All For The Hall Los Angeles 2014

March 4, 2014

An all-star lineup that catapulted across generations and genres entertained an attentive and packed Club Nokia audience with stunning vocals and searingly emotional songs during a stylish All for the Hall fundraising concert for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on March 4. Each artist focused on intimate acoustic performances that highlighted their voices and the power of well-crafted lyrics while spinning personal stories that swung from heartfelt to amusing.

"This is such a big thrill for us," said Ann Wilson of Heart, who was joined by her sister Nancy on acoustic guitar and harmonies and by Heart's bassist, Dan Rothchild. "To come up here and sing with these incredible folks, I'm just a little breathless because of it." The singer cited Vince Gill, the evening's ringleader and a friend the Wilsons met more than thirty years earlier, when Gill was lead singer in Pure Prairie League, and the two bands performed shows together. Ann also mentioned their excitement to share the stage with Emmylou Harris, who, like Gill, is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Filling out the main lineup of stars seated on stools across the stage was relatively younger artist Jason Mraz, who received praise from the veterans at his side after each of his performances.  The evening also included three guest performers-newcomer Cam Ochs, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Holly Williams and actress and singer-songwriter Rita Wilson, who hosted the event.

When Gill introduced Heart, he noted that they were members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ann Wilson replied that both the rock and country halls of fame were interlinked, saying there wouldn't be a rock hall of fame were it not for country music, the blues and other early forms of American popular music. 'It's all tied together, really," she said.

Mraz, for his part, said he jumped at the invitation to perform, mainly so he could sit next to the legends beside him-and listen and learn.

The concert was modeled on the Nashville institution of a "guitar pull," a casual set-up in which performers take turns presenting songs while the other artists look on or add harmony and instrumentation. The format allows for relaxed interaction between performers, and the All for the Hall participants freely spoke from the heart about their inspirations and about what moves them about country music and good songwriting. It created a cozy, friendly atmosphere between the performers and audience members-and between the artists themselves, some of whom were meeting for the first time.

The concert didn't feature a set list. The performers decided what to sing on the spur of the moment, inspired by what someone else had just played or by the mood they were in when their turn came. More than once, an artist took a moment to reflect on what they wanted to play before striking the first note.

"Thank you for joining us for a night that we know will be full of fun, fellowship and music," said Kyle Young, director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. He went on to explain the long history of the Nashville guitar pull tradition, including famous ones held in the living room of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. "The guitar is passed from one songwriter to the next, there's no set list and there are no restrictions," Young said. "The hallmarks of a good guitar pull are spontaneity, camaraderie and high spirits. That's a long-winded way of saying we don't have a clue what's going to happen tonight."

The proceeds of the concert, Young continued, go to carrying on the preservation of the museum's unduplicated collection, "considered the finest of its kind in the world." The All for the Hall concert series began in New York in 2007 and repeated there in 2008. The series moved to Los Angeles for three successful years before returning to New York in 2013. The 2014 concert marked the return to the West Coast-at a time when the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum features an exhibit titled The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and California Country.  "We are delighted to be back," Young said.

Del Bryant, outgoing president and CEO of BMI, spoke of the importance of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Noting that his parents, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, are Hall of Fame members, Bryant said, "People love country music because they feel like they are a part of the country music story. The Country Music Hall of Fame does an outstanding job of reminding hundreds of thousands of people each year of the music's enduring legacy."

The All for the Hall concert series, an idea originated by Vince Gill, has become such an institution that it has started to attract volunteer performers based on the strength of past shows. Rita Wilson, in her opening comments as host, spoke of attending a 2011 All for the Hall Los Angeles concert as a guest of Sheryl Crow, one of the performers that night. "It was such an inspiring night, it was so incredible," Wilson recalled. "It's like being in someone's living room and hearing the incredible process of how songs are written and getting to hear them in the most intimate of settings. "

Gill and Harris guided the proceedings, with Gill introducing each performer. He started the show with a rendition of the fifty-year-old Buck Owens hit "Together Again," with Harris joining on harmony. "It's a testament to what a great song is supposed to do-it's supposed to be timeless and last forever," Gill said, mentioning the museum's Bakersfield Sound exhibit. "I believe the West Coast sound was one of the greatest eras in country music."

