LOS ANGELES — It was the Odd Quintupling, by some standards. Thursday night’s (Sept. 23) benefit for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum at Club Nokia in Los Angeles featured some of the usual suspects you might expect to see at such a hallowed proceedings — revered veterans Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris and Kris Kristofferson. These three legends were joined by a pair of most unusual suspects — Lionel Richie, in the annual fundraiser’s token non-country-guy slot, and Taylor Swift, filling the not-so-token world’s-biggest-music-star slot.
“We were smart enough to invite the kid,” Gill told the soldout crowd at the outset, immediately addressing any seeming incongruity in the bill. “We dig her because she sold all the tickets.”
If you believe that, then maybe the All for the Hall benefit should have been nicknamed the “All Here for Taylor” show. But Gill was a bit too self-deprecating in that regard since last year’s fundraiser in the same venue filled most of the seats without benefit of Swift.
Still, the lineup created an interesting literal split in the audience. Downstairs, at expensive dinner tables, were primarily sedate and presumably moneyed oldsters. Upstairs in the balcony’s “cheap seats” were hundreds of girls and moms who would scream every time Swift sang one of her songs. Naturally, Gill acknowledged some of the early squeals by saying, “Thank you. I get that a lot.”
If there was a decisive dichotomy between the two segregated audiences at Club Nokia, there was no such split onstage, with Swift more than holding her own in the acoustic “guitar pull,” an informal performance format that is much more a staple of Nashville than L.A. During the two-hour set, each artist got to perform four songs (except for Gill, who sacrificed his final number to ensure the others got their last licks in before the unfortunately strict 10 p.m. cutoff). And there wasn’t a non-Hall-of-Fame-worthy number in the bunch, Swift’s “Fifteen” and Richie’s “Hello” included.
If there was any incongruity, it might have come in how Kristofferson, Harris and Gill focused on some of their darkest and/or most mortally-themed material, which is not the meditative, melancholy mood to which Swift or Richie automatically default. But after hearing the others sing classically despairing songs of alcoholism, depression and untimely death, it came as a perfectly complementary pick-me-up to hear Swift sing a song in which Romeo and Juliet don’t croak.
Kristofferson kicked off the proceedings with “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” with one lyrical addendum. After singing, “I don’t care what’s wrong or right,” he added, “Yes, I do,” to quickly reflect a more enlightened perspective in the decades since he penned that classic. In his next go-round, Kristofferson followed Richie’s refrain of “Easy like Sunday morning” with a tune that he laughed was “a good one after yours, Lionel” — the not-so-easy “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
Gill, who acted as unofficial moderator and emcee, asked Kristofferson to tell the famous story of how he pitched the song to Johnny Cash. That led to a bit of revised history as Kristofferson told a story slightly less fateful than the legend, trusting the august assembled could handle the truth.
“According to John… when I pitched ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ to him, I flew into his house on a National Guard helicopter and landed there and took the song in,” he explained. “John said I came out of the helicopter with a beer in one hand and the song in the other. And it’s impossible to fly a helicopter like that! But at any rate, the truth of it was, John wasn’t even there. But since he cut that song, I always — except for tonight — go along with his story.”
Harris opened with her 1975 hit, “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” remarking afterward on the remarkable stereo quality of being seated between Gill and Kristofferson, though the former did a lot more harmonizing and picking-along than the latter. Later, she premiered a never-before-heard tune — slated for a project to be released in spring 2011 — about Nashville’s Father Charles Strobel, a former Catholic priest who left the church to work with animal and human homeless shelters.
“You should write more songs, Emmylou Harris!” Gill exclaimed.
“Well, I’m tryin’,” she responded.
Later, Harris performed the evening’s darkest song, “Prayer in Open D,” which includes lines like “there’s a river of darkness in my blood.” She explained she wrote it during a period of profound sadness in her early 40s.
“Here I am in my early 60s and still here,” she laughed. “Melancholy is just a fact of life, folks. But sometimes you get a song out of it.”
