Keith Urban's Star-Packed Show to Pay Musical Respects to Merle Haggard: 'It's a Beautiful Honor,' Says Urban

"It was no surprise that a lot of artists contacted me and asked if they could flip one of their songs to do a Haggard song," says Urban of his All for the Hall benefit concert

Photo: Terry Wyatt/Getty

The All for the Hall concert on Tuesday night is billed as a benefit for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. But Keith Urban says count on it to turn into a lovefest for country music great Merle Haggard, who died last Wednesday on his 79th birthday.

“It was no surprise that a lot of artists contacted me and asked if they could flip one of their songs to do a Haggard song,” says Urban, who is bringing together a celebrity-packed lineup to Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena for the sixth time since 2009. “It’s a beautiful honor, and we’re going to see a lot of unexpected song choices from his catalog.”

The long-planned theme for the show, “Mashville U.S.A.,” celebrates the diversity of Nashville’s music community, and performers will include Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Peter Frampton, Emmylou Harris, Sam Hunt, Jason Isbell, Chris Janson, Tracy Lawrence, Maddie & Tae, and Maren Morris. As usual, Urban, 49, is sharing musical direction duties with Vince Gill – the Hall of Fame member whom Urban affectionately calls “Vinny.”

At a break during two days of rehearsals at a Nashville studio, Gill and Urban reminisced about accompanying Haggard during his appearance at the 2012 All for the Hall concert.

Gill said he remembered catching Urban’s eye on stage and, with one look, communicating: “Can you believe we’re both doing this?”

“No words were spoken,” Gill, 59, said, “but it was just us looking at each other, and both thinking exactly the same thing.”

Urban recalled “playing with Hag” was “surreal.”

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“But All for the Hall is like that in general,” he added. Urban cited other Hall of Famers who’ve appeared in years past, including Dolly Parton, Charley Pride, and Don Williams – all artists his late father, an avid country music fan, introduced him to.

Urban first saw Haggard perform live back in the ’90s at the iconic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

“For me, this was as pure as it gets – and at the Ryman, too,” Urban said. “We had a live album of his when I was growing up, so I knew that record so well, and the craziest thing was hearing some of those same songs and the audience cheering, and singing along, and I felt like I had fallen into my dad’s stereo speakers.”

Gill revealed he contributed vocals to “four or five” songs on an as-yet-unreleased album Haggard was working on in his final months. Once back home, Gill said, he woke up one morning to discover he’d missed a 1 a.m. call from his singing partner.

“I saw the voice mail from Merle Haggard,” Gill recalled, “and I said, you’ve got to be kidding me! How did I miss that one? So I listened to it and I saved it. I play it at shows from time to time. I say, ‘I’m not here to name-drop, but check this out.’ It’s just a sweet message saying, ‘Hey, it’s ol’ Merle. I didn’t know if you were up. I just called to say thank you for singing on my record. I love you for it.’ Pretty cool.”

Urban is fresh off his judging duties on American Idol, which concluded last week, but he said he hasn’t had a moment to miss the show – between All for the Hall rehearsals and preparations for his album launch (Ripcord drops May 6). He’ll spend May rehearsing for his world tour, which begins June 2 in Kansas City and concludes in Australia in December. Carrie Underwood announced on Monday that she will join Urban for his six Down Under shows. The two performed together on the Idol finale Thursday night.

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