There’s no single date or inventor one can point to, but right around 100 years ago a scientific breakthrough changed music more profoundly than the piano or Beethoven or Johnny Cash. The triode vacuum tube was the key that unlocked high fidelity recording, radio transmission and amplification. Amplifiers took on more shapes and sizes than one could ever catalog, and they’re a factor in any musical performance beyond the virgin state of instruments and audience in close proximity. Even most classical concerts these days use microphones and sound “reinforcement.”
It is vitally important – for young folks especially – to be exposed to music coming directly from instruments to their ears without electrical mediation of any kind, because it feels different and special. And because, well, that’s music. But as much love as we have for pure performance, obviously even our most acoustic nights at Roots have to travel from stage to various audiences through conduits of electrical enhancement. This week was perhaps the most acoustic night at Roots ever. Demon electricity was used in the most sparing ways possible as a string of stringed instruments made simple sounds but complex effects. On a night celebrating the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, we truly took it back to the original, acoustic foundations of country music. It was easy on the ears and good for the heart.
I first became aware of the songwriting prowess of Ed Snodderly through the recordings of his long time friend and former band mate Missy Raines, who is fond of his works for very good reason. So it was a delight that Ed invited Missy out to accompany him on bass and voice. They rendered the ragtime feeling “Diamond Stream” and the quirky, minor-key “Black Crow” with its delicious lyrics. “Farther Than Your Eye Can See” floated like milkweed in the air. And they wrapped with the rollicking “Pearlie Mae.” I hope Ed gets more of his due as one of our great folk writers and artists.
Then we got a double dose of certified old-time from guys who are far from old. Twenty-year-old Corbin Hayslett came out with his frailing hand flying on the banjo as he sang and played a speedy “John Henry.” This winner of the Orthophonic Joy contest is coming into his own as a musician and entertainer; his stage banter (“jokes are cheap in Virginia, he said) was sharp beyond his years. I also adored his flatpicking and singing, so reminiscent of the great Norman Blake, on “Wreck of the C&O.” He offered a soft and lyrical banjo instrumental he’d learned from Mike Seeger and a turbo-charged “Darling Cora” to close. That fed like a diamond stream into the Blue Ridge Entertainers, the new duo of Coleman Akin and Kris Truelson, who threw it back so far I could easily imagine the rasp of 78 RPM shellac behind them as they sang. “Birmingham Jail” was a magnificent waltz with classic brother harmonies that swooped and danced around in perfect union. The song “I’m Saved” was a charming slice of early novelty country gospel in which all the key words were spelled. It was S-W-E-E-T.
Marty Raybon came less in bluegrass posture than I anticipated, but that was just as well because his old Shenandoah hits sounded great in unplugged, three-man format. Marty’s brother Tim played lead guitar and Mike Rogers played bass (the only electric instrument of the night) and when all three voices joined together on the rollicking “Church On Cumberland Road” the contemporary harmonies sounded all the more uplifting for all the older-school moods set to that point. Bluegrass and country music fans know about Marty’s voice. It’s sticky like a tobacco leaf and strong like whiskey, but it’s good for ya! He led the way on “Ghost In This House” and “Sunday In The South” and wrapped the set up with the bluegrass kicker “Down The Road,” taken nice and fast with great swing. What was it they used to say on WSM? “Too country and proud of it”? That’s how the set made us feel.
When the artists gathered for the Nashville Jam, the entire group was smaller than some bands we’ve had recently. But that made it easy for Jim Lauderdale to orchestrate a tight, bluesy “Sitting On Top of the World” which is always a self-fulfilling prophecy. It was all acoustic, but it was electrifying.