NASHVILLE, Tenn. — For 17 years, the unofficial start of one of the biggest weeks for fans of country music has been Marty Stuart's "Late Night Jam," which precedes the four-day Country Music Association Festival.
Stuart kicked it off this year on Wednesday night with performances by country vocal powerhouse Chris Stapleton, country-rock pioneers Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn of The Byrds, singer-songwriter John Prine and country singer Margo Price, as well as others. The show raises money for MusiCares, the charitable arm of the Recording Academy.
At the Ryman Auditorium, Stuart told jokes and stories about growing up under the tutelage of Lester Flatts and Roy Acuff.
"I've got some cool friends, don't I?" Stuart told the sold-out crowd.
Stuart, with his shock of gray hair, mused that much has changed since he started hosting the show. "This used to be called 'Fan Fair,'" Stuart said, before adding an oft-cited but incorrect statistic that 100 people now move to Nashville every day. "Go home," he joked.
The five-time Grammy winner often joined his featured guests with his band The Fabulous Superlatives, while his mother, Hilda, had one of the best seats in the house, directly onstage off to the right.
"Did you get your money's worth?" Stuart asked his mother after introducing her to the crowd.
Hillman and McGuinn, who recently announced that Stuart will join them on their 50th-anniversary tour celebrating their iconic record, "Sweetheart of the Rodeo," played "You Ain't Going Nowhere," a Bob Dylan tune from that record, as well as Pete Seeger's "Turn! Turn! Turn!"
"I didn't know I had to walk on after that," said Stapleton, one of country music's biggest stars, before launching into his catalog of country soul songs, including "Whiskey and You" and "Broken Halos." He will play to a much bigger crowd when he headlines Saturday night's CMA Fest at Nissan Stadium.
The show concluded with Stapleton, Stuart and Dale Jett, a third-generation member of the Carter family who were pioneers of country music, leading the crowd in a rendition of the standard "Keep on the Sunny Side."
Follow Kristin M. Hall at Twitter.com/kmhall