All For The Hall Los Angeles 2011
September 13, 2011
Zac Brown looked across at the two Country Music Hall of Famers and two veteran rock stars who shared the Club Nokia stage with him as part of the All for the Hall Los Angeles fundraising concert. He then modestly suggested that he didn’t belong in such esteemed company.
More than two hours later, however, Brown’s powerful performances proved him wrong, as his songs fit nicely alongside those of Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon, Sheryl Crow, Vince Gill, and Emmylou Harris. When Brown finished a solo acoustic version of his song “Free,” in which he broke into Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic ” in the middle of the song, the other four stars smiled and applauded.
“Zac, you’re the man,” screamed a fan from the balcony. Harris, from three stools away, looked at Brown admiringly and simply stated a reverent, “Thank you.” Cronin, who was next in line as the five singer-songwriters took turns performing songs with just acoustic guitar accompaniment, added, ” I remember buying Zac’s first record and thinking, ‘Here’s a young man playing songs that Vince, Sheryl, and I can relate to, because it’s similar chord structure and similar storytelling.’ But then, man, you take the songs, and you just take it to a whole new level.”
Brown, his quiet humility showing, stammered a bit and said, “Me, being kind of the new guy, it’s just an honor being up here with all you people.”
That exchange typifies what makes the annual All for the Hall concerts such one-of-a-kind experiences. The five songwriters come from different generations, different genres, and different backgrounds from across the United States. Yet this intimate concert-done as a Nashville-style guitar pull, with all the performers lined up across the stage at once, playing a song at a time, then moving to the next-also demonstrated a spirit of creative unity. Most of the time they joined in with each other, singing harmony, or adding their guitars. Gill, in particular, offered lead guitar licks to nearly every performance.
The All for the Hall concerts don’t feature a set list, and the performers often decide what to do on the spur of the moment, depending on what others have just performed, or to fit the mood they’re in when their turn comes around. “You’ll hear some great songs, possibly some new songs, because we don’t really know which songs they’ll do, but then neither do the songwriters,” explained Kyle Young, director of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, in his opening remarks.
That foreshadowing proved true when Zac Brown told a story about growing up hiding behind his guitar, which became his constant companion. After Brown performed “Martin,” about his favorite instrument, each of the others told stories about their guitars and chose appropriate songs.
Cronin told of getting beat up by young hooligans simply for walking down the street carrying a guitar case, until the Beatles came along. “Then the same guys who beat me up wanted to form a band with me,” he said with a laugh. He played “Music Man,” a song he wrote after being roughed up, about how he wouldn’t let others dissuade him from his devotion to becoming a singer and songwriter. The song appeared on REO’s second album, the band’s first featuring Cronin as lead singer.
Harris told of the early Gibson guitars she owned, including the one in her hands at that moment, which was the same guitar she took to California when she first went out there in the early 1970s at the invitation of Gram Parsons.
The guitar got kicked in during transport, but Harris later had it repaired, although it still shows signs of the damage nearly forty years later. She then performed “The Road,” an autobiographical song she wrote about Parsons that opens Harris’s most recent album, 2011’s Hard Bargain. (Harris and Crow earlier had performed Parsons’s “Juanita,” a song the two recorded as a duet on the album Return of the Grievous Angel: A Tribute to Gram Parsons.)
Gill explained how, from an early age, he invested in guitars rather than buying homes or fancy cars. He revealed that he lost fifty guitars, sixty guitar cases, and thirty amplifiers in the May 2010 floods in Nashville, then he performed “This Old Guitar and Me,” from his 2003 album Next Big Thing.
Crow continued the theme of broken or ruined guitars, relating how thieves broke into a rehearsal space in Missouri right before she and her band left for their first national tour in 1993 as opening act for the BoDeans. The vandals took all the electric guitars and keyboards, but left her acoustic Gibson on the floor, its headstock broken. She too had it repaired and still owns it. She then played her 1996 hit, “If It Makes You Happy,” which she said she wrote on the repaired guitar.
The concert opened with Gill performing “Bartender’s Blues,” a George Jones hit, written by James Taylor, which Gill dedicated to Jones, who turned eighty years old the previous day. Setting a tone for the show, all four other writers joined in on harmony on the choruses.
Diversity has become a hallmark of the All for the Hall concerts, which have always mixed generations and genres, showing the connection between country music and other popular music styles, while also making the point that, when stripped to bare essentials, a good song is universally powerful no matter what label is put on it.
Cronin underlined that fact in his spoken comments. Initially invited to perform one song as a guest of the evening, he joined the guitar pull lineup instead. Cronin recognized, though, that his appearance might surprise some people. “When I got wind of the fact that I was being considered to be invited to this event, I was thinking to myself, ‘The Country Music Hall of Fame and iconic figures like Emmylou and Vince, and of course Sheryl who I’m a huge fan of,’ so I thought, ‘These guys must think I’m the singer from Diamond Rio. What the hell am I doing here?’”
But Cronin, when starting out in the 1960s, came to Nashville to write songs before joining REO Speedwagon. The Illinois-based band recorded their second album, R.E.O. / T.W.O., in 1972 at Columbia Records’ studio on Music Row. He performed one of the band’s biggest hits, “Keep on Loving You,” as well as lesser-known album cuts, such as “In My Dreams,” one of the favorite songs of his wife, who was in the audience.
Museum director Young used the occasion to speak of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s current expansion plans, which will take the museum to 350,000 square feet from its current 138,000 square feet. He explained how the expansion would add exhibit and archival space, a new 800-seat theater, new education classrooms and facilities, and much more, and he encouraged attendees to participate in the museum’s ongoing “Working on a Building” fundraising campaign to finance the new construction.
Young also commented on the museum’s plans to open a special exhibit, spotlighting California’s contribution to country music, in March 2012. The exhibit, “The Bakersfield Sound: Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and California Country,” was first announced publicly at the 2010 All for the Hall Los Angeles concert. Young expounded on how the plans have taken shape since that announcement.
Gibson Guitars also made a special announcement at this year’s concert. The instrument manufacturing company has created a replica of a famous guitar, the Gibson J 200, played by the late California country musician Ray Whitley. Gibson has created a new replica of the special guitar and will donate proceeds from its sale to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s “Working on a Building” capital campaign.
Fittingly, the concert ended with the five artists performing the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower,” a tune revered among guitarists because of Mother Maybelle Carter’s famous part in the song-played on a Gibson guitar, as it turns out.
“Bartender’s Blues,” Vince Gill
“Every Day Is a Winding Road,” Sheryl Crow
“Colder Weather,” Zac Brown
“Keep On Loving You,” Kevin Cronin
“Juanita,” Emmylou Harris and Sheryl Crow
“If I Die,” Vince Gill
“Redemption Day,” Sheryl Crow
“Martin,” Zac Brown
“Music Man,” Kevin Cronin
“The Road,” Emmylou Harris
“This Old Guitar and Me,” Vince Gill
“If It Makes You Happy,” Sheryl Crow
“Free,” Zac Brown
“In My Dreams,” Kevin Cronin
“Darlin’ Kate,” Emmylou Harris
“Wildwood Flower,” all