NEW YORK CITY -- One of Nashville's most intrinsic institutions is the "guitar pull," an ad hoc assemblage of songwriters trading tunes back and forth. It can happen on a back porch, in a bar or at a small club with unknowns or icons occupying the stools.
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In the case of this year's All for the Hall fundraiser for Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on Tuesday night (Feb. 26), it happened more than 800 miles from Music City at the Best Buy Theater in the heart of New York's Times Square.
Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Jason Aldean, Gregg Allman, Allman Brothers Band/Gov't Mule guitarist Warren Haynes, Train frontman Pat Monahan and gifted newcomer Ashley Monroe were all on hand to swap songs for the folks who had forked over their dough to keep the museum healthy and growing as it plans to open a newly-expanded space in the spring of 2014.
From his stool, the genial, jocose Gill casually served as host for the evening, but there was no agenda, no set list. In the grand guitar-pull tradition, there was seemingly nothing much planned beyond a batch of writers sharing their songs in as simple a setting as humanly possible. Gill kicked things off with his 1994 No. 2 hit "Whenever You Come Around," which he revealed was inspired by his wife Amy Grant's smile, long before he married her.
Harris and Crowell, who first worked together in 1975 when Crowell played guitar with Harris' Hot Band, harmonized luminously on Kris Kristofferson's "Chase the Feeling" from their new duet album, Old Yellow Moon, and the Everly Brothers classic "Love Hurts."
The laconic Allman offered no introduction on his first turn at the microphone, launching directly into an unusual but evocative choice, nearly bringing the whole room to tears en masse with Jackson Browne's melancholy ballad "These Days," which Allman recorded on his 1973 solo debut, Laid Back.
Setting up what would soon become a running joke, Aldean exclaimed, "I've gotta follow that?" Gill laughingly warned the arena-filling superstar, "You're probably not gonna get a whole lot of people to feel sorry for you," before Aldean kicked into his 2009 No. 1 hit "Big Green Tractor."
Pop-rocker Monahan has been dipping his toes in the country realm for the last couple of years, recording with the likes of Martina McBride and Ashley Monroe, but the first words out of his mouth before belting out "Feels Good at First" from the latest Train album were, "What am I doing here? That's what you guys are all thinking so I figured I'd say it."
Monroe, best known as part of the Pistol Annies alongside Miranda Lambert and Angaleena Presley, put her Dolly Parton-esque pipes to work on the title track from her forthcoming, Gill-produced album, Like a Rose.
Gill also unveiled a new tune, an affecting ballad called "I Don't Want to Ride the Rails No More," and it was a testament to the off-the-cuff quality of the event that after flubbing a lyric toward the end, he paused and said, "Since I'm playing for free, I'm gonna do the last verse again."
Crowell then injected a left-field feel into the proceedings with his quirky "Closer to Heaven" before joining Harris for another song from Old Yellow Moon, a lambent version of the classic Waylon Jennings classic "Dreaming My Dreams."
Haynes, who had only accompanied Allman on the first pass, took the spotlight and underlined his country connections by delivering "Two of a Kind, Workin' on a Full House," the 1991 Garth Brooks No. 1 single he co-wrote. Allman followed with what may have been the meatiest moment of the night, a spellbinding performance of the Allman Brothers Band's classic-rock radio staple "Melissa" that underscored the song's uncommon beauty.
When Aldean self-deprecatingly lamented his short-straw, post-Allman placement in the lineup once again, Harris happily informed him, "It's gonna be that way all night." In response, Aldean doubled down with a pair of his biggest singles, "My Kinda Party" and the 2009 No. 1 "The Truth." The latter was co-written by none other than Monroe, who then joined Monahan for a duet on Train's "Bruises" (a song that's been no stranger to country radio), reprising their vocal partnership from the band's latest album.
As the performers made their way through the final round of the night, it became increasingly clear that the evening was about the inspiration of the moment as much as anything. Whether it was Gill digging into "Ring of Fire" in honor of Johnny Cash's birthday (joined by Harris and Crowell) or Aldean pitching in on both Allman's "Midnight Rider" and Monahan's Train smash "Drops of Jupiter," the artists were more concerned with following their noses than following a script.
Throughout the show, song choices were often made and deliberated on the spot, sometimes taking other performers by surprise along with the audience. As the evening drew to a close, Gill cajoled Harris and Crowell into joining him once more for "Till I Gain Control Again," explaining that it's "my favorite Rodney Crowell song of all time, done first by you," indicating Harris.
When Gill threw it to Allman to come up with a closer, the rock star huddled with Haynes before pulling out the '50s country chestnut "Long Black Veil." As the voices of Allman's fellow guitar-pullers chimed in on the chorus, this wildly disparate batch of musicians donating their time to help Hall of Fame suddenly seemed downright familial.