When the topic of "America's music" is brought up, we usually preen about jazz or rock and roll — two of our most pervasive and influential creative inventions. But country music — a humble blend of influences including Celtic and Appalachian folk, Delta blues and soul-wrenching gospel — is also a purely American musical form. Last night's 9th Annual GRAMMY Foundation Music Preservation Project "Soul Of Country" event at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre tipped its hat in appreciation to this art by featuring a varied showcase of artists that spanned the music's rich history.
In a shining example of country's past being reinterpreted by its modern-day torch-bearers, the event opened with LeAnn Rimes' delicious rendition of Willie Nelson's "Crazy." Master of ceremonies Marty Stuart then stood alone under the lights and gave a simple, but searing exhibition on mandolin that set the tone for an evening of great storytelling and stellar musicianship. Throughout the night, Stuart's depth of knowledge about the genealogy of country music beginning with Jimmie Rogers and the Carter Family, through Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and beyond, made for a passionate history lesson and solid case for its place as an American treasure.
In addition to a vocal tour of its history, country music's visual heritage was also an important theme of the evening. Recording Academy President Neil Portnow spoke of the GRAMMY Foundation's ongoing goal to cultivate awareness and appreciation of recorded music and its link to both American and world culture. He also pointed out that in contrast to other genres of music, country music is playing catch-up in cataloging and safeguarding its vintage music and related film and television shows. Portnow then introduced to two rare film pieces that have been restored by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum with the aid of GRAMMY Foundation preservation grants.
The film clips captured two momentous nights: the last performance of the Grand Ole Opry radio show at the Ryman Auditorium — known as the "Mother Church of Country Music" — and the first show at its new home at the state-of-the-art Grand Ole Opry House at Opryland USA. The Grand Ole Opry, which debuted on WSM Radio in 1925, is the oldest continuous radio program in the country.
The Opryland clip featured a guest appearance by President Richard Nixon, who extolled the virtues of country music's soul and character, made even more poignant in retrospect, considering the year (1974), and the context of the dark mood of America, which had been mired in the seemingly endless conflict in Vietnam. Surrounded by the massive cast of the radio program, Nixon even took a buoyant turn pounding away at the piano before running off stage.
Other onscreen moments were interviews that are part of the GRAMMY Foundation's Living Histories project, a collection of oral histories with prominent music artists and industry pioneers. Highlights included songwriters Felice Bryant (who, with her husband Boudleaux, wrote "Rocky Top," "Wake Up Little Susie" and "Bye Bye Love"), Liz and Casey Anderson ("The Fugitive"), and Jerry Chestnut ("A Good Year For The Roses"). Merle Kilgore recalled the germination of the song "Ring Of Fire," which he helped pen with June Carter for her sister Anita, and its spirited version by Johnny Cash.
An interview with Cindy Walker ("Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)") was nicely complemented when Deana Carter, Brian McKnight and Kenny Loggins charmed the Wilshire Ebell audience with another one of her songs, "You Don't Know Me."
Other performances included a quiet turn between Stuart and 80-year-old country music icon Porter Wagoner (amazingly, in his first Los Angeles performance), and neotraditional singer/songwriter Joe Nichols.
Country Music Hall of Famer Charley Pride, who sang "Is Anybody Goin' To San Antone?" and "Kiss An Angel Good Morning," was introduced by actor Terrence Howard, who will portray Pride in an upcoming film.
The final two performances of the night were a study in contrast: Waylon Jennings' son Shooter and his .357s band bridged the country roots infused in his genes with crunchy electrified rock, followed by Stuart asking the audience to join him in a touching sing-along of the Carter Family classic "Will The Circle Be Unbroken." It was a perfect connection between the present and the past, and a perfect way to prove that country music — no matter what it looks like — will endure.