All three of Gill’s songs were unreleased newbies: “Red Words” (a spiritual inspired by wife Amy Grant), “Bread and Water” (a song he premiered at last year’s benefit, about a death in a homeless shelter, loosely inspired by his late brother) and “If I Die” (a defiantly proud sinner’s lament in the great country tradition co-written with “great kid” Ashley Monroe). All these songs, he promised, will be “on my next record that’s gonna come out … someday.”
Richie initiated his share of the round-robin with “Easy,” instructing Gill to take a guitar solo. “What if Willie did this one?” Gill wondered aloud, immediately launching into a string-bending Nelson sound-alike break. Gill also took time out to announce that Nashville super-producer Tony Brown, who was in the audience, is helming a duets album for Richie that will introduce or reintroduce the pop-R&B artist to country audiences. (No word on whether Willie will add his real guitar or vocal licks to that one.)
The comic high point and/or low point of the proceedings came when Richie introduced “Hello” by telling how he once had a 250-pound man come up, grab him by the arm and say, “I’ve made love to you many times.” Seated next to Richie, Swift happened to be chugging water at this moment, and she began choking on it upon this punch line, though she was able to refrain from doing an actual spit take.
Richie — the lone keyboardist in this putative guitar pull — regained his seriousness and was a few somber piano chords into the introduction of the song when Gill interrupted by inevitably adding: “I, too, have made love to you.” (Any guitar pull hosted by Gill should really have a drummer, if only for the rim shots.)
Happily, Richie’s anecdote did not actually kill Swift or even require a Heimlich maneuver, and she was able to charm the crowd with four hits, while avoiding any unreleased material from her still-under-lock-and-key third album. She introduced her current smash, “Mine,” as a song inspired by a day at the lake with a fellow that projected her into the uncertainty of future love.
“Some loves will cost you dearly,” interjected Gill, in a joke that probably meant more to the middle-aged suits downstairs than the kids above.
Swift said, “Sometimes it’s easier for me to write a song to someone than for someone.” The explanation echoed the remarks she’d been making backstage about the song she wrote to Kanye West, “Innocent,” that she performed at the recent MTV Video Music Awards. But any expectation that she might break that one out was countered when she began singing “Best Day,” an anthem to her mom, Andrea, who wiped away tears at a table midway back. Mama Swift had also stood crying at the lip of the stage when Swift sang it earlier the day during sound check. “She had to drop it from the set [on the Fearless tour],” Andrea Swift explained backstage, “because I kept breaking down.”
Swift was barely able to get through her introduction to “Love Story,” given Gill’s unsolicited dialogue.
“There was this guy, and I liked him a lot,” she began.
“So did I!” interrupted the host, beginning to describe a love triangle.
The younger singer eventually got around to the point of the story.
When parents forbid a relationship, “you completely compare yourself to Romeo and Juliet,” she said, describing a time when she slammed a door on her mother. “You’re thinking, it’s so unfair! I changed the ending so we get married instead of die. Because I was 17 … I could relate to the whole [Romeo and Juliet] story, except for when they died.”
Countered Gill: “That’s when it’s country!”
Swift had actually played an All for the Hall benefit before, but as a surprise guest, two years ago, when she showed up at the New York City incarnation of the benefit series and played the then-new “Fifteen.” She reprised that in L.A., even after Gill inevitably stopped her in her tracks by saying he’d been working on a sad parody called “Fifty.”
“You remember your freshman year, Lionel?” Gill said. “Freshman year — those were the best three years of my life!”
Before the show, the five performers posed for photographs together, but Swift and Kristofferson in particular seemed to share a special bond, having connected at the last BMI Country Awards in Nashville. Never mind that the cowboy boots he wore were literally decades older than Swift herself. He effusively sang the praises of her songwriting, and when CMT.com asked Kristofferson if she would be a Hall of Famer someday, he practically bellowed, “She’s already in the Hall of Fame!” More quietly, he added, “So damn nice, too!”
Leaving the photo shoot, Swift practically had to fan herself as she got back to her dressing room to tell her mom about the meet-up with Kristofferson.
“I felt like I was going to pass out!” she said. “He said so many nice things about my songwriting, and he said, ‘I don’t see what will stop you from having the most beautiful life and career.’ I can’t even remember everything he said. I blacked out a little bit.”View photos from the All for the Hall event in Los Angeles. Find out more about Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum events.