Country Comes To Town

This appeared in the Washington Post - March 17, 2006

OVER THE NEXT THREE WEEKS, the phrase "just a little bit country" will apply to the Kennedy Center as it hosts "Country: A Celebration of America's Music." Between March 20 and April 9, in association with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, it will serve up a handful of concerts, some in the hallowed concert halls, some on the more populist (and free) Millennium Stage. The purpose is to strengthen country music's storied relevance as an important voice of, by and for the people.

"I'm proud we're at a point where country music and the Kennedy Center can embrace each other, because country music has long since evolved to be a cultural icon," says singer-guitarist-historian Marty Stuart, who headlines a Grand Ole Opry tribute March 26.

Marty Stuart joins a lineup of numerous country music performers for the Kennedy Center's "Country: A Celebration of America's Music.

"Whether you play the Ryman Auditorium [in Nashville] or Carnegie Hall or the Kennedy Center," Stuart says, "there's those places and then there's everywhere else. Those places are special, unique places inside the walls of America; when you're getting to play your music on any of those three stages, it's an honor within itself."

"Along with jazz, country music is America's music," says Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser, calling it "a uniquely American form of artistic expression."

But jazz had a much more substantial standing at the nation's performing arts center long before a late '90s televised jazz gala that also happened to be titled "A Celebration of America's Music." In the center's 35-year history, the number of jazz concerts has been in the hundreds, country concerts in the dozens.

The upcoming "Celebration" is the center playing catch-up.

"I started thinking about this three years ago," says Kaiser, who recently celebrated his fifth year heading the nation's busiest arts center, one best known for its classical, opera, dance, musical and theater offerings.

"First of all, I happen to like country music, but that's not why we do the work here," Kaiser says. "I felt it hadn't been taken seriously by arts centers in this country, though it is an indigenous American art form. And I thought it needed something more than a one-night country music [event] that comes and then is gone."

According to Kaiser, "Most performing arts centers are really focused on a particular few art forms. They do their theater season or their symphony season, their ballet or modern dance season, and country music doesn't fit neatly into one of those series.

As Stuart sees it, "Country music and the roots of country music are as cultural as anything else this world has to offer, and I'm really happy to see it recognized as such. And it will be influential, without a doubt. Everybody keeps their eyes on the leader, and the Kennedy Center is a leader. When they make a move, you'll feel it in Kansas and Kentucky and elsewhere. It opens the door for much broader relationships."

By Richard Harrington

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