Taylor Swift joins Kris Kristofferson, Vince Gill, Lionel Richie and Emmylou Harris at Country Hall of Fame benefit
After selling more than 10 million albums in the last four years, the last thing Taylor Swift needs is a raise. But Thursday night, the young country-pop hitmaker got a major promotion in her status as a singer and songwriter.
There she sat onstage at Club Nokia for the annual All for the Hall concert benefiting Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, accorded an equal place alongside such esteemed country music figures as Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris and Vince Gill, as well as the event’s special guest, '70s and '80s pop-R&B kingpin Lionel Richie.
“These are the best role models I could have,” Swift, 20, told the crowd of about 2,000 who had paid up to $1,000 a seat to witness this year’s “guitar pull,” for which each musician took a turn introducing and playing a song. They casually related stories behind each song and occasionally enlisted a bit of instrumental or vocal support from the other participants.
Previous editions of the fundraiser have emphasized veterans such as Harris, Gill, Kristofferson, Dwight Yoakam and others. The addition of Swift to this year’s show translated into a large, vocal contingent of teen and preteen girls, who erupted in a chorus of squeals when master of ceremonies Gill brought her on stage.
As the shrieking subsided, Gill quipped: “Thank you, thank you! I get that a lot.”
That set the tone for an intimate living room-like atmosphere, which is the way these events began decades ago, by most accounts in the living room of Johnny and June Carter Cash.
The idea was for songwriters to try successively to top one another creatively as an evening wore on. On Thursday, the mood was less competitive than one of mutual admiration, as 74-year-old Kristofferson and 61-year-old Richie grinned broadly while Swift delivered solo acoustic versions of her latest single “Mine” and one of her biggest hits, “Love Story.”
The country elders often took on the role of good-humored sages. At one point, Swift explained how she was inspired to rewrite Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” with a happy ending after her parents disapproved of a boy she wanted to date. “I identified with everything about it — except the part where they die,” she said. Gill, who never missed a beat with a punchline during the two-hour performance, turned his head to the right and told her “That’s when it’s country!”
The life experience that Kristofferson, Harris, Gill and Richie brought made for a fascinating juxtaposition with Swift’s songs of starry-eyed love. Harris, 63, sang a new song from a forthcoming album that she said was inspired by the work of Father Charles Strobel, a Nashville priest who works with the homeless. That segued to Gill offering up a new song of his own, one he said grew out of watching his older brother struggle to find his place in the world, but without complaining about whatever hurdles he encountered.
Kristofferson set the bar high at the outset, starting the show with “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” which included a spontaneous aside that may have been directed to the kids in the house. After singing the line, “I don’t care what’s right or wrong,” he quickly added “Yes I do.” And at the end, as if in recognition of his cohorts' technically superior voices, he altered the final line and sang “Help me make it through tonight.”
Harris and Gill engaged in the only real duet of the night, a version of the Louvin Brothers’ “If I Could Only Win Your Love,” which gave Harris her first Top 10 country hit in 1975. Swift mostly just watched with rapt attention while the others sang, but when Kristofferson launched into “Me and Bobby McGee” late in the proceedings, she quietly started strumming her guitar along with Gill and even timidly sang along on a few of its familiar lyrics.
Richie spoke of growing up with no knowledge of divisions between musical genres. “By having no concept of categories, I slipped through and now they talk about ‘a body of work.’” He turned the guitar pull into a piano pull, accompanying himself at the keyboard as he sang “Three Times a Lady,” “Hello” and “Stuck on You,” songs that were pop hits long before Swift was born. Kristofferson told stories about some of his adventures in music that took place before Swift’s parents were born.
The cross-genre, cross-generational aspects of the event was what Hall of Fame and Museum director Kyle Young said was most rewarding to him.
“We made money tonight, there’s no mistake,” he said after the music ended, which would help, given about $2 million worth of damage the facility experienced from the recent floods in Nashville. “But this is exactly the kind of thing that makes this so special: Who but country music would be crazy enough to bring Kris Kristofferson and Taylor Swift and Lionel Richie together? But in country music, the only thing that matters is the song.”
-- Randy Lewis
Photo; From left, Lionel Richie, Taylor Swift, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris and Kris Kristofferson at the All for the Hall benefit for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum at Club Nokia. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times