WASHINGTON — The show had already featured stellar performances from Kris Kristofferson, the Judds, Lee Ann Womack and Vince Gill, but the well-heeled audience saved the one encore of the evening for 80-year-old Country Music Hall of Fame member Ray Price.
Country music took center stage Friday night (March 31) at the Kennedy Center, a prestigious performance venue best known for highbrow productions of jazz, classical and opera. The result was a sold-out show the audience and performers will likely remember for a very long time.
Billed as “The Country Salutes Country,” the concert was the highlight of Country: A Celebration of America’s Music, a three-week festival presented as a partnership between the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville and the Kennedy Center.
Gill, the consummate host for any country music event, set a relaxed mood for the evening as he strolled onstage with his Fender Telecaster guitar and immediately turned his back to the crowd to attend to some last-minute technical details. Turning toward the audience, he joked, “So much for the good opening.”
The good opening actually came seconds later when Gill and a band of Nashville’s finest session musicians roared into “Buckaroo,” the guitar instrumental that was Buck Owens’ theme song. “We thought it only appropriate tonight to honor Buck with one of his songs,” Gill noted. Later in the evening, Gill would perform two more songs that were hits for Owens, who died on March 25.
After Gill introduced him as “the only Rhodes Scholar I know,” Kristofferson offered a solo performance, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica. Opening with “Me and Bobby McGee,” he followed it up with “Here Comes That Rainbow Again,” a song inspired by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. With little introduction, the Hall of Fame member slipped in the title song from his latest album, This Old Road, and it fit in seamlessly alongside his finest work. He closed his set with “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.”
With the band back onstage, Womack sang “I May Hate Myself in the Morning” and then noted, “I was standing in the wings watching Mr. Kristofferson sing. I can’t believe I’m here.” Explaining that she had attended the funeral for songwriter Cindy Walker earlier in the week in Texas, Womack provided a stunning interpretation of one of Walker’s most enduring songs, “You Don’t Know Me.” With a combination of restraint, nuance and — when it’s needed — power, Womack just seems to get better as her career progresses. She completed her brief segment with “Twenty Years and Two Husbands Ago” and “I Hope You Dance.”
Gill returned to the stage to show to show off his honky-tonk side with two of Owens’ classics — “Above and Beyond” and “Together Again.” On the latter, steel guitarist Russ Pahl came close to recreating Tom Brumley’s solo on the original recording as a subtle tribute to Owens’ band, the Buckaroos. After a lengthy and hilarious story about his late father’s infatuation with Dolly Parton, Gill honored him with “The Key to Life.” Gill sang “Go Rest High on That Mountain” and then invited Kristofferson back onstage to perform another inspirational song, “Why Me.”
Following an intermission, Gill moved up the tempo with “Old Time Fiddle,” a rousing song from his Next Big Thing album. While the musicians in the band were not as famous as the classical virtuosos who get top billing at the Kennedy Center, their musical chops and versatility provided the foundation for the show. In addition to Pahl, the band members included guitarists Jeff White and J.T. Corenflos, keyboardist John Hobbs, bassist Michael Rhodes, fiddler Andrea Zonn and drummer Billy Thomas.
Wynonna interjected her usual growl and attitude on “Rock Bottom” and “No One Else on Earth” before inviting her mother, Naomi Judd, onstage for “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days).” It was one of the few times they’ve performed together since Naomi’s chronic hepatitis forced them to split up the duo in 1991. They sounded great together, and the crowd response made it clear that they’re still one of the most revered acts in country music history. Rolling with the moment, Wynonna was trying to remember part of the musical arrangement to “Why Not Me” when her mother joked, “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?” They finished off their performance with the last song they sang together at their farewell concert — “Love Can Build a Bridge.”
In all likelihood, few members of the audience likely bought tickets to the concert just to see Ray Price, but he and the current incarnation of his band, the Cherokee Cowboys, made a strong impression on everyone in the house. In some ways, Price is the country equivalent of Tony Bennett — an aging but still vibrant singer who continues to tour relentlessly.
Dapperly dressed in a blue Western-cut suit with a red tie, Price made it look effortless as his band launched into “San Antonio Rose.” The rhythm moved to a shuffle with “Crazy Arms,” Price’s first No. 1 single that spent a phenomenal 20 weeks at the top of the country chart in 1956. Their performance of the song evolved into another classic, “Heartaches by the Number.”
Greeted by thunderous applause, Price said, “I’ve been in this business since 1948. All this hollerin’ I’m hearing tonight makes me feel like an overnight success.”
Price’s 11-piece band boasted five fiddles on the first three songs, but those fiddles turned into violins for “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” and “For the Good Times,” both No. 1 hits from the ’70s. Called back for an encore, Price joked, “Boy y’all are a glutton for punishment!” He finished his performance with the poignant, “I Wish I Was Eighteen Again.”
Price’s performance was even more amazing because he wasn’t in the best health. Noting that he was stricken with food poisoning two weeks ago in Nevada, his attitude toward touring was evident when he explained, “My wife wants me to come home. And I will — as soon as I can.”
Gill, Womack, Kristofferson and the Judds returned to the stage for the finale of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the Carter Family song that closes all events at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.
After the concert, Gill and the Judds mingled with Kennedy Center patrons during a private party at the center’s veranda. Among those attending the concert were Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and two other U.S. senators — Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Pat Roberts of Kansas.