Country music, in its purest form, is the original jam format, having spawned hootenannies and round-robin performance styles that have really stood the test of time. This gig, the second annual benefit for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, fell somewhere between the two, teaming a group of traditionalists with some sympathetic rock realm interlopers for a program that was loose enough to overcome the industry dinner atmosphere.
Billy Bob Thornton and the Boxmasters, nattily clad in Swinging London-styled mod suits, jumpstarted the proceedings with a pair of sharp tunes that reconciled Merseybeat and Bakersfield-style country — the furthest from purism the evening would get. After that, the scheduled vocalists took turns soloing and duetting, accompanied by a band keyed by Jerry Douglas, Larry Campbell and Levon Helm.
The last of those musicians provided one of the perf’s highlights by engaging Emmylou Harris on a poignant take on the Band’s “Evangeline.” Harris, who was in particularly pristine voice, reduced the aud to rapt silence at several junctures during her solo turns as well, notably on “Red Dirt Girl” and the rarely performed “Tragedy.”
Surprisingly, the performers concentrated rather heavily on low-key, even introspective offerings — from Vince Gill’s mournful “Bread and Water” (which was prefaced by a heartfelt tale about his brother’s death) to an all-hands-on-deck version of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You.” The latter was one of several songs to showcase subtly virtuosic musicianship — Campbell’s mandolin in this case; Gill showcased his own chops on the instrument on “The Key to Life.”
As the evening rolled on, things got looser — not always a plus — but things came together nicely on the closing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a choice that was hardly surprising, but heartwarming nonetheless.