Tuesdasy night, in Time Square’s Playstation Theatre, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Maren Morris and Kesha sat in a half-circle and played 16 songs – four each – for an audience of just under 900 country music fans. The show, a fundraiser for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, took the form of an old-fashioned guitar pull. In turns that rotated clockwise around the stage, the four stars shared memories and music so casually and affectionately you’d think a campfire was burning in front of them. Then, after nearly two hours, the night ended the only way that would have felt right: with Harris, a little cautious, singing harmony on the hook to Kesha’s “Your Love Is My Drug.”
Moments like this have made these guitar pulls, part of a series called All for the Hall, one of country music’s hottest tickets. Having a host as sharp as Gill helps too. This year, Gill said upon taking the stage, he intentionally booked three female artists for the event. “I’m just here for the pizza and to introduce them,” quipped Gill.
After introductions, he opened with Rodney Crowell’s “Till I Gain Control Again” and remembered singing it at Los Angeles’ Troubadour nightclub on the night he met Harris. Harris, before following with “Love and Happiness” – “one of my happier, non-tragic songs” – told the crowd what she remembered from that same night: Crowell, impressed with what he’d seen, walking up to Gill and asking, “Who are you?”
Later, Gill and Harris would sing together on Harris’ “My Antonia” and Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You.” Both were stunning, but that didn’t change the fact that the audience belonged to the younger singers on the other half of the stage. Maren Morris’ first choice was her Number One “I Could Use a Love Song,” toying with the arrangement to draw out the song’s nimble, shifting rhythms. (Gill liked it so much he pumped his fist after she finished.) Kesha apologized for not playing her own guitar – “My nails are too long,” she said, holding up the sparkly proof – but got a lot of laughs with “Godzilla” off last year’s Rainbow LP.
Her performance in the next round was even better. She began by explaining that her mom, Pebe Sebert, is herself a country songwriter and that this drove Kesha to making dance-pop: “the antithesis of country.” She then sang her old hit “Blow” as if it were one of Harris’s murder ballads, the club described in the lyrics recast as a collapsed mine or haunted house.
Gill followed by talking about how, as a kid, music gave him hope. He remembered what it was like to hear his song on the radio for the first time and explained that he was going to play a song that he performed during Country Radio Seminar last week in Nashville. It was “Forever Changed,” his vulnerable track about sexual assault, partially inspired by an attempted assault on him, and it was received by a silent room that hung on every word. Harris then sang “Michelangelo,” and Morris followed with “Dear Hate,” returning to the themes of hope and tragedy with a new tune inspired by the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting.
The final round was cheerier even before “Your Love Is My Drug.” The group each shared their first concert – Morris and Kesha: LeAnn Rimes; Gill: Chet Atkins; Harris: Joan Baez – and the crowd clapped along to Morris’s “My Church.” Then, of course, the “Your Love Is My Drug” conclusion, which itself concluded with Kesha pointing at Gill as she recited the song’s last line: “I like your beard.”
As a benefit for the Hall of Fame, the show drew heavily from country music tradition. Yet as a showcase for four artists who could sing about everything from monsters to abuse in their individual styles, it also showed that this tradition remains as vital as ever.