The 12 artists invited to play the sixth-annual All for the Hall benefit show at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena on Tuesday were asked to play an original and a cover. Translation: play an original and a Merle Haggard song.
Not everyone sang a song from Merle’s songbook, but enough Baskersfield-inspired hits were sprinkled through the nearly three-hour-long set to establish a theme. #AFTH6 was a tribute to one Country Music Hall of Famer that benefitted the entity as a whole.
Vince Gill was the first to talk about where he was when he learned Haggard had died, but others like Sam Hunt followed suit. Fellow All for the Hall organizer Keith Urban invited Gill to the stage after singing two songs of his own (“Somewhere in My Car” and “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16″). The birthday boy (Gill turned 59 on Tuesday) slowed the show down with an emotional rendition of “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” before a true-to-the-original recreation of “Fightin’ Side of Me.”
Then, the two stars stepped back and joined the house band for the rest of the night. When Gill, Urban and Paul Franklin make up half your “house band,” you know you’re in good company. Emmylou Harris continued the Haggard tribute with “Kern River” before her own “If I Needed You” with Gill singing Don Williams’ part.
Chris Janson brought the crowd to its feet for the first time with “Buy Me a Boat” and a cover of Waylon Jennings' “I Ain’t Living Long Like This.” Both included blistering harmonica solos and a reminder of why the newcomer is one of the most entertaining frontmen in the business. His pasta-thin legs seem at times to be tied to his lips, and his lips never stop moving. Kicks and jerks and thrusts are his signature. Is it any surprise he brought a can of Mountain Dew onstage with him?
Tracy Lawrence chose a Joe Cocker cover, while Maren Morris slowed down Dolly Parton's “9 to 5″ before singing “My Church.” The Texan was adorably nervous playing in front of the sold-out Bridgestone crowd. Earlier in the night Maddie & Tae admitted to being overwhelmed by the moment, too, singing a Lee Ann Womack cover and their own “Girl in a Country Song.” Everyone invited felt honored to be giving back for the evening.
Sam Hunt followed Jason Isbell, quieting critics of his style with a sincere cover of “The Way I Am.” Peter Frampton — the night’s most surprising guest — was next with a Buddy Holly cover and his own “Do You Feel?” Florida Georgia Line then brought the audience to its feet once again singing Alabama's “I’m in a Hurry” and their own “Cruise.” The duo received the rowdiest welcome by far, which was appropriate, as the night was reaching its zenith.
Luke Bryan stood facing Gill and Urban to sing his extended set. Haggard’s “Big City” was squeezed between two Bryan originals. After a message about how nearly $750,000 was raised for the CMHoF’s music education programs this year (a record total that pushes the six-year tally to over $3.5 million), nearly everyone returned to the stage to sing Haggard’s “Mama Tried.” Images of the late country legend flashed on the screen as the group sang and fans filed to the exits. Urban, Gill and AFTH organizers likely had to perform an about face after Haggard died on April 6, but they did so in a manner that was seamless, honest and appropriate.
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