Merle Haggard may have been laid to rest Saturday near his home in California, but Tuesday night in Nashville, his Music City family gave him a fitting send-off at the All for the Hall benefit at Bridgestone Arena.
“We are sending our love and prayers and really dedicating this show tonight to the great Merle Haggard,” host Keith Urban proclaimed. “If you ever wondered what Merle looks like with headphones on, there it is!” he added, referring to the picture on his t-shirt.
Early in the evening, Keith’s co-organizer and fellow house band member Vince Gill dedicated his set solely to Haggard tunes, doing both “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” and “Fightin’ Side of Me.” Emmylou Harris followed with “Kern River.”
Sam Hunt delivered perhaps the most surprising cover of the evening, “The Way I Am,” matching it with a haunting story.
“The other night I was missing being able to go home and go fishing or go home and go turkey hunt or go home and go see my folks back down in Georgia,” he recalled. “I started playing this old Merle song. The next day, I had a co-write in town, so I got up and I called my manager Brad and I said, ‘Hey call up and see if maybe we can do “The Way I Am” next week at the All for the Hall show.’ I walked into my co-write and I’m in there for about an hour and a half and my buddy looks at his computer screen and he just out of the blue says, ‘Oh my gosh.’ He said, ‘Merle Haggard just passed away.’ And it sent chills up my spine and it gave me this real eerie feeling,” Sam said before launching into the hit from 1980.
CMA Entertainer of the Year Luke Bryan extended his set to deliver an impromptu rendition of “Big City.”
Urban ended the evening by revealing that the sixth All for the Hall benefit was officially the most successful one ever, raising nearly three-quarters of a million dollars for the Hall’s music education programs. Keith’s last musical offering was a reading of “Sing Me Back Home” that morphed into “Mama Tried,” with the night’s entire lineup returning to the stage for the final song.
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