You may have heard we had a little competition last night in the variety show with so-called-country-music category. While we did our thing at the Loveless Barn, a few miles away there was this slightly bigger show in a spaceship with very expensive lights and a TV broadcast with fancy pickup truck ads and so forth. But while they had Rascal Flatts, we had Randall Bramblett and Greensky Bluegrass. Where they had Kid Rock, we had Jim Lauderdale. And simultaneous to their duo mash-up of Jason Aldean and Ludacris, we had a duet of our own: Rhonda Vincent and Gene Watson. Life is rarely full of such stark and easy choices. And at the risk of sounding Countrier Than Thou, as Robbie Fulks has put it, we smoked CMT’s patootie. I wouldn’t have traded places with anyone in the spaceship for a new Ford F-150.
Our bluegrass heavy show took flight with Town Mountain, a band from the mountain town of Asheville, NC. I’d heard good things about them for years, and their recent move to Pinecastle Records was cause for a fresh round of buzz and curiosity. With all the hybrid music being made out there, wonderful as much of it is, I had room in my heart for a new contemporary traditional bluegrass band in the same schema as the Steep Canyon Rangers. And these guys, friends of the Steeps I heard, fill the bill. “Sparkle City,” the opening track on their new Steady Operator CD sparkled with banjo rolls. “Midnight Road” let lead singer Robert Greer show off his hearty voice, while the fantastic “Lawdog” put mandolinist Phil Barker in the spotlight with his high, blue and lonesome voice.
Onward, Soldiers! from Wilmington NC were very cool. Their opener was pretty straight ahead Americana, but then they kind of blew it open with “Nighttime Sky,” which got going with rolling thunder piano and wiggy guitar effects. Then the heavy vocal section gave way to a jazzy improv trip that grabbed me. I hope to see this fine quartet again. Next up came a ringer if ever there was one. Randall Bramblett is a long-time favorite, one of those guys who’s contributed to records everyone’s heard without being a household name by a long shot. He delivered the amazing lyrics of “Nobody’s Problem with an experienced, thick as whiskey voice. “Get In Get Out” is his catchiest song – one he says he does almost every show – and it’s a staple for me too. All the while his set was lifted even higher by his pal Geoff Achison, Australian guitar master. They’re doing some dates together, and so it was last night, as Bramblett preceded and collaborated with Geoff. When Achison came on for his own set, he traded his electric for an acoustic and settled down to some solid fingerstyle blues-based songwriter stuff. Bramblett, having shown his chops on guitar and piano, moved to his first instrument – saxophone – and helped make Geoff’s set sing.
And then it was back to the country – sort of – with one of the most talked-about bands in acoustic circles. Greensky Bluegrass has traditional instrumentation and a loose and shaggy vibe, but the songs and vocals generated focused energy. Paul Hoffman delivered a strong “Don’t Lie” set against a very cool dobro riff and a breezy highway groove. Also original, “Don’t Lie” had a sexy tempo and a great unexpected chord progression. And to prove their bluegrass cred, they covered “Hit Parade of Love” at like 290 beats per minute. They actually stirred up a strong dancing contingent, which is hard to do in Nashville as everyone knows.
That all made for a great, varied lead-up to a final set that was our little nod to CMA Fest, which we’ll always call Fan Fair. We love it when legit country music legends come by the Barn, and they don’t get any finer in the vocal department than Gene Watson. It would be impolite to call Rhonda Vincent a legend yet, since she’s not old enough. But if there’s any gal voice in bluegrass who can stand up to the mighty power of Watson, she’s it. Their new collaborative album was the occasion for this duo set, and it was country music nectar. They kicked off with “Sweet Thing,” which Loretta Lynn cut with the great Ernest Tubb, in breezy style. But when they hit the lonesome choruses of “Gone For Good” together and in perfect union, time kind of stood still. They brought a big old seven-piece band and poured on the fiddle and steel. They sang a Hank Williams song slow and serious. And Watson got to have the stage to himself to sing his epic “Farewell Party,” which is just high art. The Loveless Jam was a rollicking “Take This Hammer” which was not, repeat not, about the CMT Awards.