NASHVILLE — The relatively new CMA Theater attached to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is a fairly ideal place for showcase events such as “Country’s Roaring ’70s,” Friday’s concert to mark the opening of the museum’s new Outlaws & Armadillos exhibit. Built as part of a massive add-on to the original Hall along with a hotel and several shops and restaurants, It’s an intimate (800 capacity) yet grand room with first-rate sound and a circular construction reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.
With a lineup that ranged from present-day chart-topper Jason Isbell to Nashville living legend Bobby Bare to Austin honky-tonk lifer Gary P. Nunn, the show sold out well in advance. At the helm were ace producer Dave Cobb (Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price) and musician Shooter Jennings, whose father Waylon and mother Jessi Colter — also a performer on this night — are featured significantly in the museum’s impressive new exhibit.
More than two dozen featured performers and backing musicians delivered 24 songs in two sets, all focusing on the golden decade that marked Austin’s rise as a haven for country artists who longed to work outside of Nashville industry norms. As is often the case with such all-star undertakings, the results were uneven, but the high points reached pretty darn high.
Many of them came in the first half-hour. Jennings, playing piano for most of the night, set the tone by leading the house band through a ragged, rowdy version of “T for Texas, T for Tennessee,” practically the theme song for the new exhibit. Bare’s 1974 classic “Marie Laveau,” his only No. 1 hit, featured key backing vocals from fiddler Amanda Shires. “It just dawned on my backstage that of this huge group, I’m the oldest guy here,” mused Bare, 83, sounding simultaneously blessed and shocked at that realization. His presence was important and greatly appreciated by the crowd, in that much of the evening focused on the music of legends who are no longer with us.
Billy Joe Shaver might have been next-oldest on the bill, so it was fitting that he followed with two of his best-known numbers, “Honky Tonk Heroes” and “Georgia on a Fast Train.” Shires, who’d accompanied Shaver on his his two songs, then explained that she’d moved to Nashville from Texas after touring extensively with Shaver, and paid tribute to her old boss with an a cappella delivery of his heart-stopping ballad “Star in My Heart.” That highlight, in turn, proved a perfect setup for the single best musical performance of the night as Shires’s husband, Jason Isbell, joined for a glorious rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho & Lefty.”
From there, things were a bit up and down. Canada’s Colter Wall visually fit the part of singing “Red Headed Stranger,” but his voice is such a ringer for Waylon’s that it was somewhat surprising he didn’t do a Jennings tune. Jack Ingram’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train” was a fitting tribute to Guy Clark, but the second-set inclusion of Clark’s “She Ain’t Going Nowhere” by the more pedestrian Jason Boland seemed unnecessary. Tanya Tucker seemed a somewhat out-of-place inclusion, in that her 1970s rise as a teen country star was more of a coinciding parallel to the music presented in the exhibit than a part of it.
Still, some great moments continued to pop up throughout the second set. Most people in the crowd probably weren’t familiar with Austin’s Bobby Earl Smith, but the former Freda & the Firedogs linchpin sounded great with Kimmie Rhodes on “Contrabandistas,” a song he wrote with Rhodes’ late husband, the longtime Austin DJ and producer Joe Gracey. Joe Ely, who’d served up the best musical moment at Thursday night’s preview reception, stood out once again with his own “I Had My Hopes Up High” and Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s “Dallas.”
Jamey Johnson, arguably the best singer on the bill, then stepped up with an impromptu solo reading of Shaver’s “Just Because You Asked Me To” after noting that Shaver had asked him backstage, “When are you going to do a whole record of my songs?” To which Johnson said he answered, “Tomorrow.” (That would be a welcome development, as it’s been nearly a decade since Johnson last released an album.) He followed with a rollicking take on the Waylon & Willie classic “Good Hearted Woman” that brought out the best in the night’s solid-as-a-rock backing band: directors Jennings and Cobb on piano and acoustic guitar, respectively, plus guitarists Chris Shiflett and Charlie Worsham (with Isbell occasionally joining them), Shires on fiddle, pedal steel guitarist Robby Turner, bassist Brian Allen, drummer Chris Powell, bacing singers Maureen Murphy and Kristen Rogers, and Chris Hennessee on harmonica.
Things got a little comical at the end when Jennings, caught up in wishing his mother a happy birthday, almost skipped over her signature song. Fortunately the band reminded him in time to turn the spotlight on her for a sterling rendition of “I’m Not Lisa” featuring just piano and steel guitar. Elizabeth Cook joined in for the house-rocking finale of Mickey Newbury’s “Why You Been Gone So Long,” sadly not credited to the monumental songwriter.
Perhaps the most revealing moment came near the end of the first set, when Nunn played his signature tune “London Homesick Blues” and encouraged the crowd to sing along on its well-known “Home With the Armadillo” chorus. At the end, there was a rousing standing ovation, but only from a minority segment of the crowd. That’s when you know exactly who the Texans in the audience were — a perfect visual cue for that Austin-Nashville push-pull that the museum’s exhibit portrays. (Nunn’s original handwritten lyric sheet for the song is in the exhibit.)
The exhibit’s opening-weekend festivities continue Saturday and Sunday with afternoon musical sessions involving Ely, Smith and Rhodes, plus a panel discussion about the Armadillo World Headquarters and an excerpt from Austin filmmaker Eric Geadelmann’s in-progress documentary series “They Called Us Outlaws.”