As I pulled into the Loveless parking lot yesterday, NPR reported the death of Dick Clark, ageless music promoter and broadcaster. It’s easy to forget that when his Philadelphia TV show went national on ABC in 1957, rock and roll was still on the margins of American culture. Clark helped legitimize and mainstream it with personal cool and a show that gave parents reassurance and many legends their first big-time exposure. My understanding is that he desegregated the show as well, on stage and in the audience. If ever there was a bridge-building musical ambassador who understood the power of good presentation it was Mr. Clark. So I unofficially dubbed last night’s show Americana Bandstand in his honor.
We didn’t do the Twist or Watusi, but we did feature five exceptional men of roots, starting with Tommy Womack. Okay, so Tommy is always good, but last night reset the bar. As his last two albums have exceeded expectations and reasserted him as one of the exemplars of roots rock, Womack has shown more focus and confidence on stage. Last night’s version of his band Rush To Judgment was the best yet, with a two-man horn section and Jim Hoke weaving between sax and steel. “On And Off The Wagon” was such deep country that it finally healed the trauma I experienced watching the ACM Awards. Tommy offered a brilliant rap/recitation about the seamy underbelly of the touring life, and he wrapped with a forceful and greasy “Guilty Snake Blues.” He is to Nashville what Ray Wylie Hubbard is to Austin, and then some.
Up next was Todd Burge, established artist in his native West Virginia but emerging on a national stage. The support of fellow native son Tim O’Brien has gotta help, and Tim supported Todd on stage with electric guitar (a rare sight) and his band of Kenny Malone (drums) and Mike Bub (bass). Todd’s “Blue Monday” was full of great wordplay and some swingy rhythms that actually sound like Tim O’Brien influence. But hey, how could one not be influenced by him? Ryan Tanner was another newcomer to our stage, and his languorous roots pop sounded great with acoustic accompaniment plus steel guitar, which sounded especially on-task in “Lonely Night.” I think one reviewer praised Tanner’s “elegant melancholia” and we’ll second that.
Jason Ringenberg is now a good friend of the show, and he’s proven time and again he can command an audience with just an acoustic guitar, which is something most dervish rockers who front big loud bands can’t often pull off. I’m particularly fond of the way he does Merle Haggard’s “Rainbow Stew,” a dead ringer for a Jimmie Rodgers hobo song. And that set the stage for Tim O’Brien’s featured set. With his tight all-star rhythm section and that fountain of great songs, he was, well, nigh on to perfect. That’s kind of how he rolls. “You Ate The Apple” is my favorite song from his most recent album, just a classic marriage of wit and profundity. And in previewing his brand new family band (O’Brien Party Of Seven) album interpreting the songs of Roger Miller, he put about six coats of fresh colorful paint on “King of the Road.” It all led to a standing O’Vation. (I’ve been waiting months to use that.)
Jim Lauderdale and Keith Bilbrey’s banter achieved new levels of Shakespearian inspiration and Monty Python surrealism. The jam song about losing everything but a two dollar bill and the long journey home was spot on. The audience was full of great friends of the Nashville music community and it truly felt like the public square we’ve long hoped for. I’m sure Dick Clark often thought he had the best job in the world, but nah, we do.