Government Cheese. Photo by Alan Messer.
Whenever you arrive in Nashville to settle down, you’ll meet people who’ll try to convince you that you got here a little too late. You think this is cool, they’ll say, too bad you just missed this or that golden age. For a mid-90s immigrant like myself, those stories often centered on Music City’s first substantial wave of rock and roll in the 1980s. It a little hard to believe. Before I arrived, I was like many Americans who saw Nashville, via TNN and the image of Opryland, as an ersatz Disney full of pink satin and big hair. It’s no surprise I guess that would inspire a punky rebellion, but alas I missed it. I never saw Jason and the Scorchers or the White Animals back in the day at the Exit/In or Springwater or long-gone Cantrell’s. But with time, as I’ve seen the city shake off the “curse” that seemed to keep Nashville rockers limited to regional success, I’ve come to appreciate this chapter of history.
The story might have been relegated to fading memories, but some years ago The Nashville Scene devoted its cover and several thousand words to the story “Hot Bands, Big Deals, A Buzzing Music Scene.” Through testimony from those who were there as artists, club owners, journalists and managers, Tracy Moore chronicled the key bands and venues while drawing a line from that homegrown situation to the breakout bands of the 2000s, such as Paramore and Kings of Leon.
“In some ways, the city’s rock scene is still standing on a platform built in the 1980s,” Moore wrote in conclusion. “Look at similar scenes that flared briefly in the years since—at Lucy’s Record Shop in the early ’90s, at Spongebath Records in Murfreesboro a few years later—and you see a replay of the same cycle, from the initial groundswell to the eventual fade. Look at the current scene, and you find plenty of pivotal figures who cut their teeth almost two decades ago.”
Quite a few of those pivotal figures are set to play this week’s special edition of Roots. In fact every one of our hand-picked leaders – Bill Lloyd, Webb Wilder, Warner Hodges and Government Cheese – is named in the story. They were there at the creation and they did the creating. From time to time, we revel in assembling a show dedicated to a movement or an era, and this one is particularly potent.
Government Cheese (has there ever been a cheekier, better band name?) is the big story of the night because it’s a reunion and a celebration of sensational new music. Our closest tie to the band is Nashville renaissance rocker and MCR regular Tommy Womack, and the last time he did a reunion band show at Roots (The Bis-quits in 2013) it was epic. This evening brings together a five-piece that Bill Lloyd described to Peter Cooper once as “a band of brothers” and that Cooper described as “an energetic and intriguing, Kentucky-warped composite of the Scorchers’ revved-up rock and R.E.M.’s elliptical pop.” That and more is present on the new album The Late Show. Holy cats it’s good, with a fireworks display of bracing riffs, sunny melodies and witty, snarky lyrics. “Beyond the radio wall, there’s music,” they sing in a particularly reveling track. Happily, thanks to Hippie 94.5 FM there will be this great music on the radio on Wednesday.
Opening the night will be Webb Wilder, and of the many things about Webb I love, the thing I’d pay thousands for is his speaking voice. I think my broadcasting career would really take off if I just had his sonorous, Southern baritone. In fact Webb himself has been a DJ and radio host. But that’s just one of many roles he’s played in American culture, from film to stage to the songwriting realm. He came to town from Hattiesburg, MS by way of Austin and helped shape the sound of the 80s with his pal Bobby R.S. Field and their band The Beatnecks. Shades of Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, Elvis Costello, The Kinks and more have influenced the Webb Wilder vibe, yet his sense of humor sets him apart as an American original. Scott Willis of Government Cheese had this fresh testimony to The Last of the Full Grown Men just last week on Facebook: “I saw Webb Wilder at his sold out solo show in (Bowling Green) last night. The guy is the definition of tight. He puts on an incredible show and he is funny as hell.”
In a slightly more cerebral vein comes Bill Lloyd, high lord of power pop and 80s country radio revolutionary with his surprising hit duo Foster & Lloyd. I sketched Bill’s impressive resume for a featured performance at Roots in 2012 thusly: “Sideman and collaborator with rock royalty like Cheap Trick, Marshall Crenshaw and Ray Davies; songwriter with work recorded by Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride and others; former curator of stringed instruments at the Country Music Hall of Fame and creator of its long-running “Nashville Cats” series; founder and leader of the wildly popular Long Players (Nashville’s full-album cover band) AND long-running solo pop/rock cult icon.” He’s got a new project, a fascinating re-furbished special edition of his classic solo album Set To Pop on its 20th anniversary. The new album is entitled Re-Set2014, spelled just like that. We’re sure to hear some classic material, played as well as it’s ever been done.
There’s no doubt that Jason & The Scorchers were the biggest and most attention-getting band of Nashville’s rock scare in the 80s. And while frontman Jason Ringenberg delivered the slurry, down-home, fire-breathing vocals, the band would never have launched without a great rock and roll guitarist. Warner E. Hodges was the man, generating curtains of sound and creating vortices on stage with his Tasmanian Devil spins. The Scorchers still tour now and then, but Warner’s current busy-making comes from working with Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ as well his old friend Dan Baird. Hodges found time to cut a rare solo album of unmitigated rock and roll called Gunslinger, which came out late last year. We can’t wait to see what he has in store.
The truth is these are not Nashville rockers from before my time or anybody’s time. They’re Nashville’s best rockers of now. There are more bands rocking Music City today, but these guys’ experience gives them the edge. They’re our Stones and our Clash and our Cheap Trick and we’re happy to share them with the world, should the world get enough of a clue to tune in. Peter Cooper will guest host this show, and that’s perfect because he’s been studying and championing this crew since they emerged, and he’s been uniquely responsible for shaping my appreciation of these particular Nashville cats. Cats who happen to be some of modern Nashville’s Founding Fathers.