Americana Idols

American Idol comes in for a lot of grief from hardcore music fans, and not without some justification. But I often take the counter-intuitive side in that conversation. Because despite its inadequate construct of what makes a great singer, the show is maybe the only place on major-league TV where they actually talk about music, including issues like intonation, poise, song choice and the mechanics of improvement. I’ve been more entertained than offended by it over the years as a casual, check-in viewer.

I’ve been more troubled by Nashville’s peculiar relationship with American Idol. Early on, the show gifted Music Row one of the biggest stars of her time – Carrie Underwood. And then the hat factory began farming the show for almost any Idol finalist who could plausibly be packaged as country. Never mind their mediocrity (or the dues-paying strivers down on Lower Broadway who were better), these mid-tier contestants were perceived as lucrative because they’d been exposed to millions of viewers. And the result has been some pretty inauspicious releases and a lot of promotion money down the drain.

Funny then, that as far as I can discern, Music Row hasn’t offered 2011 finalist Paul McDonald a record deal. I mean they may yet, because the biz is changing. But based on his performance at Roots on Wednesday night, he would seem to be a catch for a label insofar as his ability to, well, write, sing and perform. Shot through with energy and topped out with a distinctive and deliciously raspy voice, Paul found a satisfying middle ground between Americana shagginess and pop finesse, capping off a brilliant evening of music at the Loveless.

If it ended big and blazing, it began modest and intimate. Bill Mize is a super calm guy with a lyrical touch on the acoustic guitar. He opened with “The Angel’s Share” a sparkling and shimmering piece that suggests that when the celestial host get buzzed on bourbon fumes it’s a mellow experience more than a big toga party. Bill invited friend Beth Bramhall on stage to play accordion on one spring-themed number, and you may know that I think accordion can make any music better. My favorite of his tunes was “Cherokee Morning” with its hand-on-guitar percussion undergirding the clean melody line.

Up next came Annabelle’s Curse, an interesting five piece from Bristol TN/VA focused on the guy/gal harmony vocals of Tim Kilbourne and Carly Booher. He played electric banjo and she the mandolin, and with bass/drums/guitar support they built up layers from a spare march to a big Mumford-meets-Coldplay climax. Good stuff, and I’m sad we only had time for a couple of songs. They have a bold vision. Then, in one of our classic mood switcheroos, we lept from cerebral roots pop to uproarious country blues fun with Michael “Supe” Granda and his band of musical beardos. Tom Mason, our favorite pirate, played electric guitar. Michael Webb squeezed the squeezebox. Granda kicked off with “Biscuits And Gravy,” an ode to the world’s most nourishing breakfast. Then came a raw, rustic waltz and then a nostalgic and funny tribute song to Mel Bay, the legendary publisher of music instruction books. Two signature Supe Christmas songs rounded out a whimsical but well-played set.

The next slot filled me with anticipation and relief, for we’d come tantalizingly close to landing Langhorne Slim a while back, but the guy’s in demand and it didn’t work out. Now, the former Brooklynite and former Porlander is a new Nashvillian, so hey, he could play Roots all the time, and that would fit great. In a world full of singer-songwriters, Slim has that extra edge, that extra passion, that heart-filling touch. His subjects are serious, but the show isn’t somber. He’s this rangy figure who throws his body into the rhythm and his lungs into the song. I kind of forgot to take notes I was so involved. But I can say that “The Way We Move,” the title track to his newest album, is a stomping, strumming firecracker of joy. Langhorne’s final song dialed back the energy at first, but soon “Past Lives” grew to a feverish heat, and the singer took to the audience on an extra long mic cord and sang amid the crowd. He left everyone singing the refrain “I ain’t dead,” which was more uplifting than it may seem there in print.

It was hard to suppose Paul McDonald was going to top that for energy, but he at least equaled it. His sound is loveable American mutt, with set opener “Pick Me Up” drawing on gospel, folk, R&B and blues to find its poppy sweet spot. McDonald did a song from his former band the Grand Magnolias, which was a great name by the way and also the way in which our booking team fell for Paul and his music long before the Idol experience. A big part of Paul’s story is his whirlwind romance with actress Nikki Reed and their new project which finds them writing and singing together. Nikki came on for the last few songs, and their duets “All I’m Asking” and “The Best Part” were romantic and engaging, the latter with a nice loungy vibe. Paul got kind of anthemic on the final song “Girl Upstairs,” truly ending the show with some showmanship.

Well not quite ending the show. Of course there was a Loveless Jam and it was one of the best sing-alongs ever, as Jim Lauderdale led the gang on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” whose beginning and ending sounded downright rehearsed they were so on target. In between some great vocal turns by everybody. We got what we wanted – a night of artistry worth idolizing.

Craig H.

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