Automatic Americana – MCR 8.3.16

I’ll remember this week’s show for two standout things, I suspect. First is hearing Jim Lauderdale get back to deep country music with a shockingly great band playing unreleased songs. Second, it was the first Roots where our teen daughter came out with me A) of her own free will and B) to help out and learn how we do things. She beeped in patrons at the box office and got a ‘staff’ tag on her chair. I’m not sure who felt cooler about that, her or me.

Unlike some recent nights, our roster of artists grouped stylistically in a relatively tight band of country rock and straight-up Americana, though not without distinctions and individual visions. Elise Davis opened the show with mid-tempo marches and confessional, melancholy stories about the quest for love. We learned in the interview that she’s a song generating machine, with seven albums out by her mid 20s. And what we heard were new ones off an upcoming disc called The Token. I love the title sentiment of “There’s a Right Way To Ask Me.” (Isn’t that true?) And “Penny” had a smooth Southern psychedelic touch. Stellar guitar came throughout the set from Clint Wells.

The women of Granville Automatic hit the stage as a study in contrast. Elizabeth Elkins played acoustic guitar off mic in a black leather jacket. Vanessa Olivarez sang wearing a striking vintage silver and black dress and a hat worthy of film noir. The music evoked similar contrasts – smoky, sophisticated and rootsy at the same time, with solid storytelling and ghosts hanging around. The Civil War figured in several of the songs, and even their proudly country anthem called “You Can Go To Hell, I’m Going To Texas” had a historical angle involving Davey Crockett. Olivarez closed with a moving a cappella song that put her nuanced voice on full display.

We never take Jim Lauderdale for granted, but it sure helps to hear regular shots of his full bandleader capabilities. His country ensemble is just magnificent, with Telecaster from Craig Smith, fiddle by Shad Cobb and the emotive pedal steel of Tommy Hanam. The main event always however is the songs, and these were mostly new to me, though he said their writing in some cases went back years. New classic after new classic spilled out. I was transfixed by “Lost In The Shuffle,” an idea so clean and hiding in plain sight that it’s amazing nobody’d worked it up before. “It All Started And Ended With You” felt like a Bakersfield hit of yesteryear. I love the Derailers 2001 take on “All The Rage In Paris” and it was great to hear Jim perform it. He closed with the very familiar “Halfway Down” and it was so fine Keith Bilbrey called for an encore. “The King of Broken Hearts” closed the set, harkening back to the Lauderdale debut album that helped me fall in love with country music in the first place.

Henry Wagons sees the world through glasses the color of a brown beer bottle and I wonder if it makes everything look like a 70s grindhouse film. He seems to stride around his own world of shag carpets and leisure suits, but his strident country rock doesn’t have a date stamp on it. It’s fun and mysterious and hummable. And he’s got moves: rocker moves, defiant moves, sleazy moves, preacher moves and messiah moves. It makes for a gripping performance. He sang of a desultory hangover in “Cold Burger, Cold Fries” (yuk). And “King Hit” was a dangerous and boozy dirty boogie with an electric guitar so edgy it sounded like it was played on desert power lines. He closed with a joyful and lusty audience sing-along on his anthem to the Outlaw druid called simply “Willie Nelson.” Cathartic, that was.

I’m happy to say Henry’s tunes and persona were so compelling that the Australian’s twang is what my Chinese teen daughter wanted to listen to on the way home. I think she’s gonna turn out okay.

Craig H.

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