In the beginning, God placed six strings across a fretted plank and attached them to a resonating box of wood shaped like a woman. Good idea. Okay, actually it was the Spanish, and we here in the U.S.A. should be forever in their debt, because inadvertently some guys back in the 16th century gave America the instrument it needed to rewrite the history of music from the ground up in the 20th century. The guitar has been America’s muse and its most companionable musical friend. You can take ‘em places. You can play them solo or in a group – electric, acoustic or somewhere in between. You can pick them like Doc Watson or strum them like Dolly Parton with four-inch fingernails or stroke them with a bare thumb like Wes Montgomery. People will it seems never run out of fresh ways of playing this deceptively simple box.
And of course the guitar has been at the core of American roots music in just about all its forms and essential to the fate of Nashville. They call it Guitar Town, so it seemed like a great idea to celebrate Nashville’s most consequential instrument with some of today’s most consequential players. And I think we’ve been able to put together a dream team.
David Grier will open the show, and I’ve got a story about him. Back in the early 90s I was working as a Capitol Hill correspondent (glad I don’t have that gig now) and most afternoons I’d have WAMU’s amazing bluegrass shows on in my office. They began playing a lot of tracks by this guitarist David Grier and I just couldn’t believe my ears. It was everything I loved about Doc Watson, Tony Rice, Norman Blake and Clarence White all filtered through a genius-level imagination. I bought as many of his albums as I could and I can’t recommend enough his duo album Climbing the Walls with Mike Compton. Fast forward to my first ever trip to Nashville in about 1994, and who happens to be playing at the Station Inn on the very night of my first pilgrimage to bluegrass Mecca? Yep. Grier in person was an off-the-charts experience. He’s remained an inspiration, and he will start our evening off with his delicate, daring and fluid flatpicking style.
From there we’ll move on to the youngest picker of the evening, though he’s clearly an old soul. Ben Hall grew up in Okalona, Mississippi, where he became obsessed with early country guitar styles, chiefly those of the great Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. Where David Grier and another guest Bryan Sutton are flatpickers, Hall’s school is the most artful folk form of fingerpicking. Travis did it with just a thumb and one finger on tunes like “I Am A Pilgrim” and “Cannonball Rag” while Chet had almost a classical style that used thumb and two or three fingers. Hall has really found a way to build on those archetypal styles and add his own voice to the journey of the guitar. He’s won some prestigious contests and he earned his first big gig when the late great Charlie Louvin heard him picking. It’s awesome to see such a young guy dedicate himself to a style that few of today’s country guitar players can play.
Viktor Krauss is the only name on our bill who isn’t chiefly known as a guitar player, but his guitar-centric group is a favorite of mine and they just had to be part of our night at the barn. Unless you’ve heard Viktor’s band in action or heard his records, there’s almost no way I can explain its magical, magisterial sound. Working with Todd Lombardo on acoustic guitar, and Steve Walsh on electric guitar and Robert Crawford on drums, Krauss composes and conjures up lush, tuneful soundscapes that invite calm contemplation. It’s about texture and mood as much as anything, but it’s a school of jazz fusion that I think our audience will appreciate and enjoy right away.
Then we’ll revisit bluegrass, but not exclusively, because the amazing Bryan Sutton can play about any style you throw at him. This Asheville, NC native grew up in the rich bluegrass and old-time scene of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and he emerged as a teen prodigy who landed a big gig with Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder. He brought more speed, polish, tone and precision to that big loud band than anyone had seen before. Because of that, he became Nashville’s go-to studio guy for acoustic guitar, highlighting records like the Dixie Chicks’ Home and Dierks Bentley’s Up On The Ridge. He’s released four albums under his own name that encompass ‘grass, hot swing jazz and new acoustic sounds. You can also see him on stages around the nation with Hot Rize and the Acoustic All-Stars of Telluride. And at the Loveless Barn this week.
And that brings me to Guthrie Trapp. To him I give my personal award for biggest guitar surprise of the past five years. I first saw him with the Don Kelly Band on Lower Broadway, which is like the on-deck circle for Nashville’s next great guitarists. Then I saw him with the Jerry Douglas Band, playing both acoustic and electric, and he was electrifying. Then, it was in my neighborhood at the 12th South Tap Room in a little jazz/blues combo where there were no rules and no time limits, that I really came to understand the scope of this guy’s talent. Guthrie is the only player I’ve ever seen who I think can be considered a true peer of the late great Danny Gatton, a DC based guitarist I got to see many times and who’s said by some to be the greatest ever. It’s not just Trapp’s technique that puts him in the upper echelon. It’s his ideas, which flow like a Rocky Mountain waterfall. I can’t wait to hear what he pulls together for this night, because we’ve told him he’s got total freedom.
So come out. Tune in. If you love the guitar at all, I don’t think you could experience a more complete or exceptional lineup of six-stringed greatness.