For a show like Music City Roots—that thrives on spontaneity and going against the grain—last night took things to a whole new level. And there was a full house of folks on hand to enjoy it, a butt in every seat and not a square inch of standing room unoccupied.
Marshall Chapman was born to host just such a night—even though she claimed to have never hosted a thing in her life. She rolled with the punches, got laughs and generally made her way through the show script with untamed rock ‘n’ roll authority.
And the lineup? Those formidable female artists and that band of veteran guys defied expectations in almost every way imaginable.
Elizabeth Cook took the stage first, backed by a band she said had never played together before (of course, the guitar slinger by her side was hardly a newbie—it was her husband and faithful bandleader, Tim Carroll). They tore through the best garage rocking honky-tonk set you’d ever want to hear, ending with the tough-talking, tongue-in-cheek unofficial anthem of the night—“Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman.” I should also mention that Elizabeth’s dad was there, along with the entire Smith County Senior Citizens Center. A wild crowd, to be sure!
Next up was Bailey Cooke, who got a much bigger sound out of her band than I’d expected based on the gentle, fetching acoustic sound of her new album. Sure, she played clawhammer banjo on some songs. But she also plugged in her brand new Gibson ES-335—a gift from Music Cares after last year’s flood—and showed her stylistic range with some country-tinged indie rock ballads.
Then Mary Gauthier entranced the audience with blues-shaded folk-country songs that felt like tangible human portraits brought to life—portraits of lonely souls and train-hopping hoboes. The accompaniment of Tania Elizabeth—who has an uncanny ability to coax otherworldly sounds from her fiddle—certainly didn’t hurt.
Abigail Washburn filled the stage, quite literally, with the biggest band she’d ever had. Six players are a lot for an artist who’s given her share of stripped-down performances. But adding pedal steel, fiddle, keyboards and a sympathetic rhythm section was the perfect way to showcase the expansive sound of her new music.
By this point in the show, we’d not only heard performances by three of the songwriters in my book, Elizabeth, Mary and Abigail—I’d also interviewed them about everything from their earliest musical experiences (playing harmonica in a blues club for Mary, gospel choir for Abigail and a kid country singing gig for Elizabeth) to their new music. They’d even turned the tables on me a time or two. And I’m proud to be able to say that I’m one of the few people not in Marshall’s book They Came To Nashville who’s gotten the chance to be interviewed by her.
Then we shifted gears from the female-centric portion of the show to their classic rocking older brothers, the Doobies. There’s nothing quite like standing on the side of the stage and hearing Tom Johnston, Pat Simmons, John McFee and, newer addition, John Cowan break into cool, California-style harmony on “Listen to the Music” and “Black Water.” It didn’t even matter that they didn’t have their trademark dual drummers—or even a single drummer—with them. They took everybody on a blissful trip back to the ‘70s.
People could sense they were really in for something—even if they didn’t know when that something was—when it came time for the finale. Somehow, some way every picker and singer there crammed onto the stage, and still left eight square feet of room for Elizabeth, Abigail and me to clog on. Yes, you read that right—I said “clog”.
Earlier in the afternoon we’d entertained some unsuspecting people in the parking lot while working up a little dance routine to Marshall’s favorite Willie Nelson-influenced version of “Stay All Night (Stay a Little Longer)”. And that, more or less, is what we ended the night with, backed by a mammoth, multi-generational, up-for-anything band. We stomped, shuffled, hollered and worked up a sweat. We also scuffed up the floor. Sorry about that!
No doubt about it—it was a night for the Music City Roots record books. A spotlight on female legends-in-the-making, shared with guys who’ve been there and lived to tell the tale. And I’m mighty glad to have been a part of it. Thanks so much to Marshall, Mary, Elizabeth, Abigail, Bailey, the Doobies and the entire MCR crew!
Clogging enthusiast and sometime interviewer,