Ever since the music industry blew up, I’ve believed that one good way through the confusion and fog is to look backward to go forward. After all, American music built a mighty industry and a treasure-filled catalog of magnificence between 1900 and 1980, so now that the formulas of the 90s and 00s have fallen apart, we can ask what did they do back in olden days that worked so well? We at Music City Roots took our cues from early radio, hoping that the tactile engagement of live performance, well presented on the air, would cultivate community and raise the tide in the harbor. But for me, the experiment in Nashville that has most brilliantly updated a great old idea is the touring package show known as Ten Out Of Tenn.
This collective of Ten songwriter/artists from Tennessee was forged about six years ago with quiet leadership from artist Trent Dabbs and his journalist/entrepreneur wife Kristen. A gang of musical colleagues and friends made a compilation CD and hit the road together in a tour bus, staging shows that featured everyone up front for two songs, with the rest of the Ten backing them as the band. They’ve repeated this process about every year since. Volume Four in the album series is just out, and the artists have cycled around a bit to include well over ten superior artists from this special Nashville community. The camaraderie and collaboration has been palpable and so good for Music City, and as a vehicle for discovery, one could hardly imagine a better scenario. We’re very excited to have five current and past members of the Ten playing Roots this week. It feels like a union that needed to happen.
In all candor, this will one of the least rootsy Music City Roots we’ve had. While these are all pure songwriters with a place in the stream of folk artistry and the shows are very organic and people-driven, the music in most cases is super cool modern pop with cinematic atmosphere. The TOT gang brings a loosely shared esthetic that’s easy on the ears, replete with reverberant pianos, juicy Wurlitzers, cellos and guitars that sparkle at the edges more than they strum or twang on center stage. That said, Ten Out Of Tenn couldn’t be more grassroots in its approach to spreading the word and pooling resources. The spirit is made flesh. The shows are epic and warm and inclusive.
We’ve heard from two of this week’s lineup before, when Amy Stroup and Trent Dabbs visited the show as their recently assembled, Motown-inspired duo Sugar & The Hi Lows. On this coming evening we’ll hear each as solo songwriters. Amy’s recent album The Other Side Of Love is gorgeous (a word one could throw around forever among this crowd) and emotional. Her varied influences, from folk to show tunes, shine through, and her voice is a burnished wonder. Meanwhile, her duo mate Trent Dabbs presents an amazingly refined form of folk/pop music. It seems like all the TOT artists have landed songs in contemporary hit TV series, but Trent may be the king, with at least a dozen placements. It’s music that works with the zeitgeist. It may even be leading the way.
Another of the most prominent and proudly eclectic of the bunch is K.S. Rhoads, an urbane, slightly theatrical cat who writes, records and produces. One of his many recent cap feathers was a set with the Nashville Symphony at the downtown Live On The Green series earlier this year. His voice and songs matched beautifully with the grandeur and spectral ambience of the orchestra, and he offered come whimsical and pitch-perfect covers, from “Call Me Al” to Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” That’s Rhoads in a nutshell: unpredictable, ambitious, exciting.
TOTer Matthew Perryman Jones looks the part of the Byronesque poet, brooding on the heath. And his music could be a score for a modernist film version of a romantic era novel. His wonderful album Swallow The Sea featured lush productions that built to feverish, symphonic climaxes. When you hear him, his history of shows with Ingrid Michaelson, Paula Cole and Patty Griffin will make sense. And wrapping up our show, we’ll hear from Jedd Hughes, an Australian who came to America and quickly became a force in country and Americana. His calling card may have been his remarkable guitar playing (it got him a big job with Patty Loveless) but there’s a bright songwriter performer there as well, who approaches country with awareness of the tradition and pop accessibility that has made him many friends. I’m eager to hear what he’s been up to lately.
The TOT Fall Tour is over, sadly. But come out to get a taste of what this group, and indeed what modern Nashville songwriting, is all about.