After a tough day at the Oval Office — markets collapsing, supercommittees evaporating — President Obama seemed ready to do what so many Americans do when the weight feels too heavy: find solace in a country song.
“Tonight we’re transforming the East Room into a bona fide country music hall,” the president declared at the White House on Monday evening. (Instead of a collective yee-haw, the audience responded with a pitter of golf clapping.)
But he was right. Grand Ole Opry musical director Steve Gibson had been brought in to oversee “Country Music: In Performance at the White House,” a celebration of the genre that included sterling performances from Kris Kristofferson, James Taylor, Lyle Lovett, Alison Krauss, the Band Perry, Darius Rucker, Dierks Bentley and others.
It was the latest in First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative to celebrate the individual patches of our nation’s sprawling musical quilt. The concert series has already showcased the music of the Civil Rights era, Motown, Broadway, jazz and Latin music — and on Monday, country music was getting its second turn beneath the East Room chandeliers. A recording of the performance airs on PBS stations nationwide on Wednesday night.
And while many of these White House concerts have thrived on their exuberance and the significance of the evening, certain big-cast performances have been spotty. But thanks to Gibson, Monday’s program sounded as consistent as it did elegant — so much so that Taylor stopped the show to praise the virtuoso nine-piece band.
Wait. What was sweet baby James doing here? Few would call Taylor a country singer, which made his performance of “Riding on a Railroad” a clever pick. (Opening line: “We are riding on a railroad, singing someone else’s song.”)
Later in the program, he took Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” on a lovely detour through Laurel Canyon, making it clear that this was an evening celebrating not only country music, but its porous borders.
“There is enough room in country music for everybody,” President Obama said in his opening remarks, quoting Charley Pride, the black country music veteran who performed at the White House two years prior.
Many have called former Hootie and the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker an heir to Pride — a black star currently thriving in a genre dominated by white artists and white fans. When he joined the legendary Kristofferson for a duet of “Pancho and Lefty” it was one of those generation-leaping moments that felt perfectly natural.
The president also played musicologist before the concert, framing country music as the product of the “many threads of our immigrant heritage... the Irish fiddle, the German dulcimer, the Italian mandolin, the Spanish guitar and the West African banjo.” He praised country singers for “giving voice to emotions of everyday life.”
But so many country songs are about hardship — and those tunes weren’t really sung on Monday. Instead, the younger acts payed homage to Nashville goddesses by singing their biggest songs. Little-known singer Mickey gave a torchy read of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” American Idol runner-up Lauren Alaina cooed Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and the Band Perry sang Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” with thoughtful restraint. (The sibling trio’s defining hit, “If I Die Young,” was even better.)
There was one great song about struggle: Dierks Bentley’s show-opening “Home,” which he sent out to soldiers returning from the Middle East, getting the night off to a poignant start.
“Now is the time that these guys are coming back, you know, with health problems and obviously they’re trying to put their families back together,” Bentley told reporters on the front steps of the White House earlier Monday afternoon. “How do we incorporate these folks back into our society, into our economy, so they can have productive lives?”
Along with Bentley, other musicians at the White House saw the evening as a bipartisan event. “Our president is our president and I think it’s always important to support our president,” Lovett explained earlier in the day.
Lovett said it was his third time performing at the White House — he was invited here by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “I’ve never campaigned for a candidate,” he said. “But I’m always excited to support the people that run our country.”
Then he dashed off to join Kristofferson and Rucker for a workshop with students from Anacostia and Woodrow Wilson High Schools. These concerts have all been paired with a daytime educational component, but this year, the schedule has slowed down a bit. Maybe the White House is trying to dodge spitballs from critics who have dismissed these formal celebrations of American music as a series of lavish parties?
Either way, no one was talking politics in the East Room, Monday. Even if it wasn’t intentional, when Krauss sang “When You Say Nothing At All,” it delicately drove that point home: “You say it best when you say nothing at all.”
“In Performance: Country Music at the White House” airs on WETA on Wednesday at 8 p.m.