Carrie Underwood Takes the Kennedy Center Opera House Stage for Linda Ronstadt

On Sunday night (Dec. 15), living rooms across America were filled with the sights and sounds of the 42nd Annual Kennedy Center Honors, when country stars Carrie Underwood, Trisha Yearwood, Emmylou Harris and Thomas Rhett all took the stage to celebrate this year’s special honorees. First up was Linda Ronstadt.

Don Henley, himself a 2016 Kennedy Center honoree, was on hand to present Ronstadt with the award. He started by saying that the first time he heard Ronstadt sing, “it was like everything stopped.”

“Soon after we met, I was hired to play drums with (Ronstadt) on the road, and my roommate on that tour was her guitar player Glenn Frey,” he said of the man who would go on to help him start the Eagles in the early 70s. “Linda became one of the most popular, most respected female artists of the 20th century, holding her own in an industry that had been mostly run by men.”

Then he introduced Underwood.

Gail Schulman

Underwood first performed the honoree’s stunning 1977 cover of Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou,” and then her 1975 cover of the Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved.” (With Rita Wilson and the Jonas Brothers all singing along from their seats.) Underwood shared a picture of herself with Ronstadt before the show aired, saying, “I hope I made you proud, Linda.”

Harris took the Kennedy Center Opera House stage shortly after that, and told her own story of her first meeting with Ronstadt. “It was February of 1973. Linda, opening for Neil Young, had just wowed his crowd of thousands in Houston, Texas, and then made her way across the tracks to Liberty Hall, a hippie honky-tonk where I was doing two shows a night,” she said of the night they met, almost five decades of friendship ago. “It has been one of the great joys of my life to sing with Linda.” (Their friendship lasted much, much longer than that music room, which was only open from 1971-1978.)

Then she introduced Yearwood.

Gail Schulman

First Yearwood belted out “You’re No Good,” Ronstadt’s 1975 cover of the Dee Dee Warwick song, then Aaron Neville joined Yearwood for “Don’t Know Much” a 1980 Barry Mann ballad that Ronstadt and Neville made famous in 1989. Like Underwood, Yearwood tweeted before the show, after she’d had dinner with both Ronstadt and Harris.

Later in the show, country star Thomas Rhett came out on the Opera House stage as well. Only he wasn’t there to fête Ronstadt. He was ready with a tribute to honoree Sesame Street. He greeted Elmo first, then talked about what it’s like being on the road when he’s on tour, and how there’s no street quite like Sesame Street. After that conversation, he performed “This Is My Street” — a song he’d penned earlier this year to be the anthem for Sesame Street’s 50th Anniversary Season — with seven of the Muppets on background vocals.

Gail Schulman

Other honorees at this year’s Honors included Earth, Wind & Fire, Sally Field and Michael Tilson Thomas. The Kennedy Center Honors medallions were presented one night earlier at a State Department dinner.

“In this class of honorees, we are witnessing a uniquely American story: one that is representative of so many cultural touchstones and musical moments that make our nation great,” said Deborah F. Rutter, president of the Kennedy Center. “When I look at this class, I see the hopes, aspirations, and achievements not just of these honorees, but of the many generations they have influenced and continue to influence.

“We’re not just looking back; these honorees are urging us to look forward as well.”

Alison makes her living loving country music. She’s based in Chicago, but she’s always leaving her heart in Nashville.