LOS ANGELES — “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”
The words of the late Winston Churchill had a rather ironic twist when they were recounted by Grammy Foundation senior vice president Kristen Madsen at a Thursday night event (Feb. 8) billed as The Soul of Country. They certainly have the ring of authenticity — as real as host Marty Stuart’s impeccable mandolin playing or LeAnn Rimes’ exquisite vocal quality — but the British statesman’s observation made for a slightly odd sequence on a night when country was celebrated repeatedly as “America’s music.”
The ceremony, a Grammy Week presentation at the Wilshire Ebell Theater, paid homage to the music preservation efforts of the Recording Academy, which grants more than $500,000 annually to companies and organizations to clean up and catalog deteriorating items from American’s musical archives. That includes the restoration of original recordings as well as the reclamation of aging film and kinescopes.
The topic sounds technical, but the presentation was in practice vibrant — not surprising when the participants included Country Music Hall of Famers Porter Wagoner and Charley Pride, actor Terrence Howard, current hitmaker Joe Nichols and alt-country performer Shooter Jennings.
The show also drew a number of notable guests. Current Grammy nominee Carrie Underwood hung out for a time backstage, while the audience was dotted with such figures as Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s John McEuen and — Stuart announced from the stage — Lionel Richie, Sam Moore (formerly of the soul duo Sam & Dave) and Solomon Burke, currently nominated with Dolly Parton for a country Grammy.
Stuart, who’s always balanced a contemporary swagger with a historian’s passion, proved an eloquent host. He recalled his boyhood in Philadelphia, Miss., where music radiated from every direction — the blues of the Delta, the jazz coming from New Orleans, the soul from Memphis and the country from Nashville.
His hometown was rocked by the racially motivated slaying of three civil-rights workers in 1964, creating an atmosphere of darkness and suspicion in the town. Stuart remembered how Wagoner’s syndicated TV show would lift him up every Saturday and how he could feel “a tangible hole in the air where the joy had been” after each episode ended.
Not that joy is always associated closely with country. The stereotypical view of the idiom suggests that heartache and sadness envelop the music, and the rhinestone-tipped Wagoner — making, rather unbelievably, his first-ever appearance in Los Angeles — played right into that stereotype with a dark, dark recitation, “Men With Broken Hearts.” Wagoner gave it a lonely reading, in essence turning it into a piece of poetry with accompaniment by Stuart’s acoustic guitar. The room was quiet enough to make Stuart’s fret noise and the sound of Wagoner moistening his lips audible in the backroom, creating the joy not with the subject, but with the shared experience of the lyrics’ authenticity and the artist’s legend.
Nichols delivered a hardy version of Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again,” imbuing it with the same rich, reedy low notes that were a hallmark of Haggard’s sturdy classic.
Rimes turned in a version of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” an especially appropriate choice since the vocal bends and classic sound of her debut single, “Blue,” brought Rimes endless comparisons to the Hall of Famer. The arrangement of “Crazy” remained dutifully reverent to the original, but Rimes showed enough confidence and character to break away from the standard rendition, infusing it with her own trills and an informed originality.
Pride solidified the past-and-future motif. On one hand, he rendered “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone” and “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” with a tone that shows even more grace and easiness than he maintained at the peak of his career in the early 1970s. On the other, he was introduced by Howard, who will portray him in an upcoming film biography.
Jennings added further to the bridge theme, closing the show with a new-generation homage to father Waylon Jennings’ history, branding “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean” with the same phase-shifter guitar sounds and stomping bass line that became a signature for his dad.
The senior Jennings and his “outlaw” compadre Willie Nelson were able to demonstrate in an earlier era the breadth of country music, knitting together an audience that spanned rednecks and hippies while drawing from multiple musical sources.
Stuart likewise recounted on Thursday the multi-cultural influences that helped define country in the first place — noting that African-American musicians mentored such pioneering figures as Bill Monroe, Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, and that the Mexican trumpets on Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” was an early example of the Latin-American influence on the genre.
Underscoring that diverse lineage, the evening’s musical highlight came with a surprise collaboration. Deana Carter combined her indelibly Southern voice with the smooth soul of R&B singer Brian McKnight (the author, notably, of Mark Wills’ country hit “Back at One”) and the breathy pop presence of Kenny Loggins (who appeared on a 1986 country hit by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, “Fire in the Sky”) in a smoky version of the Eddy Arnold/Ray Charles classic, “You Don’t Know Me.”
The song’s author, Cindy Walker, was featured prominently in video footage from the Grammy Foundation’s Living Histories program, which captures documentary-style interviews with members of the music community. Illustrating the value of the archival effort, the video pieces included timeless stories from Merle Kilgore (“Ring of Fire”), Jerry Chestnut (“A Good Year for the Roses”) and Felice Bryant (“Wake Up Little Susie”), among others.
In the center of it all was one more preserved bit of history: clips from the Grand Ole Opry’s final performance at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and its first performance at the Grand Ole Opry House in 1974. (The show has since returned to a refurbished Ryman during the winter months.) Provided by the Country Music Hall of Fame, the film embraces the fiddle-balancing in Roy Acuff’s routine, the gleefully shrill “How-deeeeeee” that Minnie Pearl presented and performances by Jean Shepard, Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper and Stonewall Jackson.
Plenty of screen time was also given to Richard Nixon’s appearance at the inaugural Opry House show, which marked the first time a president had visited the Opry. Nixon, embroiled at the time in the Watergate scandal that would lead to his resignation just five months later, waxed on repeatedly about the importance of country music in American culture — how it was created in America, how it embodied America’s values and how it celebrated strong moral character in “a time that America needs character.”
Much of Nixon’s monologue netted laughter from the Ebell audience. Some of it could have been elicited by the woman behind him on the screen, playing with her rings. But much of it was also likely derived from the sight of a president linking himself to “character” in a manner that history shows was mostly a charade.
So a British statesman’s quote may have summarized the evening, but The Soul of Country — in its exploration of the past as a key to the future — was quintessentially American. As always, the central question for country music can only be answered as the genre moves forward: Will the soul survive?