Yeah, I know. To everything there is a season, but this season better pass the hell on. Not only has it been endlessly cold and icy, it’s turning dreadful and cruel. Just hours before show time, Nashville’s beloved roots music impresario Billy Block finally succumbed to cancer. The news was just sinking in as we made our final prep, and Jim Lauderdale – a friend of Billy’s from their Los Angeles days – made it clear exactly how special the late music champion was to him at the start of the show. He’d chosen “Like Him,” a gospel song for his opening number, and it’s ostensibly about Jesus, but as he sang, this Living-By-Example song took on echoes of Billy’s optimism and positive energy. His motto – All faith. No fear. – settled in and made difficult emotions rise to the surface for all of us.
Now Libby Rodenbough, former MCR intern triumphantly returning as part of a rising string band quartet called Mipso, didn’t know anything about Billy’s passing when she put her version of the classic “Farther Along” on the set list. But when she sang it, in a voice of deep and moving purity, I had my own jab of grief and tears. It felt like the perfect anthem for Billy’s passing and for the turbulent and sometimes unfathomable times we’ve been living through. It was a highlight of a night long on bluegrass, joy and beauty.
The Alabaman-turned-Austinite songwriter known as Porter took the stage first to offer parched and blue country folk songs with only the fiddle and voice of Helen Gassenheimer to back him up. Porter joked that his sets start sad and get sadder. But hey we were already doing sad, so let’s call it catharsis. I particularly enjoyed closer “Natural Disaster” (see what I mean?) with its Carter Family feel.
Mipso came next with its particular fusion of melodic pop and bluegrass. They squeeze pretty, unconventional chords in and make the most of their vocal powers. Their laid back attack gave the set a cohesion even as the songs range around. “Rocking Chair Blues” was a light swinging waltz. “Fifty Bucks,” about life on the road, was the most grassy and upbeat number. Jim Lauderdale proclaimed they’d put “the gentle scald” on it, and that’s about as good a description as I can offer.
We needed a bit of drive about that point and Special Consensus brought it, riding out of the gate with a plea for love at breakneck speed called “Say You’ll Stay In My Arms.” The paired old-time voices of guitar man Dustin Benson and mandolinist Rick Faris were absolutely stunning on “Wild Montana Skies” before the band took a total turn and swung like a watch on a chain in “Shoulda Took A Train.” Then it was an a cappella gospel quartet number, an airy Celtic instrumental and another smoker to wrap the set. Greg Cahill and company can do it all.
You all could probably tell I was eagerly anticipating the return of Lera Lynn. She and her band didn’t let me down, filling the Factory with lush, misty washes of color and light. Her singing is perched right on the knife edge between a woody alto chest voice and a clear, pretty head voice, making her best songs almost a prolonged gentle yodel. That lovely sound mingled with the amazingly complex pedal steel of Josh Grange, which swelled and danced especially on my favorite song, the languorous “Out To Sea.” Also on the set, “Hooked On You” with two guitar lines flowing in elegant counterpoint, the summer drift of “Lying In The Sun” (if only) and the set-closer “Whiskey” which had a blue Patsy-esque pathos. Lera also suggested the Nashville Jam, a take on Hank’s “Lost Highway” that sounded a bit influenced by whiskey if I do say so myself.
So this one was dedicated to the memory of Billy Block and his achievements in keeping live roots music on local and national radio for decades. What we do is not totally original. We are trying to do the best possible job we can with the broadcasting model pursued by Western Beat and the Grand Ole Opry before it. And yes, those shows deserve to be in the same sentence. They both made Nashville history. Inspired by both, we’re taking the best of the country music business that we inherited, adding to it and carrying it farther along.