“Don’t Give Up If You’re Good”

Thousands of us have come to Nashville as pilgrims who stayed, and I often wonder how our perceptions and experiences get shaped by the year we arrived. Especially: who became our favorite bands/artists that spoke to us about our new Nashville? I moved here in 1996 – just before the transformative East Nashville tornado. The musical buzz at that time was about the burgeoning alt-country scene, led by BR549 downtown and distinctive songwriters like Phil Lee at the late, great Radio Café. And in nosing around that world, the name Tim Carroll emerged. He was suspended between country and punk rock and he was fantastic. Still is.

Tim has a great song about the pilgrimage that begins “I first came to Nashville with my heart full of hope. In a little while I started feeling like a dope.” But it’s not a downer of a song or an indictment of Music City. He’s told by more experienced hands not to get discouraged. It’s a “Five Year Town” they say (that’s the title). And they give him the most important advice of all: “Don’t give up if you’re good.”

Carroll never gave up and he’s made some of the brashest, brightest, brainiest rock and roll of his era, becoming a Nashville staple for anyone in the know. And we’re excited that after too long a wait, Tim will play Roots as a featured artist for the first time. He’ll be joined by two remarkable artists who are in their five year break-in periods in Nashville, though blues-rocker Patrick Sweany and country delight Kelsey Waldon arrived with strong reputations, and things may move faster these days. Then we’ll enjoy a return visit by the roof-raising fiddle and vocal explosion that is Washington DC’s Scythian.

Tim Carroll hails from rural Indiana and played in punk bands before moving to town in 1993. In a phone call this week he said his songwriting at that point steered toward country just out of sheer osmosis and honor for Nashville’s legacy. “But I kind of failed at that,” he says (utterly ignoring the fact that he’s had songs recorded by John Prine, BR549, Asleep At The Wheel and others. “I lucked into getting a record deal. And then it was (about making) what’s in my soul. And that’s what I’ve done ever since, good or bad. And it’s worked in my favor that Nashville is less dominated by country music. It used to be you’d move here and the first thing you had to do was go down to Music Row. Now I don’t think they even know where that is. They come straight to East Nashville and start rocking out.”

The record deal was in ’97 with the cool but tumultuous Sire Records, where numerous Americana acts had mixed experiences. Tim made a fantastic album but it never got released, and ultimately he just put it out himself under the cheeky title “Not For Sale.” That’s where we fans found “Five Year Town,” plus the poignant “A Good Cry,” the melodious power-popping “After The Hurricane” and the typically witty “Girl That’s Hip.” It’s one of Nashville’s greatest underground albums. But there have been more excellent albums that followed, and years of great shows – on his own and in support of his wife Elizabeth Cook, with whom he’s played worldwide and on scores of Grand Ole Opry gigs.

These days you can find Tim Carroll hosting Friday evening happy hours at the Five Spot in East Nashville, where you’ll hear his work classic and new. Drummer Steve Latanation and bassist Bones Hillman have been working with him regularly so the band is tight and dialed in. “We can really jump all over it,” Tim says. He adds that he’s been making forward progress on the guitar, and he was great at that even back in the day. “And lately I’ve tried to get better at performing solo. I used to feel that stripped away one of the things I was good at which was playing lead guitar. But anymore I’ve tried to get comfortable with it because I am proud of my songs and I like presenting them.” That’s just what he had to do this week when the power was out at the Five Spot and Tim did his show au natural on acoustic guitar. A man of resources who never quit, he is.

Patrick Sweany is a good match for Tim on a bill like ours. He’s got raw edges and an easy familiarity with greasy rock and roll and much more besides. In just about every respect he’s a muscular performer who leaves people with strong memories. He’s from northeastern Ohio and when he first emerged in the late 90s it was an acoustic blues singer songwriter in the vein of Jorma Kaukonen and the Piedmont legends. His bold, rich voice and fleet fingers won him immense praise and alliances. He made albums with Dan Auerbach producing before most folks had heard of the Black Keys. And Sweany trended his sound to the electric pan-Americana feel of today. I like the words chosen by the Cleveland Scene: “To say Patrick Sweany is just a blues musician is like saying Coke is just a soft drink. A Sweany set can veer from soulful, slow burn, John Lee Hooker-style blues to swampy, delta-country pickin’ to white-hot rockabilly…Sweany has arrived as a major talent.” My own take from his visit to our show in May 2011 was to call him “core curriculum Southern American blues rock,” and his releases since then, including 2013’s Close To The Floor have only reaffirmed that. He’s simply a must-see in our world.

One hopes for the same growth and stature for young Kelsey Waldon, a very pure country singer/songwriter from Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky who’s taking the country-scenti by storm. One national webzine named her among the “9 Real Country Music Stars Of Our Generation” and Austin journalist Brian Atkinson named her a top performer at SXSW last year. She fan-funded the release of a hotly anticipated album called Gold Mine, which comes out in late June. She loves Tom T. Hall, Loretta Lynn and I’m guessing her mama. I can’t wait for my first live taste of Kelsey’s rich, honest music.

Our out of town guests are proven performers at the Barn. When Scythian visited us three years ago, I noted that “with a little Cajun, a little Gypsy and a lot of passion and precision, they built a real set and ended with almost punk fury and speed. The triple fiddles in “Dance All Night” made a gorgeous sound and “Blair Athol” was a stage-shaking climax.” They’re a quintet from our nation’s capitol that draws liberally on America’s diverse musical traditions. Indeed it’s billing the current tour as the Immigrant Road Show, and they’re celebrating 10 years as a band with a tour of Ireland. (And they’re taking fans with them, should you want to look into that.)

So come join us for our fourth-to-last show at the Loveless Barn for some fantastic artists who never looked back and never gave up.

Craig H.

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