Chris Stapleton & Kacey Musgraves Join Vets James Taylor, Joe Walsh & Vince Gill for Country-Rock Summit in L.A.

Mike Windle/Getty Images for Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Chris Stapleton and Kacey Musgraves perform during All For The Hall Los Angeles A benefit concert presented by The Country Music Hall of Fame And Museum at The Novo by Microsoft on Sept. 27, 2016 in Los Angeles. 

At an annual Country Hall of Fame benefit, Gill pairs the young Nashvillians most likely to join him in that institution someday with a couple of Rock Hall of Famers.

There’s no ecumenical service quite like the “guitar pulls” Vince Gill presents every September in L.A. on behalf of the Country Music Hall of Fame, where the pickers taking the other four stools usually represent a cross-section of the most estimable young stars from his own genre and some not-as-young classic rockers. Tuesday night’s bill at the Novo may be hard for Gill to top in future years, having brought together the crown prince and princess of Nashville cool, Chris Stapleton and Kacey Musgraves, with kingly veterans James Taylor and Joe Walsh.

Taylor and Walsh, of course, belong to that other hall of fame -- the one in Walsh's former hometown of Cleveland -- whereas it's not too big a stretch to imagine Musgraves and Stapleton as the current country comers most likely to join Gill in Nashville's hall someday, even if, at the slow pace of induction, that might be 30 or 40 years away.

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Much “I’m not worthy”-ness ensued on stage at this L.A. summit. “If none of you ever hear from me again,” Musgraves said, having to follow Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend” in the lineup, “it’s because I’ve just jumped off a cliff back there and resigned from music.” The cross-generational gush sometimes flowed the other way. “How do I follow that? I’m doomed,” said Walsh, after hearing Stapleton sing his first song of the night, the unreleased “I Was Wrong.” “I had my eyes closed for some of that, and I was thinking, 'Wait a minute, that’s Al Green.'”

Backstage, Taylor told Billboard that the guitar pull format, so familiar in Nashville circles, was very nearly a new one on him. “It’s an interesting form,” he said. “I can’t say I… Well, I did something like it once with John Denver and Harry Chapin in Cleveland, I think, where we went around and just traded off songs. It’s a great way to do it.” Gill said he tries to tailor the lineups and formats of the Hall of Fame benefits he hosts to their respective cities, having invited Paul Simon to participate in one last fall in New York. “I want to invite my heroes to come and share this experience,” said Gill, “and there’s a connection I have to Los Angeles, because I moved out here as a 19-year-old kid and the first place I played here was the Troubadour. James has a history with the Troubadour, and of course Joe has lived out here for a long, long time. But it’s just down to I want to invite people I absolutely adore.”

Gill was also keeping in mind three recently deceased subjects of his adoration. The two-hour set opened with Gill singing his obviously fresh, as-yet-unrecorded “A World Without Haggard.” Later, he asked Taylor to sing “You’ve Got a Friend” -- as if that probably wouldn’t have happened anyway -- in honor of his golfing buddy Arnold Palmer, who’d died two days prior, since he fondly recalled singing that number himself when Palmer received the congressional medal of honor. And for his final song of the evening, Gill chose to honor the late Guy Clark with “an old song of ours that nobody knows,” “Sight for Sore Eyes.” The very first time he played the Troubadour at 19, Gill told the crowd, “We opened for Guy Clark -- there he was in the flesh at this same club, and that’s where I made a friend that lasted for over 40 years.” The song’s refrain, which includes the line “Let the healing begin,” took on an elegiac and eulogistic tone, in the wake of all this intermittent memorializing of departed heroes.

But there was lots of saluting the living to be done. Even shy Stapleton found words to put to some of his awe. “People who know me know I’m not much of a talker, and I’m not trying to blow smoke or anything,” said the unexpectedly platinum star, turning to Walsh. “Listen, when you guys [the Eagles] were on the Hell Freezes Over tour, I saved up all my money and I bought me and my brothers two tickets for the Charleston, West Virginia, show, and to this day, that’s the greatest show I’ve ever been to in my life. Sorry, I’m not trying to be all weird.”

Musgraves provided the inadvertent comic highlight of the night, when she was having trouble with her guitar, and two of the others came over to assist, initially in vain. “So, guys,” she said, sounding embarrassed, “TBT to that time James Taylor and Chris Stapleton both couldn’t get my strap…” She hesitated, seeming to recognize she was about to conjoin the wrong words. “…on.”

Ohhh, easy, steady!” said Gill, recognizing someone who’s working blue when he hears it. “Steady, steady, steady there, child!”

“Could we get some tequila up here?” asked a flustered Musgraves. A shot glass soon joined the water bottles.

True to his stated reticence to speak at length, Stapleton talked less about the origins of his songs than the other four, but all five had interesting stories to relay about some of their best-loved songs. Some of the most memorable songs and anecdotes from the evening:

Taylor, “Something in the Way She Moves”: “I played it in a room in London in 1968 for Paul McCartney and George Harrison. I was as nervous as a Chihuahua on methamphetamines. I don’t remember how I got through it. It was like meeting God… But somehow I got through the tune and they seemed to like it and signed me to Apple Records... It was walking through a door and my life was on the other side of it. If you look up ‘big break into show business’ in the dictionary, that’s what you get.” (Harrison also got a memorable borrowed line out of it.)

Stapleton, “Where Rainbows Never Die”: “I was in a bluegrass band called the Steeldrivers, and this song got nominated for a Grammy, and Dave Grohl was reading the nominees on television. He was like, ‘Person you know, person you know, person you know, person you know, and… the Steeldrivers.’ And he stops and looks up at the camera and says, ‘And remember, it’s an honor just to be nominated.’ … And it was.”

