Review: Stars swap songs in L.A. at Country Hall of Fame benefit

Education is a key mission at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. 

That made the 11th edition of the organization’s annual All for the Hall benefit concert and fundraiser an ideal companion piece. Emcee and 20-time Grammy Award winner Vince Gill and guest participants James Taylor, Joe Walsh, Kacey Musgraves and Chris Stapleton offered a potent and illuminating master class on the transformative combination of words set to music for their audience at the Novo theater in L.A.

In a dressing room backstage before the concert, Walsh, Gill and Taylor spoke of the vital avenue of self-expression music can offer. 

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“If you ask each one of us how important music was when we were kids, it was everything,” said Gill, who also serves as president of the hall’s board of trustees.

“Probably even more so because we were creative-minded people, we were going to take to this way more than math and science. It’s been proven that to stimulate your brain and make it work appropriately, you need to engage the creative side of your brain. Economics, unfortunately, dictates that out of schools pretty quickly — it’s the first thing to go.”

Added Eagles lead guitarist and songwriter Walsh, “Kids who are musical, if they can find an instrument that they can express themselves with, that’s all they do. Young guitar players practice for hours, and they used to play video games. And it’s analog, it’s not digital. There’s no music in the schools, so they text. They Facebook. But you give a musical kid an ax [instrument] and you fix that.” 

The assemblage of singers and songwriters then took turns performing, doing so in the style of Nashville “guitar pull” nights. It’s a tradition closely associated with Johnny Cash and June Carter, who for years famously hosted such round-robin sessions at their home. 

Gill opened with a song he’d written recently, saying the  guitar-pull tradition usually involved musicians sharing what they were working on rather than their greatest hits. His was a salute to one of his musical heroes, Merle Haggard, a touching tribute in which he sang of feeling “all alone in a world without Merle Haggard/It’s a world I thought I’d never see....If I could have one last song/It’s Merle I would choose.” 

Each artist shared stories about what inspired them to write certain songs, or bits of their struggle before finding success. Taylor topped them all, introducing “Something in the Way She Moves,” the song he used for his audition when he became the first outside artist signed to the Beatles’ Apple Records in 1968. 

“I sang it for Paul McCartney and George Harrison,” the 68-year-old musician said to incredulous looks from those around him onstage. “I was rather nervous. I don’t know how I got through — I really don’t.”

Musgraves brought some welcome levity and dazzling wordplay with her opening number, “Family Is Family,” from the 28-year-old Texas firebrand’s sophomore album, “Pageant Material.” 

Seated center stage, next to 38-year-old Stapleton and three veterans more than twice her age, she easily held her own with sharply defined songs that have injected much needed fresh expression and spirit into mainstream country music since her 2013 debut, “Same Trailer Different Park.” 

Stapleton added the deep blues-R&B streak that has helped him find a broad audience since the release last year of his debut solo album, “Traveller.” He sang “Whiskey and You,” and one of the songs he wrote in and about Los Angeles, with co-writer Dan Wilson, “When the Stars Come Out,” showcasing his soulful side.

“I closed my eyes for a minute and thought it was Al Green,” Walsh said after Stapleton’s first offering.

Walsh relied not on high-energy Eagles hits such as “Life in the Fast Lane” or even his pre-Eagles signature number “Rocky Mountain Way.” Instead, he offered more introspective material in keeping with the generally melancholy mood that prevailed Tuesday. 

At the end, however, he exchanged the acoustic guitar he’d been playing for an electric Fender Stratocaster to reel off some bluesy licks behind Taylor during his reading of the jokey “Steamroller Blues,” which Taylor described as “a song that takes longer to play than it did to write.”  

Before the evening’s stars came onstage, the crowd took in a performance by about 40 sixth graders from Dorris Place Elementary School near Cypress Park, beneficiaries of the hall’s Words & Music educational outreach program, for which Tuesday’s event and another benefit earlier this year in Nashville have generated $900,000, according to a museum spokeswoman.

They spent time recently working with Nashville songwriting pros Liz Rose and Phil Barton to explore their own creative potential, culminating in their collective performance of a song, “Far and Wide,” that they composed under the pair’s tutelage.

Happily strumming along on ukuleles provided them for the event, the students sang that “Life is a wild, wild ride” and “Hey, it’s good to be alive.”                 

randy.lewis@latimes.com

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An earlier edition of this post identified a song James Taylor used to audition for the Beatles' Apple Records label in 1968 at "Today, Today, Today," a song he included from his latest album. The song he played for two of the Beatles was "Something in the Way She Moves."

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