2010 All For The Hall Los Angeles

September 23, 2010
Taylor Swift, sitting on stage with four legendary singer-songwriters, explained why she considered herself a country music artist. She recalled a recent discussion with a band member where they gave their definition of country music: “It’s when someone writes a song about their life from an authentic place.”

The songwriters surrounding her—Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, and Lionel Richie—all nodded in agreement. For the rest of the night, over more than two hours of performances stripped to the essentials of a voice and a single instrument, all five artists performed classic hits and new songs that fit Swift’s succinct description.

Those artists, ranging in age from twenty-year-old Swift to seventy-four-year-old Kristofferson, enthralled a sold-out Club Nokia as the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum presented its second All for the Hall Los Angeles fundraising concert on Thursday night. With each artist performing four tunes, the evening came across as a vibrant, emotionally moving forum on what constitutes a powerful song. From classics like Richie’s “Three Times a Lady” and Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” which had Harris and Swift singing along, to unreleased tunes by Harris and Gill, each performance seemed both a revelation and a reminder of why music is such a unifying and universal force.

Kyle Young, director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, opened the evening with a special announcement: The museum’s next feature exhibit, opening in 2012, will focus on West Coast country music. “The exhibit will draw on our massive, one-of-a-kind archives and the mountain of material we’ve collected over the years from California sources,” Young said. “Driven by the upcoming exhibit, we will turn our attention to greatly expanding our collection of West Coast artifacts so we can fully detail the richly layered narrative of this state’s musical past and present.”

Young also explained that the concert would follow an age-old country music tradition of songwriters performing together, sitting on stools with acoustic instruments and sharing their most personal work with each other and the audience. That format offered not only intimacy, but spontaneous interplay and reactions of these gifted songwriters to each other’s work.

“I’m in the middle between Kris Kristofferson singing his lyrics and Vince Gill playing along on his beautiful guitar,” Harris said early in the evening. “It’s in stereo, and it’s fabulous.”

Swift, who drew hysterical screams from fans each time she played or spoke, added, “I feel blessed to be on stage with a group of people who are the best role models I could ask for.”

Throughout the evening, the crowd could see the respect the artists had for each other. Richie shook his head in amazement at Kristofferson’s lyrical genius in “Help Me Make It Through the Night;” Kristofferson smiled broadly as he recognized the youthful truths of Swift’s “Fifteen,” which she performed at the request of Gill; and Gill remarked on Richie’s melodic gifts as he finished “Stuck on You” on solo piano. Unexpected connections were made, too: Richie’s performance of “Easy,” with its line “I’m easy like Sunday morning,”about a man explaining to his woman why he’s leaving, led into Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” an epic tale of loneliness and dissolution from a man who long ago left everything important behind.

Similarly, Emmylou Harris’s version of “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” about an aching desire to start a lasting relationship, led to a new Gill song, “Red Words,” about the spiritual comfort of a long-established love, which Swift followed with her current hit, “Mine,” about the transformative power of new love. “It all comes down to love, doesn’t it?” Richie said. “That’s the one thing we all write about because it’s the one thing we all want and need. Love never goes out of style.” 

Richie, who is recording an album of duets with country stars in Nashville with producer Tony Brown, addressed how musical genres often interlink—and how songwriters don’t necessarily think of where a song may fit when they start writing it. “When I started writing songs, I didn’t know there were categories,” Richie said. “I just thought you go after Elvis Presley and Jackie Wilson and try to do something great like that.”

Likewise, Gill said that, in the long run, what matters is whether a song moves a listener, and not what genre it fits in. “We in Nashville believe great songs are great songs,” he told the Los Angeles crowd. “It doesn’t matter if it gets called a pop song, an R&B song, or a country song. A great song is just that: a great song.”

That was the underlying message at All for the Hall Los Angeles: Great songs know no age, no color, no genre, they cross generations and time zones and cultures, and they bloom anew each time they are performed—whether they were written decades ago or yesterday. As with love, a good song never goes out of style.

“I will never forget this night,” Swift said as she began her last song of the evening. It was yet another sentiment shared throughout the Club Nokia crowd.

-Michael McCall