NEW YORK CITY — What does it take to get an assemblage of stars as illustrious as Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood acting like awkward school kids? How about the unavoidably intimidating — albeit entirely unassuming — presence of one of the world’s greatest living songwriters?
That was the case Tuesday night (Oct. 6) when all the aforementioned artists joined Paul Simon at the newly-dubbed (so new, the publicity listed the old name) PlayStation Theater in Times Square to do their part for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
As usual, the annual All for the Hall benefit show, which contributes to both the organization’s world-renowned museum in Nashville and the museum’s music education efforts, featured a stellar batch of singer/songwriters in an old-fashioned guitar pull. Armed only with their acoustic axes (or in Underwood’s case, a guitarist to play one for her), the quintet traded tunes in a pin-drop intimate atmosphere, giving their all for the Hall. The other four made no bones about being self-conscious — if not downright awed — in Simon’s presence. With both humor and earnestness, Paisley and Gill, in particular, voiced the feeling several times throughout the evening.
Harris kicked things off, honoring the memory of the late Jesse Winchester with a poignant version of his ballad “My Songbird.” Taking his turn next, Paisley let loose his characteristic wit, saying of the event, “This is a dream that I’ve had, but I’m usually naked.” Nevertheless, he too paid tribute to a fallen artist, seguing former Grand Ole Opry stalwart Little Jimmy Dickens’ “Country Boy” into his own 2012 hit “Southern Comfort Zone.”
After Underwood tore into her latest single, “Smoke Break,” Simon unassumingly delivered a devastating, moody version of his Simon & Garfunkel classic “The Sound of Silence,” earning a rapturous reception from the audience.
Before beginning a luminous performance of a classic of his own, 1994’s “Whenever You Come Around,” Gill informed the crowd that after the others learned Simon would be on the bill, they all said, “We’ll come, but you have to follow him.”
Following Harris’ intensely emotional delivery of “The Ship on His Arm,” Paisley shifted the mood, introducing his satirical, rather Shel Silverstein-esque “The Cigar Song” by observing, “I don’t know about you, but I’m very excited about normalization of trade with Cuba.” Underwood then seized her moment with a bravura performance of “So Small,” her first hit as a songwriter, from 2007’s Carnival Ride.
Simon displayed no qualms whatsoever about his anomalously urban orientation (the others were, after all, on his home turf). He inquired of the crowd about the evening’s Yankees game, declaring his fealty to the team, before introducing “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” as “a New York song.”
In the wake of a pair of stirring ballads from Gill and Harris (the still-unrecorded “I Don’t Want to Ride the Rails No More” and “The Pearl,” respectively), Paisley made the funniest faux pas of the night, asking Simon if there were guitar pulls on the Greenwich Village folk scene “back in your day.” Simon’s first response was a mordant, “I’m still digesting ‘back in my day.’”
Paisley good-naturedly expressed his mortification at the unintended offense before launching into “Remind Me” with Underwood reprising her role on the studio version of their No. 1 duet. He spent the rest of evening being ribbed about his etiquette blunder by the other artists, Simon included, even though Underwood went on to tell a story that centered on her singing Simon’s “Cecilia” for her family as a small child.
Following Underwood’s bare-bones take on her 2014 platinum single “Something in the Water,” Simon unveiled a shimmering version of another Simon & Garfunkel-era hit, “The Boxer,” with Gill providing a fluid guitar solo. The moment inspired the latter to declare, “That right there is a bucket-list moment.”
But all artistic insecurities aside, by the time the song circle had taken a final turn and Simon brought the proceedings to a close with the Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved,” the whole crew was chiming in on the harmonies like one big happy family gathered around the campfire for a sing-along. One big happy family with 56 Grammys between them.