Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Essential Broadcast Media
March 17, 2016 02:40 PM

A stream of country stars took the stage Wednesday night to sing their thanks to songwriting legend Kris Kristofferson, but no one was more grateful than Eric Church, who said a Kristofferson song “saved my life.”

Starting out, “I had a rough time in Nashville,” Church told the thousands who’d packed Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, “and I played the game where, if I get told ‘no’ one more time, I’m outta here.”

That “one more time” came during a meeting with a publishing rep, who listened to Church play “maybe half a song” and bluntly told him, “I don’t know where you’re from … but I’d go back there.”

Defeated, Church sat in his car, turned the engine over, and then heard the next track on the Kristofferson CD in his player tell him: “I was born a lonely singer, and I’m bound to die the same, but I’ve got to feed the hunger in my soul. And if I never have a nickel, I won’t ever die ashamed.”

Kris Kristofferson and friends
Sanford Myers/Invision/AP

That song, “To Beat the Devil,” persuaded Church to stay one more day – “after I got drunk,” he added. “And the next day I got a publishing deal. So I’m here because of that man.”

Church gestured to Kristofferson, 79, who rewarded Church’s haunting interpretation of the song with a two-pinky-in-the-mouth wolf whistle. Seated in a folding chair stage right for the three-hour musical tribute, the Country Music Hall of Famer clearly was having the time of his life as he listened – and occasionally mouthed the words – while artist after artist performed his music.

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Offered an opportunity to speak, after Nashville Mayor Megan Barry declared it “Kris Kristofferson Day,” the singer-songwriter simply responded, “I’m speechless.”

But then the music was already speaking for him. With the lineup secured for weeks, much of the suspense of the evening was over who would get to sing the greatest of the Kristofferson greats. Lady Antebellum drew the honors for “Help Me Make It Through Night.” Alison Krauss and Jamey Johnson dueted “For the Good Times.” And Reba McEntire returned “Me and Bobby McGee” – the Janis Joplin classic – to its country roots.

Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Essential Broadcast Media

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Rosanne Cash turned in “Loving Him Was Easier” – with no temptation to reprise father Johnny Cash’s signature song “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” (“That song does not gender-bend well,” she explained before the concert.) Instead, Kristofferson himself and Willie Nelson took over the duties for country’s ultimate hangover tune.

Other classics filled out the evening. Dierks Bentley went bluegrass for “From the Bottle to the Bottom” with help from the Travelin’ McCourys. Jennifer Nettles‘ “Worth Fighting For” earned the first of several standing ovations. No doubt the most appropriate pairing of song and singer was Hank Williams Jr.‘s rowdy rendition of “If You Don’t Like Hank Williams.”

Lady Antebellum
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Darius Rucker delivered the riveting anti-war song “Under the Gun,” though before the concert he professed his greatest love for “For the Good Times” – as delivered by his idol, R&B great Al Green. It’s “still my favorite Al Green song ever,” Rucker said, recalling the moment he “turned the album over” and was shocked to see it was written by Kristofferson.

As the evening was coming to a close, Kristofferson and Nelson restored their supergroup, The Highwaymen, to sing “Highwayman,” with the help of Shooter Jennings, who took his father Waylon Jennings’ part, and Jamey Johnson, who subbed for Johnny Cash. Finally, the entire cast joined Kristofferson for an all-hands-on-deck “Why Me (Lord).”

“The Life and Songs of Kris Kristofferson” was filmed and recorded by Blackbird Production Partners for broadcast and release at a later date.

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