Bryan was part of a star-studded lineup benefiting the Country Music Hall of Fame

By Nancy Kruh
Updated April 13, 2016 03:45 PM
Credit: Nancy Kruh

The sold-out crowd at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena learned Tuesday night there are some things Luke Bryan just won’t do. One is this: If Keith Urban and Vince Gill are in his backup band, he’s not going to ignore them.

That’s why, halfway through a magical stripped-down acoustic version of “Strip It Down,” Bryan simply turned around to face the two guitar masters behind him.

“If I’m gonna play and sing with Keith Urban and Vince Gill,” he announced between verses, “I want to watch them.”

Urban couldn’t resist commenting on the about-face, suggesting with some Aussie sauciness, that the audience enjoyed seeing Bryan’s famous booty. (Okay, okay. The exact quote: “They want to look at your ass, man.”)

Of course, the crowd laughed – but wisecracks aside, who couldn’t appreciate watching this trio’s musical intimacy on an arena stage?

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Bryan was part of a vast and varied lineup that Urban and Gill brought together for the All for the Hall concert, a benefit for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. From the opening note, it was obvious everyone came to play.

Everyone delivered their own hits, as expected, but then the surprises arrived as each artist simply embraced the joy of music.

Maddie & Tae sang their breakthrough “Girl in a Country Song,” but they returned to their roots with Lee Ann Womack‘s “Never Again, Again.” Maren Morris offered “My Church,” then worshiped at the altar of Dolly Parton with a reggae-infused “9 to 5.”

Chris Janson performed “Buy Me a Boat,” then turned outlaw with a rocked-out version of Waylon Jennings’ “Ain’t Living Long Like This.” Peter Frampton synthesized “Do You Feel Like We Do,” but also hiccuped his way through Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue” on an acoustic guitar given to him by Holly’s widow.

Genre barriers crashed down as twangy Tracy Lawrence got in touch with his bluesy side on Joe Cocker’s “Now That the Magic Has Gone,” and Americana heavyweight Jason Isbell powered through Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” served up with an Urban and Gill jam.

Throughout the two-and-a-half-hour event, hearts kept turning to the spirit and music of the legendary Merle Haggard, who passed away last week. Gill wore a Merle-esque hat, and Urban made sure The Hag was on stage all evening with his T-shirt choice, which featured a photo of the classic chiseled face. Gill’s two song picks were Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” and Bryan called an audible on stage with an impromptu performance of “Big City.”

Sam Hunt prefaced his musical homage – Haggard’s “The Way I Am” – with the story of how the icon’s death brought him to a personal turning point. Last week, he explained, he was struggling with “some of the things that come along with having a little success as a country artist and the obligations that come with it.” In this melancholy mood, he started playing “some old country songs,” including “The Way I Am.”

When he heard the next day that Haggard had died, “it sent chills up my spine. I hadn’t even thought about Merle or that song until the night before. It was a sad day for country music, but it made me realize how grateful I am to be able to do what I’m doing, and it made me realize how grateful I am for … all the people who came before me in country music and paved the way.”

The sixth All for the Hall raised an estimated $750,000 – a record – for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Urban announced at the end of the evening. This year the funds have been especially targeted for the museum’s flagship education program, Words & Music, which brings songwriting into schools.