By Joe Heim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
If he's played a fancier room, Brad Paisley doesn't remember it. And certainly not one with as much history.
The country music star joined bluegrass singer Alison Krauss on Tuesday afternoon for an hour-long concert and songwriting workshop in the grand State Dining Room at the White House. Beneath a George P.A. Healy portrait of Abraham Lincoln and the shimmering lights of a massive gold chandelier, the pair traded stories, songs and sly asides for an audience of 120 or so music students from middle and high schools in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
Following an introduction from Education Secretary Arne Duncan ("Don't be alarmed, I promise not to sing"), here's some of what the kids learned:
Paisley: "In my first song I rhymed 'do' with 'do.' I've since learned you're never supposed to do that. Although Alan Jackson does it all the time."
Krauss: "How has life changed since becoming a star? Well, you can't go out without a shower anymore."
Paisley: "Music is like being up to bat. You can have all the support in the world, but it's up to you where you go."
Krauss: "Enjoy what your voice sounds like."
Paisley: "My grandfather told me, you learn how to play this guitar and you'll never be lonely."
When one young man in the crowd offered that his guitar was "the best girlfriend I ever had," Paisley laughed and responded, "It may always be."
Krauss, joined by guitarist Dan Tyminski, performed "Angelina Baker" and the hymn "I Know Who Holds Tomorrow." Paisley performed "Born on Christmas Day," a song he wrote as a 12-year-old, and "Letter to Me," about what he wished he had known in high school.
Almost stealing the show was Sal LaRosa, a Nashville fifth-grader who performed his own song, "The Girl in the Hallway," to a jubilant reception from his assembled colleagues, including the two stars. Pretty cool.
"This is a day you'll remember for the rest of your life," moderator Jay Orr, from the Country Music Hall of Fame, told the kids, though he could easily have been speaking to Paisley, 36, and Krauss, 37.
Tuesday night they joined Charley Pride, 71, one of the few African American artists to enjoy success in country music, for a concert in the equally resplendent East Room attended by the president and first lady.
The president began the evening by reflecting on country music's impact. "Now I know folks think that I'm a city boy," he said to laughter, "but I do appreciate listening to country music because, like all Americans, I do appreciate the broad and indelible impact that country has had on our nation."
Accompanied by her band, Union Station, Krauss led off with a set that included a stirring "Man of Constant Sorrow" and an appropriately haunting "Ghost in This House."
The president was the first to his feet to applaud when Krauss finished. When the president stands, everyone else in the room is quick to follow.
Pride broke out his biggest hits for his White House appearance. "I'm so proud to be invited," he told the president before performing such classics as "Is Anybody Goin' to San Antone?" and "Kiss an Angel Good Morning."
Between sets, Grand Ole Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs, a Gaithersburg native and host of a show that ran for many years on WAMU, provided a country history lesson -- and issued a hard-to-refuse invitation to the president to visit the Opry, by pointing out that every president since Richard M. Nixon had done so.
But the highlight of the evening was undoubtedly Paisley's performance.
The singer and guitarist is riding high on the success of "American Saturday Night," his recent album that is perched at the top of the country charts. The title track is a celebration of America's melting pot, and the album includes "Welcome to the Future," a thoughtful take on the nation's election of its first black president.
Both songs featured prominently Tuesday night as an emotional Paisley wiped a tear away during the latter and doffed his white cowboy hat to the president at its conclusion. Earlier he dedicated his romantic hit "Then" to the Obamas and drew laughs when he said, "This would sound great on Air Force One" and also invited the entire White House to his Nissan Pavilion concert on Saturday.
Tuesday afternoon, standing on the North Portico of the White House, Paisley recalled election night, when he was in New York for TV appearances and saw the city's streets fill with celebrations. "It felt like the whole world shifted on a dime," he said. "No matter what side of the fence you're on, you feel a sense of pride in how far we've come as a society."
Paisley also talked about the chance to perform the aforementioned songs for the president. "I'm pretty floored. . . . It's a very emotional thing," he said. "Your dream as a songwriter is to write an account of a current event and deliver it for the person who it is about."
Krauss, too, was excited about performing in the White House. "To have country music recognized here is just amazing, and we're thrilled that they're inviting traditional music back," she said.
The event was part of the White House Music Series, the Obamas' effort to showcase American culture. Last month jazz got the royal treatment as members of the Marsalis family-- father Ellis and sons Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason -- led workshops and performed, along with Paquito D'Rivera and D.C.'s own Davey Yarborough. Classical music will take its turn in the fall.
Country musicians have always been welcomed to the White House. Dating at least as far back as Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, country artists have made regular visits, as much to entertain the presidents as to (sometimes unwittingly) help reinforce their appeal among blue-collar and rural voters. Johnny Cash sang for Nixon (though not Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee," as Nixon had requested) and Tammy Wynette sang "Stand by Your Man" for Gerald Ford. During the Carter administration, Willie Nelson famously admitted to having smoked a joint on the White House roof. (Hey, it was the '70s. And no, the president wasn't with him.) In recent years, Martina McBride, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith and Kenny Chesney have belted out hits at the world's most powerful address.
Still, it was impossible not to note the significance of a black president hosting an affair for a genre of music that has historically belonged almost exclusively to white performers. In addition to Pride, other notable black country-music figures include DeFord Bailey, one of the original members of the Grand Ole Opry; Stoney Edwards, an Oklahoman who had modest success in the 1970s; and now Darius Rucker, who earlier was lead singer of the pop group Hootie and the Blowfish. Cleve Francis, who landed a major-label deal in Nashville in the early '90s, is one of the very few African Americans since Pride to have flirted with mainstream country stardom. Francis, a Louisiana native who is now a cardiologist in Alexandria, says the president's embrace of country music is important on several levels.
"I think it shows an openness," he said in a phone interview Tuesday. "He's the president of all of America. Even if he didn't grow up listening to this music, it's part of Americana." Francis, who founded the (now-defunct) Black Country Music Association, also believes the platform the Obamas are giving country music will raise its profile among African Americans.
"It's especially important for African American kids to see that this kind of attention is paid to this music," he said. "Right now, country music is not a real option for them."