WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama turned the White House into a country music hall on Monday, inviting an array of country stars for a concert that gave voice "to the emotions of everyday life."
Cowboy hats and bolo ties mixed with the majestic chandeliers of the East Room for a toe-tapping series of performances by Dierks Bentley, Alison Krauss, Lyle Lovett, Kris Kristofferson, Darius Rucker, James Taylor, The Band Perry, Lauren Alaina and Micky.
"Tonight, we are turning the East Room into a bona fide country music hall," Obama said. Only days after wrapping up a nine-day trip through Hawaii, Australia and Indonesia, the president told guests that Johnny Cash "was really singing our song when he sang, 'I've been everywhere, man.'"
Obama said country music tied together many threads of the nation's immigrant heritage, from the Irish fiddle, the German dulcimer, the Italian mandolin, the Spanish guitar and the West African banjo. "At its most pure, that's what country music is all about — life in America. It's about storytelling — giving voice to the emotions of everyday life."
Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, wearing a pink silk pantsuit, watched from the front row to a set list of country music past and present.
Bentley opened the concert by telling the audience that his thoughts were with members of the military and their families and then broke into a stirring rendition of "Home," his current hit.
Taylor, wearing a tan Stetson hat with his blue suit, sang his 1970s hit "Riding on the Railroads," and performed a version of Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman." Krauss performed an acoustic version of "When You Say Nothing At All," her 1995 hit song. Lovett reprised his 1994 hit, "Funny How Time Slips Away."
Country star Willie Nelson's influence loomed large over the show. Kristofferson and Rucker performed "Pancho and Lefty," a 1983 hit by Nelson and Merle Haggard, while Alaina did a rendition of Elvis Presley's "You Were Always on My Mind," which Nelson turned into a Grammy winner, also in 1983.
Some of the most recognizable country standards were featured, with Alaina covering Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter," and The Band Perry performing Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You."
Rucker, the former front man for Hootie and the Blowfish, got a shout-out from Obama — "Hootie's in the house," Obama told the audience — and later performed his contemporary hit, "I Got Nothin."
By the end of the night, the entire ensemble was on stage as Kristofferson led them in an uplifting version of "Me and Bobby McGee," the song Kristofferson co-wrote with Fred Foster and was later sung memorably by Janis Joplin.
Obama said the concert was a fitting tribute to the impact of country music on American life. Since first running for president, Obama said, "I've hopped on planes to big cities. I've ridden buses through small towns. And along the way, I've gained an appreciation for just how much country music means to so many Americans."
In 2009, Mrs. Obama created a White House music series that has celebrated jazz, country, classical, Motown and Latin music. She has also arranged salutes to Broadway, the music of the civil rights movement and Judith Jamison, an Alvin Ailey dancer and artistic director.
"Country Music: In Performance at the White House" will be broadcast Wednesday at 8 p.m. EST on PBS stations and shown at a later date on the American Forces Network to military service personnel around the world.