I didn’t see it coming, all this emotion and fulfillment. As I approached my 50th birthday on Tuesday, the best I could imagine was some good times with friends and family, with side servings of anxiety and cake. But it’s been even more rewarding and surprising than that. We’ve seen our daughter blossom, and we attended Todd Mayo and Emma Reid’s wedding on Saturday, so I got to be with my family and my amazing Roots family in one big happy occasion. These families within families make the world a more civilized and beautiful place, and it was a multi-layered reminder of how fortunate I am.
All this was capped off with a fantastic show on Wednesday that concluded right in my musical wheelhouse, with one of the greatest solo guitarists on Earth. And a fine show took place on the way there. Darrin Bradbury was fascinating and funny from the moment we met pre-show. There was a kind of well-traveled self-awareness there that I knew would translate on stage. With a four piece band, Darrin sang songs that were darkly comic and comically dark. Opener “True Love” worked off of a meth lab metaphor. Another song set to a slow marching beat spoke about traveling and collecting friends like cigarettes. The story of “Bob” presented a simple man as a puzzling palindrome, the same “backwards and forwards.” And “Junkie Love” recounted a real-life argument heard through a motel wall in New Orleans. The set could have been turned into a hot and dangerous new grown-up series on HBO. Who knows?
Then it was a double dose of bluegrass with local guys Blue Hollow paving the stage for national all-stars IIIrd Tyme Out. No dissolute druggie songs from Blue Hollow, no siree. They were clean cut and down home on tunes like “From Here To Virginia,” which kicked off with a nicely formed banjo theme from Sam Vance. Here, the band’s brand new guitarist Cory Walker showed his flatpicking prowess, as he did later with a feature (and much applause) on “Gold Rush.” I loved that they played “Chalk Up Another One,” which I fell for way early in my bluegrass journey as performed by the Bluegrass Album Band. This is the kind of rock solid band that keeps bluegrass live and local all around the country.
Russell Moore and Co. hit the stage with a single that’s done great at radio and no surprise because “Brown County Red” has an infectious waltz time and irresistible subject matter: murder and justice. There’s blood and intimations of a hanging. Rock! They also did John Hartford’s timeless “Gentle On My Mind” with easy aplomb. And they pulled out a fascinating cover with “Lowlands,” a cool and moody song from one of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Circle albums. I love its barely-there melody. The award-winning quintet poured on the classic sauce with the Carter Family’s “Are You Tired Of Me My Darlin,” one of my favorite songs to sing in the world (not directed at anyone mind you). And the band’s phenomenal mandolin player Wayne Benson anchored “Spindale,” a hot instrumental named for one of the mill towns in the NC piedmont that birthed Earl Scruggs. Set closer “I’m Leaving You And Fort Worth Too” was a speedy and triumphant declaration of independence, a little bit snarky and a lot of fun.
Two five piece bands and a four piece band gave way to the one-man, ten fingered band that is Tommy Emmanuel. I’m not sure what thrills me more, his exuberant and technically dazzling playing or the reaction he gets. I mean, solo instrumentalists who draw large crowds and bring them to their feet are not common in the 21st century. But the Australian turned Nashvillian makes his connection with familiar forms and relatable melodies, all while making a blur of silver strings and whacking his guitar with all manner of percussive techniques. It’s jaw-dropping. His opener “Traveling Clothes” created a spell with high rolling strings but then surprised with another layer of harmonic depth down low. “El Vaquero” toggled between Spanish minor and sunny major tonality. He sang “Deep River Blues” and flowed into a medley of American guitar standards “Blue Smoke” and “Cannonball Rag”. His tribute to Chet Atkins, now 15 years gone, was the most lyrical and lovely tune, with the evocative title “Smoky Mountain Lullaby”. And after being awarded the easiest call encore ever, he went full boogie woogie with some raging bass lines and pianistic fullness. It was one of the loudest ovations we’ve ever heard.
The assembled folk knocked out a bluegrass standard to close the night, but before that everybody sang “Happy Birthday,” and I was touched. I love my family, my colleagues and musicians. And I’m surrounded by all three. That’s all a guy can ask for.