Family, Friends and Phenoms


The after-show snack, a cherished and necessary ritual, can be random and sometimes a little desperate, depending on what’s in the kitchen when I get home. But this week’s was undoubtedly the best ever. First, our new friends from Monell’s left a big plate of fried chicken (is there a greater gesture of love?) for the stage crew and backstage folk. So I took a piece home, where I discovered that my girls had made ideal, international compliments for their own dinner: Shanghai style firm noodles with sizzled scallions and sesame oil, plus my daughter’s latest solo culinary accomplishment, an awesome cold salad of cucumbers with firm tofu sticks, vinegar and chilies. Paired with my customary IPA, this was leftovers liftoff – a bliss-inducing plate of contrasting flavors, textures and influences.

It was quite like our delicious, varied tasting table of music at Roots. (Easy food metaphor segue layup right there, folks.)

It’s always smart to open a show with floor stomping joy. And that’s what Family & Friends brought from Athens, GA. With cooing electric guitar, tambourine and voices, they began with a light touch, but soon “My Life My Love” broke into a thunderstorm of groove, thanks to the band’s two drummers, who stand facing each other over twin bass drums. They produced a lot of sound, but singers Ryan Houchens and his female counterpart Casey Harper (in hippie fringe) delivered harmony vocals powerful enough to compete. This was fun folkie stuff that reminded us of MCRAlums like the Oh Hellos and Seryn. There was a good deal of thought and arrangement in the shifting moods, especially on complex “Wyoming.” And set-closer “Amadeus” began with a spiffy acoustic guitar lick and ended with a big, rushing, orchestral chorus.

I’d have been petrified to follow that maelstrom of sound by myself with an acoustic guitar, but North Carolina songwriter Matt Phillips seemed stone cold brave about it. He opened with a song called “Bluegrass” that felt romantically about home. A harmonica on a rack gave a bluesy sway to “Transference” despite its non-bluesy title. I liked its hook: “I don’t have time for your memory now.” He took up an electric guitar and got busy with a slide. The whole set grew greasier and deeper as he went, and he had everyone a bit hypnotized by his repeating refrain: “scared of my own shadow again.” Clearly he was not referring to stage situations. He owned it.

I did a lot of building up to the set by the Brothers Landreth, based on reputation and the strength of their debut album. This is always a risk when you haven’t seen a band in person. But yeah, all hype was confirmed. “Runaway Train” kicked off at a tempo slower than the title might imply but deeply grooving and satisfying. Joey Landreth played clutchy, grabby electric guitar rhythm figures that felt like stabs from a horn section. But it got really fine when he and fellow guitarist Ariel Posen got into a stringed conversation late in the song, first over a swingy little chord loop and then getting inside and playing with a familiar guitar lick from (I think) Little Feat. It was an amazing display of instrumental finesse. And then the vocals. Holy cow. Joey is sort of remarkably like Darrell Scott in his years of honed instrumental chops meeting a soulful, viscous voice with spot-on intonation and expression. And when you think they can’t possibly re-create the stunning four-part harmonies of “I Am The Fool” from the album, you are wrong. This song was just lush in ways that will remind many of the Doobie Brothers, Hall & Oates, CSNY and other classic, sturdy influences. They brought it way down for a couple of songs and then rocked us with some colorful power chords on closer “Nothing.” It was not nothing. It was everything.

Everything except Dale Watson. Nothing else is Dale Watson. In he strode in a long black Cash-worthy coat with long leather cuffs and a tux shirt. His white hair was a ship’s prow, or perhaps a mighty iceberg. And his Telecaster guitar, festooned with silver coins of every size and denomination, glinted in the footlights. He showed us his range in a mere half dozen songs, including the punchy working man blues of “A Day At A Time,” the cooing balladry of “Forever Valentine” and the Lefty Frizzell inspired hard swing of “I’m Gonna Bug You For Love.” The wordplay in the distilled honky tonk shuffle “I Lie When I Drink” was a clever reminder of Bill Anderson’s “Once A Day.” And the moody, misty ambience of “Call Me Insane” (title track of an upcoming album) was just beautiful. All through, Dale’s banter was loose and wry. His guitar tone was just platonically perfect. And his band, notably Don Pawlak on pedal steel, cohered into the very essence of country music.

Great night. Capped off with a great meal. Thanks for letting me tell you about it. It’s a great pleasure to celebrate and describe my wife and daughter’s gifts with and passion for food from China and thereabouts (there’s no greater cuisine). It’s very much in tune with my lucky position to analyze and bask in the creations our musical guests offer up each week. Both are daring and enriching. Both are made with a lot of love. Something only family and friends really understand.

Craig H.

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