The Grand Ole Opry and a host of country music stars will be transported to the Kennedy Center next year for a rare examination of a genre rarely heard at the center.
The lineup for "Country: A Celebration of America's Music" will include Vince Gill, Asleep at the Wheel, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn, Naomi Judd, Wynonna Judd, Ray Price and Earl Scruggs -- for the most part representatives of country's old guard. The festival, sponsored with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, will feature concerts, a guitar master class, a songwriter's seminar and a country dance series. The honorary co-chairmen are Gill, who is tied with the late Chet Atkins for the most Grammys won by a country artist, and Emmylou Harris, who grew up in the Washington area.
Country music accounts for 20 percent of all record sales, according to Kyle Young, the director of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Yet mainstream performing arts centers have shied away from it.
"I don't think it has been treated seriously by any performing arts center in the country. It is time to do it because it is an amazing part of our culture," said Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center. The center itself has been an infrequent destination for country music but the Kennedy Center Honors has saluted Roy Acuff, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Lynn.
"We have been studying and interpreting the music for 40 years, but we have not had an opportunity to work with a place as prestigious as the Kennedy Center," Young said. "People will get an appreciation for the breadth and depth of the music."
The March 20-April 9 festival will showcase old-time singers and contemporary stars.
On March 26, the center will salute the Grand Ole Opry, the Nashville epicenter of country performance for 80 years and home to the world's longest-running live radio show. The artists have not been announced yet.
A number of country legends will perform March 31 in the Concert Hall with headliners Gill, Lynn, Price, the Judds and Kristofferson. The festival will conclude with a concert by Asleep at the Wheel, the Texas swing group. "They are sort of the Grateful Dead of country music. The music springs from so many different influences -- folk-based music out of Texas and serious jazz influences," Young said.
The entertainers will illustrate the energetic borrowing from all styles that has produced contemporary country music.
Other performers signed for the festival include bluegrass mandolin star Sam Bush, dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas, bluegrass fiddler Stuart Duncan, banjo master Bela Fleck, bass player Mark Schatz, guitarist Bryan Sutton and vocalist Allan Harris. The shows will include at least seven free performances. More performances will be lined up in the coming months, said Young and Kaiser.
"We are hoping those who don't really know country music will give it a shot, will enjoy the diversity and the melodic invention of country music. Every song is like a little play," Kaiser said.