Submitted by Craig Havighurst on November 21, 2013 – 16:48
The Loveless Jam, a beloved feature of Music City Roots since its inception, has impelled me over the years to dance, sing along, shake a tambourine and – a few times – shake my head in disbelief. But not until Wednesday night’s show did it bring a tear to my eye. Ballads are not generally good material for an all-hands-on-deck sing-alongs or show-closers. So I was surprised and kind of perversely impressed when it became clear that Jim Lauderdale and the musicians were thinking about cooking up “You Don’t Know Me,” the title track of the recent Plowboy Records Eddy Arnold tribute album that we were celebrating, to be the night’s grand finale. It was tense. Should they or shouldn’t they? There’s no chorus. It’s slow and emotional. Could it possibly translate? Well, dear readers you’ll just have to bear with me on that one because it was at the end of the show and we’re at the beginning of the column.
Plowboy Records is already proving itself one of the coolest additions to the Music City label scene in a long time, and we enjoyed collaborating with them on this week’s show. The You Don’t Know Me tribute album was its opening gambit, inspired by co-founder Shannon Pollard’s familial connection to Eddy Arnold (he’s his grandson). We welcomed his operator colleagues Don Cusic (a long-time friend of Roots and one of the first country music scholars I got to know in Nashville many years ago) and Cheetah Chrome, a famous punk rocker who was invited to New York in the 70s by the Ramones and who once made an album called Young, Loud and Snotty. Quite a journey. Chrome’s black guitar was loud (a little) but he was a perfect gentleman and somebody I feel like I must interview at length some time. The plan for the night was a core built around some of the artists who’d been on the tribute album, bookended by two sensational roots acts who’ve been signed to Plowboy – Buzz Cason and Paul Burch.
Fun trivia fact: Buzz Cason founded Nashville’s first documented rock and roll vehicle, circa 1958, called The Casuals. While Cheetah Chrome used to call his backing band The Casualties. And yet here they are working together for the good of Americana. I love this town. Anyway, Cason hit the stage with a three-piece band and a fireball rock and roll attack. “Bring It On Home” had a bump and grind reminiscent of Chuck Berry. Cason’s written big songs in a wide range of genres, and we got that variety in the set, with the pop-spiky “The Waiting,” the lovelorn Everly-esque “If I Ever Had To Say Goodbye To You” and the energetic, minor-key groover “The Call” from his upcoming 2014 Plowboy release. He closed with two of his jewels – “Solider of Love,” covered by Arthur Alexander, Pearl Jam and The Beatles (who else can say that?) and “Everlasting Love,” the great R&B tune, which this band did in more of a vintage rock style with a wiry drone coming from the electric guitar. You might say the show began with getting a good buzz on.
The Arnold tributes were diverse, from charming to blistering. Pete Mroz (rhymes with ‘rose’ I was told) did a tender “Cattle Call” on solo guitar with some sweet yodeling, as well as his original “Always Been You,” a poignant song of family loss and love. Great voice this guy has. We heard a rougher, gruffer take on Eddy Arnold as Cheetah Chrome raked through “What Is Life Without Love” with energy and passion. Honky tonk master Chuck Mead made honky tonk hay out of “Always” with a lazy shuffle. Then it was even harder retro-country music with a couple of Mead-penned tunes. He’s got a Plowboy project coming next year too. In the following set, Bobby Bare Jr. brought his signature shaggy rasp to “Make The World Go Away,” while Nashville country rock icon Jason Ringenberg country rocked on “Texarkana Baby” over Cheetah’s dark guitar.
The final set of the night, like Buzz Cason’s, could have been on any great MCR show. Paul Burch is a sublime interpreter of the country/blues tradition, with the admiration of BBC DJ Bob Harris and others of his ilk to validate it. Paul looked like a million bucks in a vested suit with a vintage tie and pork-pie hat. Then his crooning, throaty but always-in-control voice coursed through some brilliant new songs from his Plowboy release Fevers. His band? Nashville/Roots all stars, including keyboardist Jen Gunderman who banged out a hot solo on “Honey Blue” and Fats Kaplin, who fiddled early in the set and played blushing pedal steel on the swooning cocktail shuffle “Straight Tears, No Chaser.” Burch also had twin bass players – one electric and one acoustic – so the band had big bottom, not in the Spinal Tap sense. As much as I love Burch’s fascinating lyrics, my favorite tune musically was a hip update of the old-time standard “Cluck Old Hen.” With Fats playing exotic minor melodic ideas against Gunderman’s low droning accordion, it sounded like Mississippi meeting Morocco. And he wrapped with “Saturday Night Jamboree,” a lovely swinging Hank Williams-ish song that paints a perfect picture of a diverse night of music and partying. I’d like a re-record of that song substituting “Wednesday” and it could be our show’s new anthem.
So that brought us to “You Don’t Know Me,” once the ensemble cast had carefully coordinated who’d sing or play what, when. On some nights, it wouldn’t have worked, but we had a stage full of top-tier Nashville pros who know so much about song structure and listening to each other that they focused in and made the perfect bed for vocalists Jim, Buzz, Cheetah, Jason, Paul and others as they traded verses on this sad tale of a shy boy and the girl he dreams of. I was truly moved. I asked Don Cusic, Arnold’s biographer the story of the song, and he said Eddy Arnold had the idea for the premise and the title, and when he saw Texas song goddess Cindy Walker one day he floated the tip. She wrote it; he recorded it with great success. The Ray Charles version is still my favorite, but I’ll keep this MCR recording as a close runner-up for its care and reverence for this true masterpiece of songcraft.
Thanks to the Plowboy Records team for their support and their inspired A&R on this project. We wish them everlasting success.