Live review: Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum benefit at Club Nokia
Emmylou Harris, Dwight Yoakam and other singer-songwriters nimbly display music's varied forms in a casual fundraiser for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Great as he was, the late singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt was wrong when he said that there are only two kinds of music, "the blues and zip-a-dee-doo-dah." Emmylou Harris quoted that line Thursday at Club Nokia, and the singer-songwriters gathered around her nodded agreement. Yet their own songs and others they offered during this show to benefit Nashville's worthy Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum demonstrated the limits of Van Zandt's assessment.
Any visitor to the museum realizes that music also can take the form of a joke, a nursery rhyme, a prayer, a come-on or a campfire tale. In an evening that began as a history lesson (including a brief talk by the museum's director, Kyle Young) and expanded to include a few song debuts, a duet or two and plenty of barbs about Dwight Yoakam's tight jeans, Harris, Yoakam, Melissa Etheridge and Vince Gill touched upon all those forms, showing the flexibility of "country" as they did so.
They started, fittingly, with something by Gram Parsons, a Southern-born artist whose California-based career typified how country has progressed by applying its torch and twang to many styles and sources. Gill sang "Sin City," a traditional lament infused with the energy of 1960s rock. Harris, Parson's artistic foil during his short life, sang her famous harmonies.
The evening was structured as a "guitar pull," or songwriter's roundtable, and the foursome told stories and playfully interrupted each other between songs.
Yoakam showed evidence of a sore throat but hit his stride with his murder ballad "Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room (She Wore Red Dresses)," which he said was inspired by Parsons and Van Zandt. Harris sang a lovely version of Van Zandt's "If I Needed You" and proved equally effective representing country's domestic streak with songs about her children and her dog, Bella.
Gill impressed with "Bread and Water," a sobering tale about his brother, who suffered a head injury as a youth and died at 48 after years of struggle, and a new composition co-written by his wife, Amy Grant, that played upon the sarcastic yet inspirational phrase "threaten me with heaven." His own demeanor was goofier than his songs, which made him a good moderator for this casually structured program.
Etheridge also offered a new song, "Company," and covered two by Kris Kristofferson -- "Me and Bobby McGee" and "Help Me Make It Through the Night." She spent more time justifying her presence than she needed to; though her career hasn't focused on Nashville, her songs weren't that different in spirit than Gill's.
The evening had a leisurely pace, with only Yoakam standing up and rocking out a little. That move came near the evening's end: The mandate was clearly to present a "once in a lifetime" event, which in music-industry circles usually means lots of candid chat and pensive performances from big stars.
Chris Isaak, who'd appeared earlier in the nominal role of host, returned late and added some comical pep. Other guests included Kara DioGuardi, who seemed nervous while performing her composition "Lost," which Faith Hill has recorded, and Michael McDonald, who acknowledged the link between country and soul by performing "You Don't Know Me," a classic recorded by both Eddy Arnold and Ray Charles.
That song was co-written by Cindy Walker, one of Nashville's preeminent songsmiths, who bequeathed the writer's share of her royalties to the hall of fame upon her death in 2006. A brief "soundie" film featuring Walker opened the show; in it she sang "Seven Beers With the Wrong Man," a ditty that's theatrical, heartfelt, mostly ridiculous and secretly sorrowful.
It stood as a fine touchstone to what the night's contemporary songwriters do. Call it country, but it really isn't any one thing.
Pictured, from top: Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill and Melissa Etheridge and Chris Issak by Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times