I constantly wonder and I sometimes ask our guests: what is it about country music that is so damned interesting and sustaining? How can so many of us who didn’t comprehend it as kids now find it the ultimate form for emotional expression in song? Done badly or pretentiously or greedily, country music is especially awful because it’s so transparent. But in the hands of real artists, those moody blue lines and carefully crafted language can add up to inexplicable levels of catharsis, calm and comfort. I shall not get into a pointless conversation here about the definition of “country music” and its strange annexation by the pop music industry. I know country when I hear it, and I heard it in the front, back and middle of Roots this Wednesday.
Of course with Jim Lauderdale opening every show, country music is nearly a given, and this week he sang “Halfway Down,” one of the songs that launched my love affair with Patty Loveless (a virtual one alas). But it was opening artist Derek Hoke who turned the Loveless into a dance hall. Too bad nobody took him up on the offer, because the swing was just right and there seemed to be more than the usual amount of floor between the stage and the pews. “Lonely Street” would be a perfect slow dance with that special sweetheart with its shuffley waltz time, if you perhaps tuned out the mournful lyrics. But “Hope We Make It On Love” and “The Finer Things” were utterly fresh and twirl-ready. Derek is neo-Nashville’s classic country Mr. Smooth, and we’re lucky to have him.
Rod Picott came next, with his craggy good looks and his sturdy songs of elbow grease and calloused hands. And while it doesn’t shuffle across a sawdust-covered floor like Hoke’s, Rod’s music is country in the same way that Springsteen is – direct, poetic and empathic. With East Nashville sweethearts Doug and Telisha Williams backing him on electric guitar and upright bass respectively, Rod opened with the title track from his recent “Welding Burns” album. “Some things you’re born to/some things you gotta learn,” he sings with worldly wisdom. Rod was dang funny too, setting up his one and only happy song amid his “circus of misery and heartbreak.” I’ve known and enjoyed that happy song for at least 12 years now. “Angels And Acrobat” it’s called and it really is a classic. Or should be. Set closer “410” was delivered with an extra edge of intensity. It’s a dark song, but what an insistent beat and tune.
I hope everyone enjoyed Delta Moon as much as I did. It’s a simple band with a simple plan, perfectly executed. Tom Gray and Mark Johnson both play slide guitar, the former overhand on electric lap steel and the latter underhand on a standard guitar with a bottleneck. On my planet, taste, tone and time are the three musical commandments (“thou shalt put heavy emphasis on…) and they were all about it. The razor sharp rhythm section of drummer Darren Stanley and bassist Franher Joseph laid out the grid, and the twin guitars filled it in with interwoven lines and fuzzy drones that evoked a trance-like state. It was close-your-eyes and float-on-the-groove music. And the lyrics of songs such as “Black Cat Oil” and “Hellbound Train,” sung in a distressed leather voice by Tom Gray, conjured a misty and forbidden world. True grit, these guys.
Barry Waldrep, the mountain of a man with the long blond hair, returned from Atlanta with his usual cadre of interesting pickers and singers. This visit he was featuring vocalist Paris Luna who surfed the boundary between country, blues and rock. I loved their take on the bluegrass standard “Darling Cory” for openers, with Barry and Paris locking voices together and a punchy mando solo from the big guy. “My America” and “If You’re Not There With Me” were more contempo-country. And “Coal Dust Revenge” was a swift instrumental that had Barry on frailing banjo and Bob Banerjee with feverish, friendly fiddle.
Okay I’ll try hard here not to dork-swoon too bad over Honeyhoney, but they made a super-fan out of me with five fascinating songs. I’ve known the name for a while, but I had not focused on their stuff until their Roots date. When I did, I was astonished that this duo of Suzanne Santo and Ben Jaffe could feel so of-the-moment and hip to their L.A. origins while tapping the yearning and formal traditions of country music so deeply and convincingly. “Angel of Death,” their opening song last night, swelled with pedal steel and coursed along over those three chords Harlan Howard spoke of as a swell vehicle for the truth. Loretta could sing this one. But it’s Santo that does the lead singing here, and her voice is a smoky, potent and emotional wonder. She played super solid banjo and fiddle too. Ben laid in killer harmony lines and resourcefully shifted from acoustic guitar to drum kit or even played them at the same time. I loved “Ohio” with its floaty, pretty opening and then its journey through coiled angst and into a sweeping and remarkable instrumental passage. They covered Radiohead and it nearly became bluegrass. It’s like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings as produced by Steely Dan, and I mean that as high praise. In the chat room, we learned that Honeyhoney recently relocated from Los Angeles to Nashville. Cha-ching! Howdy neighbors.
I got home in time to spin once through my newly gifted Honeyhoney album Billy Jack (thanks guys, it’s superb) while processing a busy day on Planet Music that included the death of the great Dave Brubeck (a popularizer of American roots music if ever there was one) and the Grammy nominations, which were full of Nashville cats and friends of the show. In fact at least one our of our extended family became a nominee while attending Music City Roots Wednesday night, so how’s that for incentive to come to every show? You never know what’s going to happen during the Loveless Jam.