Of course Blake Shelton couldn’t show up and just sing at Keith Urban’s all-star benefit concert — not when there was fun to be had at his friend’s expense.
“I was thinking a lot about Keith Urban today … because when you know you’re gonna see him, it’s hard not to get excited about him, isn’t it?” he drolly told the sell-out crowd at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena on Monday night as Urban stood behind him onstage. “He’s damn good-looking, but that shouldn’t overshadow how talented the man is. Let me say that I don’t want y’all cheapening how talented he is just because he’s so … damn… good-looking.”
Whether in affirmation or abject mortification, Urban picked up an air horn, no doubt at the ready for a time just like this, and gave it a couple of blasts.
“I’ve been drinking, by the way,” Shelton interjected — as if no one could have guessed — before he continued his tongue-in-cheek reverie: “I realized today on the way in, there is one problem with Keith Urban, and I researched this. I looked it up. I listened to all his records. I read his Wikipedia. This bastard does not have one song about a dog. So I’m gonna do that for y’all tonight.”
The crowd laughed and cheered, knowing the fateful story of a prison bloodhound was about to be spun. Honestly, does an introduction to “Ole Red” get any better than this?
Indeed, everything about Urban’s eighth “All for the Hall” concert, benefiting the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, was worthy of superlatives. For almost two-and-a-half hours, a refreshing list of talent — spanning every phase of an artistic career — took the stage to each deliver two musical treasures: a signature hit and the song of a hero.
Urban himself devised the theme, evoked in the night’s subtitle, “Under the Influence,” and he led off the concert with his classic “Wasted Time” before segueing into the work of one of his guiding forces. His choice was a satisfying surprise — Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou” — but it made perfect sense when the country-pop king pointed out she was a standard-bearer for her own crossover era in the 1970s.
Urban’s choice also revealed a significant nod to female artists, and his lineup further underscored the point: Exactly half of the 10 acts he selected for the bill were women.
For her own song, she picked her 2017 No. 1 hit, “Every Little Thing.” It was a predictable choice, but that was half the fun of the evening. All the performers delivered one of their own crowd-pleasing hits and then chased it with the suspense of their cover selection.
One of the most daring choices arrived with Tenille Townes, who confessed she was “just freaking out to be up here tonight.” The Grande Prairie, Alberta, native actually traveled to Nashville for the first “All for the Hall” concert in 2009, “and we sat out in the crowd and I watched the whole show, freaking out as the biggest Keith Urban fan.”
But this would be no tribute to the show’s host (who’d taken his place for the rest of the evening in the house band). Instead, after performing her "Somebody's Daughter," Townes picked one of her father’s favorites, U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and she showcased her singular voice on its soaring notes.
Morgan Wallen also demonstrated the power of parental influence. After firing up the arena with his “Whiskey Glasses,” he turned in a mellow reading of the Eagles’ “Take It Easy,” a favorite of his classic rock-loving dad.
Most of the other artists, though, stayed within the bounds of the country genre for their selections. Shelton played Alan Jackson’s 1992 hit “Dallas,” and explained his choice: “Man, when I was back in high school in Oklahoma, this song was on the radio and I always thought it was cool.”
Ingrid Andress used her choice to defend John Denver’s place in country, though the 1970s groundbreaker was often perceived in his day as a genre interloper. “People were like, oh, he’s not country, but to me, if you can write a good story and put it in a song, you’re pretty country to me,” Andress said.
The Brothers Osborne kept it old school with Merle Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down.” Their surprise performance actually arrived in a blistering guitar-solo faceoff, during their hit “It Ain’t My Fault,” between axe-meisters John Osborne and Urban. The winner? The audience, of course.
“That’s one of the best guitar players ever right there — good lord!” Urban, one of the best guitar players ever, declared of Osborne.
Christian artist Lauren Daigle sparked one of many audience singalongs with her crossover hit “You Say,” and then she turned the cavernous hall into a cabaret with Roberta Flack’s sumptuous 1973 classic, “Killing Me Softly.”
Stripping the original to its bittersweet bones, Chris Stapleton let just his voice, his acoustic guitar and light harmonic flourishes from his wife, Morgane, paint the sounds of Willie Nelson’s “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.” Together, the Stapletons also delivered his 2018 single “Millionaire.”
The newly resurgent Tanya Tucker was by far the most compelling advocate for country traditions. Fresh off her long overdue Grammy wins, she was rewarded with extra stage time for a medley honoring a Mount Rushmore of country legends, all of whom she can call close friends: George Jones (“The Grand Tour”), Loretta Lynn (“Blue Kentucky Girl”), Merle Haggard (“Workin' Man Blues”) and Tammy Wynette (“Stand By Your Man”).
All four are Hall of Famers, and Tucker seems destined for her own plaque in the museum’s rotunda one day. Only a year ago, she might have chosen her 1972 hit “Delta Dawn” for her career offering; instead, she capped her performance with “Bring My Flowers Now,” the Grammys’ freshly anointed best country song.
Luke Combs provided the concert’s coda with a poignant delivery of his “Even Though I’m Leaving” followed by a blazing “Brand New Man.” It was probably the most predictable choice of the evening: The song, after all, was Combs’ contribution to Brooks & Dunn’s No. 1 duets album Reboot. Less expected was the fact that Combs was the closer — just one more indication that, six years after his arrival in Nashville, the North Carolina native has made himself a permanent home in country’s stratosphere.
All the artists donated their performances to the show; more than $800,000 was raised for the wide array of education programs at the museum. Words & Music, its cornerstone program that teaches language arts through lyric writing, has reached more than 100,000 students since its inception in 1979. Last year alone, more than 100,000 guests participated in hands-on educational programming at the museum.