Harris followed with a song inspired by Nashville homeless advocate Charles Strobel-"Home Sweet Home," from her 2011 album, Hard Bargain. That led into Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart opening with their early classic, "Dog & Butterfly," about Ann watching her pet (now long deceased) chase butterflies in the front yard. Sensing an emerging tone and theme, Mraz performed "Frank D. Fixer," a song about his deceased grandfather, known for his ability to repair machinery, and the lessons Mraz learned from him.

Each performer took three turns, with the surprise guests coming on at the end of each round, to perform one song and then leave the stage. Rita Wilson was the first guest to come out. Her yet-to-be-recorded "You're Still Gone," co-written with Nashville songwriters Jessi Alexander and Jon Randall Stewart, was inspired by the death of her father and two friends. Wilson mentioned that she has been writing regularly in Nashville, saying she had fallen in love with the city-so much so that her husband, award-winning actor Tom Hanks, asks her, each time she returns home, if she has bought a house there yet.

"Nashville is this amazing town, with this great songwriting community, and it also has this incredible museum," Wilson said, noting that she particularly loves the museum's extensive collection of stage wear designed by Nudie the Rodeo Tailor, whose former shop in Los Angeles Wilson visited as a youngster. "I hope if you do plan a trip, go there and see the museum."

Gill, for his selections, included another Bakersfield song, Merle Haggard's "I Can't Be Myself" and his own "Whenever You Come Around," about meeting his wife, Amy Grant, written long before they married. He closed the show with James Taylor's "Bartender's Blues," a country hit for George Jones, dedicating it to Jones and Ray Price, two members of the Country Music Hall of Fame who died in the past year.

Harris performed "Orphan Girl," a Gillian Welch song she has recorded, enlisting help from Ann and Nancy Wilson, who chimed in with breathtakingly beautiful harmonies. Her final song was "Tears in Heaven," the Eric Clapton ballad written by Will Jennings and recorded shortly after the tragic death of Clapton's infant child. Harris, with help from Gill, recently performed the hit at a tribute to music publisher Lance Freed in New York and at a songwriters' banquet in Nashville.

Heart also performed a cover, "Through the Morning, Through the Night," a Gene Clark song originally recorded by the duo Dillard & Clark-another tie to California country music-and later revived by, among others, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss on their album, Raising Sand. Gill joined in on harmonies, to lovely effect. Their third song was "Sand," about Ann's longtime gardener, who had died of AIDS and asked that his ashes be spread in her garden.

Mraz, after the lesser-known song about his grandfather, followed with two hits, "I Won't Give Up" and "I'm Yours," the latter of which got the audience on their feet, clapping and singing along.

Gill took special care to validate each special guest. He cited Rita Wilson's dedication to songwriting and her engaging personality, saying she was the kind of person everyone instantly likes. With Williams, he called her country music royalty, as the granddaughter of Hank Williams and the daughter of Hank Williams Jr., adding, "She is one of my favorite singers and songwriters around these days." Williams performed "Waiting on June," about the life and death of her maternal grandparents, Warren and June White.

Gill also explained that Cam Ochs was a last-minute addition, after Harris recommended her upon seeing her perform at a private function the previous evening. A native of Southern California who grew up working on a horse ranch, Ochs performed "Burning House," drawing noticeable support from first-time-listeners Gill and the Wilson sisters as she sang. "That was beautiful," Gill said as Ochs smiled and left the stage. "That's some good singing, kid."

Humor countered the heavy themes of the songs, with Harris recalling seeing Gill, in his early California days, at a bowling alley in nearby Woodlake. During the show, she said, a man with a shaved head in a colorful jump suit danced wildly and, mid-show, opened a big bag to pull out a cantaloupe and commenced eating it in front of the stage. "This is just to say we've paid our dues," Harris said.

But all the performers also praised the power of darker songs and their healing effects. "I love singing sad songs," said Ann Wilson. "I guess if you sing too many in a row, the audience starts going, 'Ahhhhh,'" she said, throwing her arms up and making a face of mock horror. Harris countered, saying, "We can't get enough sad songs," to which Wilson said, "You can't beat a good ol' dying song," before introducing one of her own.

At night's end, the audience showed their appreciation for two hours of mostly stark, sensitive balladry by giving all the performers a standing ovation, calling them back on stage for a bow.

The All for the Hall Los Angeles event showed once again how intertwined country music is with other forms of popular music-and that a powerful song, performed well, heeds no boundaries. Exposing and exploring those connections, and the power of American music across the generations, is part of the mission of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and a story it tells every day in its exhibits and educational programs.

Made possible by AEG Live and Club Nokia