All For The Hall Keith Urban & Vince Gill


April 12, 2016
The diversity of Nashville’s modern music community provided an exciting template for the sixth We’re All for the Hall concert, a benefit for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The three-hour show—billed as Mashville: The Music City in 2016—featured new hit-makers, rising Americana artists, established country stars and veteran rockers, all of whom connected with the enthusiastic crowd.

The performances emphasized another Music City truism: It all begins with a song.  The concert proved, once again, that a great song crosses all borders and genres. Excited audience members sang along with well-written, engagingly performed songs they knew by heart, whether it was sixty-five-year-old London native Peter Frampton resurrecting his classic rock chestnut “Do You Feel Like We Do,” or the duo of Maddie & Tae, both twenty years old, harmonizing on the recent country anthem “Girl in a Country Song.”

Amid the lineup of superstars and hot new acts, an emotional highlight of the evening came when a group of more than twenty students from Nashville’s McGavock High School filled the stage. They performed an original song, “Limited Time Offer,” with assistance from Vince Gill, Keith Urban, and professional songwriters Gary Burr and Georgia Middleman, who gave the students guidance in composing the tune. Their rousing performance drew one of the biggest ovations of the evening.

“This is a special night, as they always are, because it benefits the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and the special work they do,” said Urban, who co-hosted the concert with Gill. “This year, in particular, is special because all the proceeds will be going to the museum’s educational programs, which is very dear to my heart, and to Vince’s.”

Burr and Middleman had gathered with the students as part of the ongoing museum educational program, Songwriting 101: An Introduction to Words & Music. Starting in 1979, Words & Music has paired professional songwriters with Middle Tennessee students in one of many student-oriented initiatives conducted by the education department of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Urban acknowledged how the We’re All for the Hall program has become an annual pilgrimage for many country music fans. He thanked those who traveled long distances to attend the special event. One reason why people travel for the one-of-a-kind event: Gill and Urban stay onstage all night to play guitar behind the rest of the guests.

Urban took a moment early in the show to thank his co-host Gill for creating the All for the Hall initiative. “He had this idea that every artist should donate the proceeds of one night a year to the Hall of Fame,” Urban said of Gill. “From that single idea, we’re now on the sixth year of We’re All for the Hall in Nashville. I would never do this event without him. It’s the most from-the-heart thing we get to do.”

In a common theme through all of the We’re All for the Hall concerts, the performers paid tribute to their heroes, many of them members of the Country Music Hall of the Fame. Several artists chose to honor a recently deceased idol, Country Music Hall of Fame member Merle Haggard, who died of pneumonia on April 6.

Gill, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, set the tone with his opening words. “Last Wednesday morning I was on the road, and I woke up to the news that my greatest hero had passed away. The amazing thing was he passed on his birthday. So tonight, I don’t know if you know this, but it’s my birthday.”

With his voice cracking, and taking breaths between words to compose himself, Gill continued: “So on my birthday tonight, I want more than anything to honor the greatest inspiration I’ve ever had in my life. Merle Haggard.”

Wearing an old-fashioned fedora, the kind Haggard often wore but Gill never has, he led the sharp band through two Hag classics: “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” Gill pointed out his longtime colleague, award-winning pedal steel guitarist Paul Franklin (also sporting a fedora in tribute to Haggard), saying one reason he recorded his 2013 covers album, Bakersfield, was that it gave him an opportunity to show off Franklin’s talents.

Emmylou Harris, a Hall of Fame member and frequent All for the Hall participant, performed Haggard’s mournful 1985 hit “Kern River, “ citing it as her favorite Hag song. “For me, Merle Haggard has been and always will be the North Star of country music,” Harris said. “If you need to know what it’s all about, this song says it all.”

Harris also performed a tender version of Towne Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You,” which she previously recorded as a duet with Hall of Fame member Don Williams; it was a #3 country hit in 1981.

Sam Hunt, after performing his #1 country hit “House Party”—which he wrote with Zach Crowell and Urban’s longtime bassist Jerry Flowers—presented a moving, stark version of Haggard’s “The Way I Am,” revealing a traditional side of his influences not apparent in his aggressively modern style of country music. 

Most of the performers returned to the stage to tip a hat to Hag during the finale performance. Gill and Urban performed a tender stanza of the Haggard classic “Sing Me Back Home,” then the rest gathered as the hosts and the band shifted into a ragged, spirited version of Haggard’s standard “Mama Tried.”

Other cover songs popped up through the evening. Florida Georgia Line started with Alabama’s “I’m in a Hurry (and Don’t Know Why),” which got the crowd on their feet to join in the singalong chorus. It led to an ecstatically received take on the duo’s record-breaking chart hit, “Cruise.”

Grammy winner Jason Isbell, after performing his own “Traveling Alone,” took advantage of sharing a stage with guitar masters Gill and Urban. Showing off his own six-string prowess, Isbell turned Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” into a moody wonder, complete with solos by Gill, Isbell, and Urban. 

Newcomer Maren Morris presented a slowed down, funky version of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” that, sounding more like Dusty Springfield than Dolly, evoked the simmering restlessness of those locked into jobs they don’t particularly enjoy.
Morris followed with her hit, “My Church,” which brought the crowd to its feet, showing how well the song has connected with country fans.

Maddie & Tae chimed in with a hardcore country version of Lee Ann Womack’s “Never Again, Again,” echoing all the traditional aspects of the original while adding an element of their own talents with their old-school two-part harmonies. “Let’s get real, people,” Taylor Dye, or Tae, said before they started. “Vince Gill and Keith Urban are our guitarists tonight. How cool is that?”

Chris Janson, another artist enjoying his first taste of success, proved especially adept at rousing the crowd. His rowdy version of his debut hit, “Buy Me a Boat,” drew one of the loudest, most visceral responses from the crowd, who lit up the Bridgestone Arena with lighted cell phones and ecstatic cheers. Janson kept the energy high by bringing a punk-rock intensity to “I Ain’t Living Like This,” a 1980 Waylon Jennings hit written by Rodney Crowell. The high-speed arrangement gave Gill and Urban a chance to shine with crisp guitar solos. Janson extended the song by calling out to Jerry Lee Lewis and playing a harmonica solo based on the Killer’s wild piano style.

Perhaps the most surprising cover came from country veteran Tracy Lawrence, who followed his own “Find Out Who Your Friends Are” with an emotional cover of Joe Cocker’s adult-contemporary ballad “Now That the Magic Is Gone.” Just as surprising was Frampton’s choice to open his two-song set with a solo acoustic version of Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue,” a concession to early rock & roll’s influence on British rockers.

To prove that including a cover song wasn’t required, Urban kicked off the evening with two of his hits, “Long Hot Summer” and “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.” Country star Luke Bryan, in the show’s last solo performance before the group finale, lit up the crowd with two recent hits, “Strip It on Down” and “I Don’t Want This Night to End”—a sentiment the audience seemed to share. 

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Keith Urban & Vince Gill's All for the Hall through the years

All for the Hall, Urban’s brainchild, has seen a virtual who’s who of artists take to the stage to support the cause, including Jason Aldean, Eric Church, Sheryl Crow, Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town, John Mayer, Tim McGraw, Kid Rock, Darius Rucker, Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and an unprecedented list of iconic performances from Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Reba McEntire, Ronnie Milsap, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Charley Pride and Don Williams.