When I was a kid, they taught us in school about the instruments (do they even do that anymore?), and they kind of passed them off as ALL the instruments. Once you knew about your strings, winds and your English horn and your tympani, you were good to go. But I can’t tell you how often we encounter completely novel, foreign or unusual instruments at Music City Roots. The band Poor Old Shine recently came by with an antique hand-pumped organ at the core of its sound.
The Loveless Jam, a beloved feature of Music City Roots since its inception, has impelled me over the years to dance, sing along, shake a tambourine and - a few times - shake my head in disbelief. But not until Wednesday night’s show did it bring a tear to my eye. Ballads are not generally good material for an all-hands-on-deck sing-alongs or show-closers.
Not to be too cosmic about it, but our wildly diverse Wednesday night show got me thinking again about Jim Lauderdale’s yin-yang suit. Jim’s an expert at Tai Chi you know, and the key symbol of Tai Chi’s affiliated Taoist faith is the yin-yang, an expression of the universe’s interwoven opposites. The idea is that black and white (or male and female or up and down) don’t exist on their own. One bids the other into being and each contains the essence of the other.
One of our most loyal Roots regulars approached me after the show Wednesday night and observed that even more than usual, I’d had a giant smile plastered on during pretty much the whole affair. Yes, guitars make me happy even when nobody’s playing them. But to have four brilliant artists making such a wide range of absorbing, original music on Nashville’s MVP of instruments was truly special.
We got the sad news this week that Lou Reed had died at age 71, but I’m sure not many people imagined that had much to do with bluegrass and Americana. After all it wasn’t Lou Reid of The Seldom Scene but Lou Reed the black leather knight of New York art punk. But inspired by the cathartic and anthemic version of “Sweet Jane” during the Loveless Jam at this week’s show, I did a little Googling and it turns out there’s a tiny slice of overlapping Venn diagram between the Velvet Underground and the bluegrass world.
The ancient Greek poets and classical authors of epics used to “invoke the muse” at the beginning of their works. It was a kind of prayer, either vaguely secular and directed at the universe or more specifically at the original Muses, said to be the nine daughters of Zeus who mediated the creative spirit. I’m a humanist so I put huge faith in the innate inventive powers of people and their brains without divine assistance.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe these things work out by coincidence. But booking is subject to many arbitrary forces, including tour routing, the sunspot cycle and the migratory patterns of Canadian geese. So on our first night back from break for our Nature Conservancy benefit/ Fall 2013 opener / fourth anniversary show, it was a bit déjà vu-ish to be visited by two brassy and curvaceous powerhouse lady singers, each with audacious tattoos, a taste for the retro and trumpet-plus-trombone horn sections.
This missive comes to you from deep inside a vortex of good company and remarkable music. Perhaps you are or were there with me. Or perhaps you’re wishing you were here. Or you may have no idea what I’m talking about.
Is there a finer virtue than optimism? On its own it’s a life force, but it also tends to drag a lot of other qualities along with it, from integrity to perseverance. If you ever met our company honchos Todd and John, you’d realize quickly that their optimism – a rare, distilled strain of the stuff - is the reason Music City Roots exists. They’ve bet on the growth of good music, the intelligence of the public and the support of a community.
I noted in my preview post that the gas in our show’s tank, besides musical creativity, is community. Inspired by Virginian Scott Miller I called it Our Commonwealth, though if you’ll notice I stopped short of declaring us our own sovereign nation, tempting though that may be. And Wednesday night’s show validated my premise. We kept running into long lost friends. Country singer Jessica Stiles popped up across the chicken buffet. Amy Reitnouer, doyenne of the Bluegrass Situation surprised us with a drop-in, along with bass man/songwriter Jon Weisberger.