Last year, the awesome spoken word artist Minton Sparks told us from the stage between pieces that “I just get a major kick out of parading my family’s business out in public, because my mother would have rather died than have that happen.” Yes, that’s the writer’s blessing and curse (especially Southern writers). If we’re going to tell truth, it’s also going to include the truth about those we love or loved once. On Wednesday night at Roots, we heard two of Nashville’s best female songwriters parade some of their family business in the most artful possible way. And, while they shared no secrets, we got to hear from a father-son duo that bodes well for the future of the Music City family.
My evening began with a most enjoyable half-hour Roots Radio interview with one of those songwriters – Angaleena Presley – about her years in Beauty, KY and getting established in Nashville. Her family business is all there in the candid songs on her album American Middle Class, but we’ll get to that. Then I had a wonderful chat with a very cool family from Franklin who stopped by our store pre-show. They had this easy rapport that reminded me of why I adore my family. And they said they’re veterans of many Loveless shows who are now living just a mile away from Roots now that we’ve moved. So validating and satisfying.
The Jake Leg Stompers set the table for a roots revival radio show about as well as it could be done, with pulsing rhythm supported by woodblock and washboard and splashy cymbals. Plus, bluesy fiddle, punchy upright bass and sweet Depression-era suits. This ten year old band of pre-War revivalists opened with a rumba beat on “Keep It Clean” from the catalog of Charley Jordan, a lesser known bluesman. Chief Stomper Hambone Willie Nevil, known to me as my old friend Bill, sang with lusty conviction. Then the spotlight turned to co-vocalist Lela Mae Smith, whose reputation as a brassy but subtle blues siren proved entirely justified. The a cappella “Sheep Sheep” from the Gullah tradition was a fantastic call and response with the audience singing “I know the road” as a hearty refrain. Smith’s “Women Be Wise” was a total treat. Hambone picked up a banjo ukulele to strum away on set closer “Beale Street Holiday,” which featured a couple of clanky, zippy washboard solos from Horatio Algernon Whiplash. Thank you for letting me include that name in a review.
Angaleena Presley came next, sporting a black sweater with cartoon sharks on it, something I have truly never seen before. I was expecting a folkier vibe, but she brought a full four-piece band with two electric guitar guys. Opener “Grocery Store” began with a sustained guitar surge and an easy shaking rhythm, but it held the interest with portraits of people overheard in line, half-glimpsed vignettes of real life. The title track of American Middle Class really drives with a hard Kentucky country groove and a minor key chorus that modulates to airier verses. The subject is growing up on the knife-edge of poverty, hanging in there and becoming part of the effort to haul the country along. A banjo and lap steel came out for the thumpy, funny and autobiographical “Knocked Up.” But my favorite, and hers, she told me in our interview, is “Better Off Red,” a ballad about nostalgia for life before stepping through the wormhole of city living, worldliness and the music big time. It’s just achingly beautiful with surprising turns of phrase. Angaleena’s voice, a unique velvety rasp, held the whole thing together with intimacy and sincerity.
Mary Gauthier is self-effacing about the cathartic blue sorrow of her carefully crafted songs. Her stage rap about her distinct lack of happy songs was pitch perfect and funny. Although yes, the songs are anything but. “False From True” depicts the vertigo of a partner whose lover has changed and become a disloyal stranger. “Learn To Live Alone” is a pretty clear cut aftermath song. Mary did two of her classics – “I Drink” and “Mercy Now” – before returning to material from her new Trouble And Love album, specifically the ray-of-hope closer “Another Train.” Her total presence in the songs and the gentle sustaining hum of simple chords make for a unique kind of atmosphere. Time floats, and we get our souls bathed in the prospect of fulfillment after the toughest trials.
On my long list of Roots sets that were too short, this week’s Pat and Jamie McLaughlin show closer is in my all-time top five. Oh sure, they filled their slot just as specified on the schedule, but I could have enjoyed the easy sophisticated soul grooves of this father/son duo for hours. Pat, one of Music City’s true mega-masters of solid American rock and soul, told me that Jamie’s getting into jazz, and that was clear from the opening riffs and sugary chords of “Good Love.” Jamie’s voice, tonalities and funk call to mind the best of John Mayer or, from an earlier era, Steely Dan. On a clean toned Stratocaster, he led the way with a varied, bare-fingered attack, while Pat played rhythm electric guitar and threw his mighty voice in for some choruses. Then Pat uncoiled on two songs that are deeply familiar to his fans. “Two Lights In The Nighttime” always struck me as the quintessential McLaughlin number, with its New Orleans-shifty groove and colorful power chords. “Cry To Me” is pure soul, and his singing is just peerless. Plus I love the way Pat hunches and strides around in his jeans and workshoes. He can look like he’s loading heavy bricks, but the music comes out sounding light as a feather.
So it was a magic night of Middle Tennessee sounds, with that ideal MCR flow of fun, history, stories, people, persuasion and righteous rocking. And just before Jim led the Nashville Jam we invited our most loyal fan Matt up to the stage to present him with a cake and wish him happy 42nd birthday. He’s sort of a brother to our boss Todd, so by extension he’s been Roots family forever. We also learned on Wednesday about the birth of Ryman Patrick Taylor, the new son of our wonderful attorney Stephanie and her husband Dave. So the family grows!