Easily, the biggest surprise participant was Ke$ha, who simply nailed "Hello Darlin'." Was this really the same singer that scored hits like "Tic Toc," where she got all naughty in a faux valley girl singing voice? It was akin to how Lady Gaga previously revealed her naturally beautiful singing voice by trading lines with Tony Bennett on a duet album and later performing a spot-on national anthem at a Super Bowl. (Ke$ha's soulful reading of this Conway Twitty song was far better than much of what tries to pass itself off as female country singing on the radio).
The night's most humorous - both visually and aurally - moment came when the diminutive Lori McKenna and redwood tree tall Robbie Fulks paired to sing "You're the Reason Our Kids are Ugly." Fulks was far better with the sarcastic ad lib barbs though because McKenna is just far too nice.
Other highlights included Brandy Clark's audience sing-along of "Coal Miner's Daughter," as well as her reading of a personal note from the honoree, Lynn, who could not attend her party. Joe Henry put Lynn's burgeoning artistry in perspective by singing "Whispering Sea," the first song Lynn ever wrote. It revealed her natural talent - even at the start. Also, notably, Fantastic Negrito, wearing an old army coat, transformed "In the Pines" into a soulful blues lament.
The night ended John Carter Cash, a producer on Lynn's most recent "Full Circle" album, leading many of the night's performers in a spontaneous choir singing of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." In our much-fractured contemporary world, it was heartening to be reminded of country music's sturdy connectedness. Lynn's oftentimes confrontational songs still stand up well today because her fighting spirit continues to inspire equally independent artists, including pop stars like Ke$ha. There was no glitz this night, just great songs, which is likely exactly how Lynn would have wanted it.