Fancy Duds Can't Keep the Country Out of Kennedy Center's Tribute

By Joe Heim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 3, 2006

There weren't a lot of people wearing jeans at the Kennedy Center's tribute to country music Friday night. Not a lot wearing cowboy hats, either. This was an upscale, cost-a-pretty-penny affair, and the sold-out Concert Hall brimmed with blue-suited congressmen and other famous-for-D.C. types.

Even among the who's-who list of performers -- the premier event of the center's three-week celebration of country music -- only Kris Kristofferson went the scuffed-boot route. The others, Ray Price, Wynonna, Naomi Judd, Lee Ann Womack and Vince Gill, opted for their Sunday best, or something close.

Gill, ever amiable and stand-up funny, hosted the evening, shepherding the marquee names through short sets and leading the crackerjack seven-piece show band through three Buck Owens songs ("Buckaroo," "Above and Beyond" and "Together Again") to pay tribute to the country music star who died March 25. It was a generous and thoughtful move, and especially fitting on a night honoring the country tradition.

The Oklahoma native also delivered a humorous five-minute monologue about the time he introduced his gruff father (equal parts "Clint Eastwood, Patton, John Wayne, and now I've added Donald Rumsfeld") to Dolly Parton. "I never in my life saw him with such a big smile," he said, laughing. That amusing tale became decidedly more poignant as it led into "The Key to Life," a song revealing how keenly Gill felt the loss of the old man.

One wondered whether Kristofferson, who has spoken out strongly against the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, might air his discontent in this august setting. But the 69-year-old Texan stuck to performing his classics including "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and a rather mournful version of "Me and Bobby McGee." It was a solid if not stirring effort that occasionally felt labored. Much better was the impassioned duet he later sang with Gill of "Why Me Lord?"

Wearing a fetching white sundress and frighteningly tall high heels, Texas singer Womack livened up the hall with "I Hope You Dance," "I May Hate Myself in the Morning" and her wonderful addition to memorably titled country songs, "Twenty Years and Two Husbands Ago." Womack, too, honored a recently departed country giant by singing "You Don't Know Me," the classic penned by Texas songwriter Cindy Walker, who died March 23.

On a night of tributes and tradition, only the self-serving Judds seemed a tad out of place. Wynonna's first choices, "Rock Bottom" and "No One Else on Earth," were thundering, funky rave-ups -- and not the least bit country.

"People ask if I'm country," she told the crowd. "When you live on a bus with your mother for 10 years and do her hair every night for free, that's country." Hey, if you say so, Wy.

With her bombastic songs out of the way, Wynonna was joined by her mother, Naomi, for a rare onstage mother-daughter reunion. The pair's mostly sappy set was partially redeemed by a lovely rendition of "Grandpa (Tell Me 'Bout the Good Old Days)," but there was too much forced sunshine between the hugging and hand-holding duo, which didn't make the heavy-handed hokum of "Love Can Build a Bridge" any more tolerable.

Then the night's final act, Ray Price and his Cherokee Cowboys, took the stage. Resplendent in a periwinkle western-style suit, the 80-year-old singer performed a no-nonsense hit parade of gems such as "San Antonio Rose," "Crazy Arms," "Heartaches by the Number" and a fabulous version of "For the Good Times," the Kristofferson song that Price took to No. 1 on the country charts in 1970. Price has an effortless way of singing even the most expressive lines, and at the set's end the crowd rose as one in appreciation. That and some coaxing from Gill brought him back for the night's only encore. "Boy, you all are gluttons for punishment," Price joked. Not true. His closer, "I Wish I Was Eighteen Again," was the prettiest, sweetest, saddest song of the night.

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