year-old had fondness for the fast-rising star 33 years his junior, and vice-versa. Gill inducted Combs into the Grand Ole Opry in July, while Combs shared a story Tuesday of attending a Gill concert at the age of six, and then performing the singer’s “I Still Believe In You” for his family. “Vince Gill was my favorite singer and still is,” Combs told Rolling Stone earlier in the day, “so tonight is really a full circle moment.”
For Crow, who confirmed that her new album, Threads, will be her final release, the guitar pull was a chance to revisit some of her old hits and perform alongside her longtime friend and mentor, Harris (“I don’t vape, I don’t smoke but singing with Emmy is my kind of high,” Crow joked).
After Crow kicked things off with “Everyday Is a Winding Road,” the two performed “Nobody’s Perfect,” their delicate, Joni Mitchell-esque duet off Threads, and later traded verses on a cover of Gram Parsons’ “Juanita.” Crow said the first time she sang the latter song with Harris was during a particularly difficult period while working on the album that would ultimately become 1998’s The Globe Sessions.
“I was having trouble getting the album finished and Emmy happened to call and asked if I could do a Gram Parsons tribute with her,” Crow recalled. “We sat on the floor and played ‘Juanita’ with a mic between us and that was the take. I credit that night — and credit Emmy — with helping me finish the album.”
Crow, who briefly worked as a music teacher before she became a musician, said it was important for her to support the night’s event, especially as funding cuts continue to impact arts and music programs across the country. But the singer was also keen to point out another event that was happening just a few miles away.
“I don’t know if you heard, but the President is in town,” Crow said, to a mixture of boos and cheers from the audience. President Trump had touched down in the city earlier in the day and was hosting a fundraiser in Beverly Hills at the same time the Hall of Fame gala was happening downtown.
While Crow asked for a little empathy (“Please don’t boo him,” she said), she also encouraged the crowd to listen as she performed a song off her new album. Crow says she wrote the lyrics to “Redemption Day” during the Iraq War, and Johnny Cash ended up recording a couple of verses prior to his death. A digitally-stitched duet appears on Threads. The lyrics include lines like “What do you have for us today/Throw us a bone but save the plate/On why you waited ’til so late/Was there no oil to excavate?”
“Music can soothe and it can also galvanize a movement,” Crow told Rolling Stone before the event. “We saw that with a lot of artists in the Sixties and Seventies and I do feel like there’s a purpose when people write about what’s happening.”
Addressing the political climate directly, Crow said, “I had a great meditation teacher the morning after Trump was elected and she said, ‘All is not lost; this is the way forward.’ And I look at it like this: for all the people that are unhappy, what will come of this will be something better,” Crow stressed. “This is just a moment in time and we will get through it.”
Crow’s performance of “Redemption Day” was a particularly poignant moment in a night full of them. Gill praised his 89-year-old mother for undergoing knee surgery, before playing his heart-tugging track “A Letter to My Mama,” off the singer-songwriter’s latest release, Okie. Harris, meanwhile, dedicated a song to an old friend who survived a fraught battle with cancer, and had surprised her backstage earlier in the night.
For Combs, the evening was a chance to look into his future, drawing on the stories and experiences of three musical icons as he continues to chart his course in the industry.
“I don’t have any cool stories like you guys, but I’ll be telling people about this night for a long time,” he said. “I can only hope to have the impact on people and touch people the way the three of you have.”
At the end of Combs’ words, Harris cupped her hands together in gratitude and smiled. “You did a great job tonight,” she said, looking over at the young singer. “Think of this as part of your apprenticeship.”