Country Center-Stage At Early Grammy Event

This appeared in The Tennessean - February 10, 2007

As soon as Marty Stuart picked up a guitar Thursday and began leading an L.A. crowd in "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," he may have singlehandedly brought an end to describing magical country music moments as "only in Nashville."

Stuart hosted The Soul of Country on Thursday at the Wilshire Ebell Theater. The evening was a celebration of country's cultural contributions to America.

"What a great opportunity for us to celebrate the country industry and country music in general during Grammy Week, when the whole world's attention is focused on what we do," Neil Portnow, president of the Recording Academy, told an audience that included singers Carrie Underwood, Solomon Burke, John Waite, Sam Moore and Lionel Richie and movie director Taylor Hackford.

The night would have warmed the hearts of Nashville's country purists who believe that the genre's history is being forgotten. "I think the event is a roots approach to country music," Stuart said. "It really doesn't have anything to do with charts and sales. What it's about is how rich and significant country music's offerings have been and continue to be to the American landscape."

Film footage to be saved

The Grammy Foundation presented The Soul of Country in honor of its ninth annual preservation project. It donates money annually to help preserve music-focused media, such as film and recordings. This year's Grammy preservation project was the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's precious film footage of the last night the Grand Ole Opry was held at the Ryman Auditorium, as well as the first night the Opry played at its new Opryland home, an event that attracted President Nixon.

The crowd delighted at the sight of Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl, and laughed heartily at Nixon's prediction that the future world would look to America for character.

In addition to that footage, the audience viewed clips from the Grammy's Living History project, which included priceless interviews from songwriters such as Cindy Walker, Merle Kilgore and Felice Bryant, discussing how some of their famous hits were created.

LeAnn Rimes gave a powerful but subtle performance of "Crazy." After a few remarks from Grammy officials, film was shown of some of Grammy's greatest country moments, including footage of Roger Miller, Jerry Reed and Conway Twitty (which got big applause), and many more. Stuart gave a brief history of the Bristol sessions of early country recording and of country's international roots, a summary of African-American musicians' vital influence on country's early pioneers, and some wonderful descriptions of country before launching into a mandolin solo. "As (songwriter) Harlan Howard said, 'It's three chords and the truth,' " Stuart said.

He was joined onstage by surprise guest Porter Wagoner, 79, who was helped across the stage. The room was silent as the rhinestone-wearing, sliver-thin Wagoner delivered a somber recitation of "Men with Broken Hearts," his age and frail physique adding more weight to each word.

Deana Carter (fighting a cold courtesy of her young son), Brian McKnight and Kenny Loggins sang "You Don't Know Me," followed by Joe Nichols' interpretation of "Today I Started Loving You Again."

Actor introduces Pride

Terrence Howard, the grandson of a country-music-listening, cowboy-boot-wearing long-haul trucker, gave a moving introduction of Charley Pride, whom he will portray in an upcoming movie. "He had these real smooth vocals and this laid-back confidence that showed me what true showmanship was about," Howard said. Pride, an obvious crowd favorite for the still-smooth vocals and ever-relaxed demeanor, sang two songs: "Is Anybody Going to San Antone?" and "Kiss An Angel Good Morning." (How-ard had quipped, "I was looking for that angel all my life.")

Shooter Jennings and the .357's sang his father's hit, "Lonesome, On'ry and Mean." Waylon would have been proud: Instead of using the house band, Shooter Jennings brought his own band, which meant a delay in the show while a piano was moved and his band's instruments were plugged in.

For the finale, Stuart asked the crowd to rise and join him in the acoustic "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." Within moments, he got his answer.

By Beverly Keel

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