By Sarah Rodman
September 18, 2019 at 09:07 PM EDT
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

By the time Luke Combs hit the first chorus of his heartfelt new song “Dear Today” at the all-star “All for the Hall” benefit concert at the Novo in Los Angeles on Tuesday night, Sheryl Crow and Emmylou Harris were visibly taken aback and Vince Gill was boasting a full Cheshire-cat grin, beaming like a proud dad. If cartoon thought bubbles had appeared over their heads, Crow and Harris’ shared exclamation would’ve read, “Holy s—, this kid has really got it!” and Gill’s would’ve said, “I told you!”

It was a funny and heartwarming moment, watching in real time as the new kid knocked the socks off the veterans as well as the enthusiastic crowd at the intimate concert benefitting the music education programs at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. While Crow, Harris, and Gill collectively have more than 100 years experience and 40 Grammy Awards between them, Combs more than held his own during the captivating 90-minute guitar pull, in which the quartet performed four rounds of songs.

The celestial-voiced Gill, a Country Music Hall of Famer himself and part-time Eagle, was, as ever, the consummate host. The Oklahoma native introduced the other performers, added incredibly tasteful guitar flourishes to almost every song, and generally cracked wise, when he wasn’t impressing with his own performances, including the heart-tugging “A Letter to My Mama,” from his new album Okie, and his classic “Whenever You Come Around.”

Still one of the most striking vocalists in music, Harris was breathtaking in harmony with Crow on Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Juanita,” Crow’s new song “Nobody’s Perfect,” and “Evangeline,” the classic from the revered Band documentary The Last Waltz, with an assist from Crow on accordion. As is the case with every “All for the Hall” show, and rounds in general, some great stories were told during the night about the songs, including Harris’ recounting of how it took three days to shoot the Alabamian’s one song in the film because of overactive smoke machines.

Crow, looking sharp in a snazzy chapeau, divided her turns between the old and the new. There was the melancholic aforementioned “Nobody’s Perfect,” from her latest album Threads, as well as her solemn hymn “Redemption Day” — recently re-recorded as a haunting posthumous duet with Johnny Cash for that project — and two of the Missouri native’s classic hits, a vibrant “If It Makes You Happy” and “Every Day is a Winding Road.” She was in particularly good voice all night, sliding all over her range with an impressive effortlessness.

The night’s biggest reaction, however, came for Combs, who shot to stardom in the last two years on the strength of the staggering five No. 1 singles from his 2017 debut album, This One’s For You, and its deluxe repackaging, cheekily named This One’s For You Too. Men and women were shouting out their love for the 29-year-old singer-songwriter from North Carolina, who spent the time he wasn’t performing paying homage to his elders on stage.

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Combs’s numbers ran the gamut of emotions, jerking tears with “Dear Today,” a letter from his future self to appreciate what he has now and remember not to take the people he loves for granted; setting toes tapping to the rollicking jam of unbelievable good fortune “When It Rains It Pours”; and roiling hearts with the romantic, stormcloud-driven drama of “Hurricane.”

It was an unnamed new song, one he had just written in the last few weeks while he was on a well-earned break, however, that had the deepest impact. With lyrics that addressed the whole village of people that shaped who he is — including his parents — and the village that comes to see him play, Combs distilled the concept of artistic gratitude into a gorgeous ballad. With lines addressing his dad selling his record collection and his mom working two jobs to keep the family afloat and fans paying for tickets, gas, babysitters, parking, and more in order to see him and intoning “Me don’t mean a thing without you,” the song was a love letter to the unnamed but never unimportant people who make us who we are. At its conclusion, Crow simply threw her hands up and exclaimed, “Touchdown!” with Gill adding, “He shoots! He scores!”

Backstage before the show, Combs had been refreshingly confident. “I’m not going to go up there and play guitar better than Vince Gill, no way, no how,” he said with a laugh. But he didn’t have trepidation either, vowing presciently to make fans of his fellow performers. On stage he was, wisely, endearingly self-deprecating, and to Combs’ protestations of not belonging on the stage, Harris sweetly called the night “part of your apprenticeship.”

Combs, who has a new album coming in early November, noted that, at this point in his career, he doesn’t have a lot of cool stories like his stagemates. (Tales about Merle Haggard and Don Henley were among the highlights.) But, he said, his cool storytelling repertoire just received a new entry thanks to “All for the Hall”: “I will tell this story about playing with you guys tonight.”

The night opened with an utterly charming performance of a song penned by a class of fifth-grade students from Elysian Heights Elementary with Nashville songwriters Liz Rose, Phil Barton, and Tenille Townes. The three pros sat in with the kids on the tune about what they would do if they ruled the world. (Lyrics included caring for the environment and bullies becoming kind, so maybe we should give them a shot?)

That element in particular was the embodiment of the purpose of the “All for the Hall” concert series — to raise money for the museum’s educational programs — and is clearly near and dear to each of the artists’ hearts, particularly Crow, who used to be an elementary school music teacher. Backstage before, the show the singer-songwriter talked about the show being doubly enjoyable for that reason. “It’s like a one-two punch,” she said. “I love that I get to go up and play with people, but the other thing is that it’s wonderful to be able to raise some money, particularly for music education. My whole thing for the last 10 years has been ‘How do we get instruments in the kids’ arms?’ Because what it looks like a lot of times when you just watch TV and social media and stuff, it looks like ‘Why play an instrument if you can dance?’ And while there’s room for everything, we need our singer-songwriters too.”

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