Musgraves, “Merry Go Round”: “It actually started out from something funny [co-writer] Shane [McAnally]’s mom said… She’s an amazing character, chain-smoking, peeking out the blinds, looking at her neighbors’ house. There were always way too many cars parked out there. They don’t have that many cars and they probably don’t have that many friends, so she was peeking out the blinds and was like, ‘I don’t know what they’re selling, but it’s either Mary Kay or Mary Jane.’ … It was going to be kind of a funny [song], and naturally, I was like, ‘No, this could be way more depressing.’ … I fought for this really hard to be my first single. Of course I was told this is too downtrodden for a female country artist to sing. And I said, I don’t give a shit. I’d rather go down in flames and say what I really want to say. If it connects with five people, that’s great. I’d rather do that than sing something that hits a million and doesn’t hit me.”

Taylor, “You Can Close Your Eyes”: Gill called this “one of the best damn songs in American history.” Taylor recalled it as about the only good thing to come out of making the movie Two-Lane Blacktop, in his opinion. “I made a movie -- one movie. I never saw it. I couldn’t afford to. I didn’t think my sort of image of myself would survive my watching my fatal attempt at acting, so I boycotted the movie. I still haven’t seen it, and I think that’s best. It was a bad experience. You know, it wasn’t entirely bad: we survived—most of us—the experience. But I wrote this song during that five-week period we shot the movie, driving across the country. And I wrote it for my girlfriend at the time. Joni Mitchell and I were together for that year -- an amazing year.”

Gill, “Whenever You Close Your Eyes”: “Here’s a song about my girlfriend, not quite that good... I’m married to Amy Grant. I met her 23, 24 years ago. I was just completely taken with her smile. We were doing a TV show together and she walked in and smiled at me, and I haven’t been the same since… Went home and got together with a buddy working on songs and he said, ‘What do you want to write about today?’ And I said ‘Man, I want to write a song about Amy Grant’s smile.’ He said, ‘Do you even know her?’… So we went on to write this song about Amy’s smile, and covered that pretty early in the song, and then we kind of had to make the rest of it up, because I didn’t know her very good. The real beauty of the story of this song is, a short time after that, we had the occasion to write some songs together, and she asked me to play her something I was working on for my new record, so I played her this song I had written about her and didn’t tell her. Years and years and years later, she said, ‘I remember listening to that song for the first time, and all I could think of was, ‘Who’s the lucky girl that that song was written for?’”

Walsh, “Meadows”: Yes, it really is from the point of view of a stone fence. “I was driving by myself on a country road in Massachusetts and saw a beautiful pasture with fog starting to lift, and there was this stone wall, and part of it had collapsed -- it was, I don’t know, at least 100 or 200 years old. And I thought about all the work it took to build that. And it really doesn’t do much -- it’s just there. I thought, there’s a song in that!”

Taylor, “Steamroller Blues”: Walsh joined him to play an electric guitar part on an old favorite that was preceded by the most profuse apology of all time. “A couple of times, Joe and I have played this song together. This is a song that takes longer to play than it took to write. You never know what people are going to want to hear, and this one gets a lot of play. I can’t explain it. It’s a blues, but it’s a blues that shouldn’t be sung. Really. At the time, when I was 18 years old in New York City in a blues band, there were a lot of kids in from the suburbs in their parents’ station wagon singing the blues, and it was wrong. It was just wrong.”

Musgraves, “Mama’s Broken Heart”: “I had cut this for my first album. I was so excited, it was gonna be my single, and I was super pumped up about this song. It was so me… Somebody at the publishing company pitched this to another artist without me knowing, and the artist happened to freak out and love it. So I got word of this, and I was like ‘Oh my God’.... I was really, really distraught about it. Liz Rose is here, and I hope she doesn’t mind me telling this story… One day we were deliberating about what do we do…  and I was like, ‘I’m just going to have a hole in my heart if another artist sings this song.’ And Liz goes, ‘Well, you can fill it with money!’ Miranda Lambert was gracious enough to cut this, and she made it go to No. 1, which was one of the best things that ever happened to me. So, thanks, Liz, for your perspective.”

Taylor, “You’ve Got a Friend”: He had a story not unlike Musgraves’ about Lambert. “Carole King had just written this song and played it on stage at the Troubadour the second or third time we played there together… She told me she had been sort of inspired to write it by a line in ‘Fire and Rain’ that says ‘I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend,’ so Carole sort of wrote this song in response… Carole herself was recording her second album, and she had this beautiful tune, but at the end of one of our sessions, we had some more studio time and didn’t have a song worked up, and I said ‘Let’s record that new tune of Carole’s.’ After we cut it, we knew we wanted it on the album and she said ‘No, that’s okay, go ahead and release that tune.’ A typically remarkably generous thing to do… I don’t know if I could have been as generous as she was.”


Set list:

A World Without Haggard — Vince Gill

Today Today Today — James Taylor

Family is Family — Kacey Musgraves

I Was Wrong — Chris Stapleton

Meadows — Joe Walsh

The Whiskey and You — Stapleton

Christmas Always Makes Me Cry — Musgraves

Something in the Way She Moves — Taylor

Bartender Blues — Gill with Taylor

Life of Illusion — Walsh

Where Rainbows Never Die — Stapleton

Mama’s Broken Heart — Musgraves

You Can Close Your Eyes — Taylor

Whenever You Come Around — Gill

You’ve Got a Friend — Taylor with Gill

Merry Go Round — Musgraves

When the Stars Come Out — Stapleton

Indian Summer — Walsh

Sight for Sore Eyes — Gill

Steamroller Blues — Taylor with Walsh

Fire and Rain — Taylor


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