This is what the Ryman Auditorium was built for. Marty Stuart’s Late Night Jam, the annual kickoff to CMA Music Festival, lived up to its name last night, running nearly four hours and featuring some epic only-in-Nashville performances.
Stuart, a walking country music encyclopedia, was a knowledgeable and welcoming host, setting the stage for artists from Brothers Osborne to his wife, Country Music Hall of Famer Connie Smith. And his own numbers, including a haunting run-through of “The Orange Blossom Special,” were captivating.
But it was when he welcomed Eric Church onstage a little after 1:00 a.m. that the evening truly heated up, reenergizing a crowd that had taken their seats hours earlier. While he eventually found his way to one of his own songs, the set-closing “Sinners Like Me,” with Stuart on lead guitar, Church seized the moment with three left-field covers. He and Stuart lit into “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’,” the host’s 1991 duet with Travis Tritt, with Church employing his usual vocal tics and hiccups to give the song an extra dose of crazy.
After addressing the crowd, Church brought out the big guns: Chris Stapleton, who opened for the Chief during his recent Outsiders World Tour, and one-half of Little Big Town in Phillip Sweet and Karen Fairchild. Along with Stapleton’s wife Morgane, the ensemble bobbed and weaved through the Band’s “The Weight,” with each vocalist taking a verse. (Watch the video below.) Like an installment of Levon Helm’s own Midnight Rambles, which he staged at the Ryman in 2008, the performance was gloriously ramshackle.
Still, the night’s curveball came afterward, as Church began strumming the opening chords to Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush.” Here was country’s preeminent alpha male singing the year’s most sultry torch song — and the fans hearty enough to still be awake ate it up. Fairchild stepped in to finish the song, balancing Church’s growl with her own purr.
Although Stuart’s meditative reading of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” was the coda, “Girl Crush” defined what the Late Night Jam is all about: a chance for artists of all stripes to let their guard down and sing what moves them.