- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 2, 2006

City suits met cowboy boots at “The Country Salutes Country” concert at the Kennedy Center Friday evening, part of the institution’s three-week program devoted to a national celebration of that indigenous American art form presented in partnership with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

The sold-out event proved to be a surefire crowd pleaser, bringing together some of the biggest names in the business to take part in the first such festival of its kind at the Kennedy Center. The center’s founding chairman, Roger L. Stevens, reportedly once turned down a chance to feature Chet Atkins on the grounds that the famed country guitarist wasn’t visual or “arty” enough.

Current Chairman Stephen Schwarzman more than made amends in remarks to patrons and donors at a pre-performance dinner (corn bread, beef short ribs, okra and peanut butter mousse) in the center’s Atrium, admitting that the festival “is a little different from the types of things we do at America’s cultural center, but we understand the need to devote serious attention to unique forms of American expression and country music is one of the best.”

Some 4,000 people had come out for an Earl Scruggs concert on the all-free Millennium Stage on March 21, he bragged, before praising the music for its “way of capturing the human spirit and articulating the struggles of life as no other art form can. … It has an uncanny way of getting right to the point,” he added, citing as an example “the ever-popular ‘I’m Just a Bug on the Windshield of Life.’”

Guests included a tall man who kept his cowboy hat on throughout dinner. Later he explained straight-faced that he did so because he was “folliclely challenged” — i.e. bald — and said jokingly that his identity was “classified.” It was Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who received a special mention on stage later from veteran performer Ray Price, who dedicated a song to him. Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist also were in the crowd, as was newly anointed Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, a guest of Mr. Schwarzman.

The night had good vibes, often in unexpected ways, such as the reception accorded singer-composer Kris Kristofferson, who was hailed by affable master of ceremonies Vince Gill, a top performer in his own right, as having had “a real interesting life, maybe more than anyone in our history,” and the sight of Naomi Judd and her daughter Wynonna (who has dropped her last name), the mother-daughter team having a reunion of sorts.

Wynonna told press hounds at the after-party that it was all “spontaneous,” their first get-together in three years. Earlier she told the audience that someone once asked her whether she sang country. “When you live on a bus with your mother for 20 years and you do her hair for free, that’s country.” And to a binocular-toting fan sitting up close, she commented, “It’s not perfect but it’s real, honey.”

Most singers sang praises for the chance to perform at the center, with Lee Ann Womack calling it “the highlight of my career.” Mr. Gill, unable to resist a few seemingly spontaneous local references, joked at the party that “I like being here, but I still don’t want to go hunting with Dick Cheney,” after touting the thrill of being in Washington “for the sake of what the city represents in terms of history.”

— Ann Geracimos

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