As it sometimes does, Music City Roots felt last night like a sweeping survey of Americana from its stripped-down origins to its contemporary edge. That is as it should be, because our theme was a salute to the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, with five acts that will be gracing that festival’s many stages this weekend. Bristol is the home of the 1927 Big Bang recording sessions of commercial country music and a cool scene today that fits right in with nearby Johnson City, Knoxville and Asheville NC. So on a night when it stormed outside to beat the band, the bands on stage couldn’t be beat.
We got started in the hills of old Virginia, with a picker who truly reminded me of Doc Watson, and that’s not an easy comparison to make. Wayne Henderson is someone I’d heard about for years but never caught, and the guitar picker in me was knocked out by his unique style. I asked him about it on stage and he said that when he was young, before he knew about playing with a pick, a old fellow showed him how to play with a thumbpick and fingerpicks, which you slip on to your fingers like a banjo player. But where most folks would use that to make rolling patterns to play blues or ragtime, Wayne plays like a classical guitarist crossed with a flatpicker, smacking out fast, clean runs by plucking down with the thumb and up with his fingers. I couldn’t do this if you put a gun to my head. He was easy-riding and dazzling on “Nothing To It” and “Bill Bailey” and his partner Helen White sang a gentle “Are You Tired Of Me My Darling” and played some fine mountain fiddle. Both musicians, by the way, were playing glorious instruments hand-made by Wayne. This is taking authenticity to a higher degree than even we usually contemplate.
Up next, country music inspired by the 40s and 50s, as Todd Grebe and Cold Country took the stage with a fiery, blues-soaked quartet attack. Todd and fiddler Angela Oudean are bandmates in Barefoot, but here they indulge their love of a more classic and archaic sound, one I associate with the Monroe Brothers and Roy Acuff. Their matched vocals are gorgeous and the bass of Mike Bub and the hot mandolin of David Long propel their music to the front of the parade. “Until Tomorrow” was an alcoholic lament. “Let Me Fall” set lonesomeness to a brisk, grassy tempo. Desperation never sounded so fun.
Fun is the modus operandi of Shotgun Party, a trio from Austin that’s making a farewell tour after five years together. Always on the edge of wackiness, fiddler/singer Katy Rose Cox and singer/guitarist Jenny Parrott inspire and entertain with a punky abandon and a feel for hot swing, dirty jazz, early rock and roll and hillbilly ruckus. Their vocals matched best on “Whiporwill,” and “Loca” was distinguished by fiery fiddle fanfares with a Latin tinge.
That set up the Thrift Store Cowboys, a band that feels one way when joined by their sometime member Amanda Shires and another when they were in last night’s four guys mode. The unconventional and exceptional drumming and the effects-pedal indulgence from the electric guitar make an ambient and cinematic feel that reminds me of Calexico. While the intense, emotional singing of Daniel Fluitt led one to creep toward the edge of one’s seat. With songs (and song titles) like “One Gentle Inch To Nine Violent Miles,” one can sense the desire to reach beyond alt-country clichés, even as the lush steel guitar parts evoke the Lubbock, Texas landscape from whence them come.
The Cowboys couldn’t have been a better bridge to the moody textures of the everbodyfields. The reunion gig (first in what, four years?) with Sam Quinn and Jill Andrews and their mates measured up to the anticipation from fans who bolstered this group to national acclaim during their four-year run. The chemistry of Jill and Sam – as wildly different as they are – was always the elixir that folks couldn’t get enough of, and when they soared up high together on “Wasted Time” and “Leaving” it was chill-bump making and intoxicating. No doubt there will be throngs of folks welcoming them to the Bristol stage this weekend with a roar.
Jim Lauderdale and the whole gang assembled for an unprecedented double Loveless Jam. “Bury Me Beneath The Willow” was a nod to the Bristol Sessions of 1927. And “Oh Boy” acknowledged the very recent 75th birthday of the late great Buddy Holly. And as Jim would say, now THAT’s Americana.