In Performance at the White House has come a long way since becoming an East Room tradition beginning in 1978 under the Carter administration. Now televised by PBS, the series has embraced the rich history of American music ranging from genres such as pop, country, jazz, gospel, and blues. In its 33rd year, the series continues to highlight a wide range of our nation’s absolute best.
I follow the @whitehouse on Twitter and although PBS televises the series, I decided to click on a link provided in a tweet that allowed me to watch a live stream of the latest special, two days before it televised. I suppose it was the next best thing to actually being seated in the East Room of the White House with the President and First Lady. My eyes were glued to my screen as President Obama welcomed those in attendance (which I like to think included me at home in my pajamas) to the “best welcome home party” he has had in a long time. An incredible lineup of contemporary country music artists paid tribute to the music that is so deeply rooted in American culture and history, including performances by Dierks Bentley, The Band Perry, Lauren Alaina, Kris Kristofferson, Allison Krauss, Lyle Lovett, Mickey, Darius Rucker, and James Taylor.
President Obama describes country music as “giving voice to the emotions of everyday life” and these performances showcased just that. Whether it was Lauren Alaina’s take on Loretta Lynn’s classic, ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter,’ an autobiographical tune about growing up one of eight children in the poor Kentucky mining community of Butcher Holler. Or how about Dierks Bentley’s latest hit, ‘Home,’ with lyrics such as “From the mountains high to the wave crash coast, there’s a way to find better days I know. It’s been a long hard ride, got a ways to go, this is still the place that we all call home.“ Time presses on, some things change and some things don’t, but the American Dream has never gone away and this song brings that message right back home. And then there was Kris Kristofferson and Darius Rucker’s rendition of ‘Pancho and Lefty,’ written by Townes Van Zandt, but also later made famous by artists such as Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. ‘Pancho and Lefty’ illustrates a journey of friendship, death and betrayal, while still leaving room for interpretation. This song is what I imagine Obama was referring to when he described country music as “storytelling.”
Country Music resonates whether I personally find my own story being captured in a song or whether just feeling the emotions of a character intricately told through the story of a song. Music can be an escape for me in both of those ways and that’s what happens every time I hear ‘If I Die Young by The Band Perry; two brothers and a sister, who have exploded onto the scene in recent times. I was thrilled to hear they would be a part of this series and that a song that is just as beautiful as it is sad would have the opportunity to shine at the White House. My attention was drawn to the Obamas and others seated in the East Room as Kimberly Perry narrated the reflection on a life lived by a young life lost. I wanted to see how those in attendance responded to not only lyrics, but poetic like messages found in verses such as “Lord, make me a rainbow, I’ll shine down on my mother. She’ll know I’m safe with you when she stands under my colors.“ The Band Perry brings a refreshing new spin to a concept that is nothing new to country music. These siblings take on loss, grief, and tragedy from the perspective of someone young, after they have left this life here. I wasn’t surprised to see how deeply people were moved by the haunting tale ‘If I Die Young’ tells. Songs like this are timeless and like Charley Pride has said, “There is enough room in country music for everybody”; as long as there are stories to be told, there are songs to be written and songs to be sung. Country music is a treasure to this great nation and it’s not going anywhere.
PBS full length video of the concert special:
Behind the Scenes of “Country Music: In Performance at the White House” provided by the White House, embedded below. Enjoy!