Tennessee was well represented at the 39th Annual Kennedy Center Honors. Almost all of the musicians who performed to honor the recipients had a connection with the state and its music. Beginning with Ringo Starr, who recorded his Beaucoups of Blues album with The Jordanaires, Pete Drake and others in Nashville, many who appeared had a current or past musical relationship with Tennessee. If not a deep involvement, they had, at least, a passing acquaintance with one of the country’s most melodious states.
Bonnie Raitt, who paid tribute to Mavis Staples, has performed many times in Nashville, including a 2016 two-day stint at Ryman Auditorium. While she and others honored the gospel-pop queen, images of 45 RPM Staples Singers records produced at Memphis’ Stax Records twirled about. A film clip of Mavis’ performance at the 1972 Wattstax festival underlined the significance of the legendary Memphis studio.
It is easy to hear the influence of Nashville’s country and Memphis’ blues in James Taylor’s music. From Sweet Baby James to Steamroller Blues, Taylor has acknowledged his musical influences throughout his career. To celebrate his status as a Kennedy Center honoree, current Nashvillians Garth Brooks, Sheryl Crow and Darius Rucker took the stage individually and collectively to perform. While a man who wears a big black cowboy hat may not invoke images of a soft-spoken, articulate folk singer, Brooks has often spoken of Taylor’s influence on his music and his life. He even named his daughter Taylor after James.
In the 1970s, the last thing many may have expected to hear on a pop record was a five-string banjo. But there is one on The Eagles’ 1972 record of Jackson Browne’s Take It Easy. Some call the music they created “country rock” and some call it “folk rock,” but however you describe it, the influence of hillbilly roots cannot be denied. So it was only appropriate that Country Music Hall of Fame member Vince Gill delivered one of their classics, Peaceful Easy Feeling, and Nashville-based rockers Kings of Leon performed Take It Easy during the honors program.
Classical pianist and Kennedy Center honoree Martha Argerich was treated to a performance by Itzhak Perlman. Perlman performed at Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center to officially reopen the concert hall after it was devastated by 2010 flooding.
The music of Tennessee, itself, was honored by the presence of so many it has influenced at the 39th Annual Kennedy Center Honors.
Text and photos copyright 2017 by Les Kerr.