Actress Minnie Driver pulled double-duty as a performer and host for the evening. She began by wrapping soft and surprisingly smoky voice around Mocking Bird and Beloved One. "I always was a musician. I just acted for the money. That's still the way it is," she joked.
The tone took a sharp turn when Nathan + The Zydeco Cha Chas took the stage with their washboard-and accordion-based, New Orleans Cajun-infused ditties. Scat singing and long instrumentals got the shy Opry crowd on its feet as the band (sometimes literally) danced its way through songs like Think About the Good Times.
Banjo master Bela Fleck sat surrounded by a trio of banjos, as he expertly picked through rhythmic and primal songs inspired by his trips to Uganda and Mali, where he studied the African origins of the banjo. Abigail Washburn later joined him for a stunning banjo/vocal duet of Key to the Kingdom. Steel guitarist Jerry Douglas joined Fleck for a rousing instrumental duet.
Soul singer Irma Thomas celebrated her 50th year as a recording artist. At first, she seemed diminutive as she waited for her cue to begin, but that all changed as her powerhouse Aretha Franklin-esque vocals wailed through her first song, If You Want Love. She all but roared through Needed Somebody and Sail On.
Mary Chapin Carpenter 's witty and introspective humor charmed the crowd as she bantered with Driver about their choices of footwear. "You're wearing heels, and I'm wearing Orthopedic Comfort," Carpenter told Driver. After Driver made an accidental misstep in announcing Carpenter, (calling her a Granny-winning instead of Grammy-winning artist) Carpenter joked, "I've got the shoes for it."
Carpenter said she will begin working on a new album for 2010, and sang Why Shouldn't We and her classic He Thinks He'll Keep Her.
Rounder 's shining jewel, Alison Krauss + Union Station, delivered gorgeous takes on A Living Prayer, Ghost In This House and the first song they ever performed for Rounder, Too Late To Cry with the song's author, John Puell, in the audience. Of the band's nearly 25-year relationship with Rounder, Krauss said, "I remember having discussions (with other labels), and I'm like, 'But I'm making the records I want to make right now.' I didn't have any interest in changing what I was doing for some kind of wider audience, maybe. I was really interested in recording...what I wanted to do, and I didn't see any reason to try something else."
For such a diverse lineup, the night wrapped up with a surprisingly tame collaboration on Angels Watching Over Me, and I'll Fly Away.
The event was taped as part of a television special for PBS, slated to air in 2010. Proceeds from the concert went to help NARAS' Grammy in the Schools program.