Our house photographer Tony Scarlati is admired for his black and white images, and we’ll be posting them for this week’s show as soon as they’re ready. But to invoke Jamey Johnson’s amazing hit song, I hope you were with us to see it in color. This was a night of bright, polychromatic artistry that synched up with a really big and excitable crowd, providing the quintessential Music City Roots experience. One week after getting snowed and iced out, even with the threat of more winter weather, the pent up demand and passion put some extra fuel in our fire. It was emotional and memorable, a night with hard core bookends and a softer, sweeter center.
James House’s new album is called Songwriters Serenade, but it wasn’t anything like a lullaby when he hit the stage with a seven-piece band. These were pros stitched together with charts and considered arrangements. Musically, there’s no genre box for James. Songs sound the way they come out, from rushing rock on “Me Too” to an almost Cajun beat on “Over Getting Over You” (performed as a duet with emerging singer Natalie Noone) to the sweet and lush classicism of his co-write with Jamey Johnson called “Ain’t We A Pair.” James has an outstanding and unique voice, and it was on full display in “Devil’s Road.” Jim Lauderdale joined the throng on stage for a ballad they wrote together. House brought down the house and we were well underway.
The next two sets presented two stunning singers who came out of Bowling Green, KY and who found adventures and collaborators in Nashville. Back to back we heard Lisa Oliver Gray and Jonell Mosser, and I’m still trying to get my head around the versatility both women displayed. Ten songs between them and not one much like the other. It was a tour de force. Lisa began with the bountiful melodic pop of “Still Awhile” then did a country shuffle (co-write with Irene Kelley) and then a lava-lamp boogie rock thing with some sweet wah wah guitar by Jason Graumlich. The whole band – a five piece situation including Tommy Womack on vocals and John Wollom on keys – were sensational. But it was Lisa’s songs, voice and assured presence that made it special.
Jonell Mosser is familiar in Nashville, famous for her stage command and monster pipes. And I’ve seen her a dozen times at least. But thirty seconds into opener “Good Thing” and my jaw was on my music stand. It’s not just the power. It’s the complexity. Jonell’s voice has like three different timbres going on at once. She has control and phrasing and some kind of magic zazz that must come from Kentucky. I was literally thrilled by her performance. And I mentioned variety. She did greasy slappy funk in “Richest Daddy” and vintage jazz in “Ordinary Splendor” and New Orleans syncopation and a folky country waltz. The band was spot on, notably the way Tom Britt’s infinite ideas on electric guitar counterpoised with the gut string mellowness of Paul Ossola’s acoustic bass. This was an overdue, flawless appearance by one of our city’s finest.
To sort of balance things out, on a night of big bands and big voices, we needed a guy with a guitar and a top hat singing wry, vivid story songs. That’s what Tommy Womack came to be and do. Of course Lisa Oliver Gray backed him up with vocals as he had done for her. Tommy’s song “Nice Day” about coming to terms with middle age and parenthood is just flat brilliant. You can feel the sun on the swimming pool and feel his love for his family. Womack did his saucy, lengthy and remarkable story rap called “Alpha Male And The Canine Mystery Blood” (to great acclaim) and the autobiographical “Vicky Smith Blues” about coming of age in Memphis. As a bonus, the song was set up by a stellar story involving a touch football game with Elvis. This is what we mean when we say that you’ll pay ten dollars but get an eleven dollar show.
The final band took the stage on our big busy night with so much activity I could hardly keep my mind on my interview with Tommy. They were big burly men with serious complexions. The drummer, a mighty bald man wearing a Megadeth muscle shirt mounted giant steer horns on the front of his bass drum. Next to him was a percussionist, with congas and shakers – this in a hard core hillbilly band! The pedal steel player had what seemed to be a confederate cavalry hat that was amazing. Let’s just say there was a good bit of anticipatory energy in Liberty Hall by the time Jamey Johnson strode his big bearded self with his road-rugged Gibson acoustic guitar to center stage. The band struck up more of an earthy groove than I was expecting, a swampy psychedelic thing that let the band cohere before Johnson began “Give It Away.” It is part recitation and part sung chorus, and on both I was struck by how much voice came through the system, like it was just denser and rounder and bigger than anything I can recall. And what unfolded was a set of simply perfect, fascinating country music. The pathos of “Alabama Pines” gave way to the clever, bluesy swing of “You Can.” He performed “In Color,” the magnificent song that netted him an ACM Song of the Year in 2009 and then he wrapped with a surprising and tender cover of “Night Life.” To those who made this set happen with a pretty dang big-time artist, I salute you.
The Nashville Jam this week could get a story all its own. It was simply unbelievable. Jamey suggested “I Saw The Light,” which we’ve done a few times but never with this intensity or cool cues from the band, which knew how to guide the guest singers. The vocals were intense. The solos spot on. The choruses rousing. The crowd came through with thundering applause. It must have sounded great on Hippie Radio. We headed out into a night that had started to snow. Everything was frosted with a thin coating of white. It couldn’t have been more beautiful.