Clans are a Scottish phenomenon and concept that made it to America by way of the Ulster Scotts, and the word in Gaelic actually means “children” or “offspring.” So the Willis Clan nailed it with their name, because there were as many as 10 Willis kids on stage at once on Wednesday night making Celtic-tinged Americana. They played and danced with remarkable soul and skill, wrapping up a family-friendly night that felt clannish but not cliquish.
The Carter Brothers are part of the first clan of country music, with direct lineage to A.P. Carter, and it’s just such a wonderful thing that they dedicated their lives to perpetuating the musical legacy of the Appalachian Mountains. There’s an underlying Celtic dirge in their striding “Road To Roosky,” which opened the set. The tidy band featured Adam Chaffins on bass and Babs Lamb on fiddle. Tim played banjo and guitar while Danny stuck to the flatpick acoustic guitar. “Where I Belong” had a mountain river flow, and they made an explicit nod to Doc Watson with “What Does The Deep Sea Say,” a favorite of mine that I’d not heard in years. Here, the brothers’ twin guitar work got rousing applause. Tim’s extended intro to the last song touched on a lot of banjo moods and ideas before becoming (surprise) “Hey Mr. Spaceman” from the Byrds repertoire. It works beautifully as a bluegrass tune. As Danny pointed out on stage, the Carters last played MCR on our final night at the Loveless Barn, so they’ll always be part of our history. We wish Danny well with his health issues and hope to see him and Tim back before too long.
The Walking Guys sat down for their set, because they’re still tired from the 1,600 mile trek last year. No seriously, they’ve worked out a nice formula where three songwriting members do a sort of in-the-round with a full rhythm section. They passed a guitar across the row as Benjamin Butler, Riley Moore and Christopher Kessenich took turns on lead vocals and songs. Behind them were John Oglesby on drums, “Pessimistic Pat” Kiloren (dude, I relate) and electric guitar, which was wielded nicely by Zack Terry. Butler sang most directly about the trip and missing his lady over nice high fingerpicking in “Sights On Tennessee.” Chris took to a lazy southern soul groove for “Tupelo Honey.” Riley was deep in a Bob Dylan zone on “The Wildest Things.” They wrapped with a trampoline bouncy drinking song, trading verses and riding high on Butler’s harmonica. They sang of PBR, CPR and a visit to the ER, all with foamy gusto. It was the second big boned ode to beer in a week (see Sessions Americana), though this one had more wildness and injury. Reminder: do not jump off the roof of the bar; you cannot fly.
Town Mountain reminds me of the few times I saw Jimmy Martin holding court with his brazen opinions at IBMA. He’d have crowed about Town Mountain and how they were the only younger band in bluegrass that could play and sing worth a damn – and he’d probably have gotten their band name wrong in the process. There’s nothing loopy though about Robert Greer, Phil Barker and Jesse Langlais, founding core of this driving band. They approach the mic with bravado and blues. And if it’s not galloping along over banjo rolls as in “Southern Crescent,” they’re playing boogie woogie grass as in “Coming Home To You” or “Tick On A Dog.” “House With No Windows” showed off Greer’s mournful country balladeer side. The first of those songs is the title track of Town Mountain’s new album, and it’s a train song tour de force with a chorus that takes its time and lets us really hear the whistle blow, courtesy of fiddler Jack Devereux. (Greer also got off the best joke of the night when he told the audience: “I want to let y’all know that the Walking Guys will not be at the merchandise table after the show. They have a gig on Friday in Murfreesboro and they’ve got to leave right now.”)
The Willis Clan gathered on stage for the final set in a long row – six Willises up to 23 years old on all acoustic instruments. They sounded bright and fresh on the harmonious “What Can I Say” before rolling into their Celtic groove thing with an original tune called “Boys From Boston.” Here, Jeanette Willis switched from dobro to Irish whistle, showing rootsy range by being impressive on both. Fiddle-playing Jenny took most of the lead vocals with a lucid alto. Flatpicker Jeremiah placed his voice front and center for the speedy and big-dreamy “Wild And Free.” To round things out, four of the smaller Willis kids (there are 12 altogether, mercy me) hit the stage to show off their signature Irish step dancing moves. Kids that age are flagrantly flexible and they made good use of it, kicking higher than I thought possible. The overall impression (musically, less the dancing) with three and four part harmonies surging throughout the set, reminded me of the Whites or the Cox Family. It’s great to see these ambitious and focused folks picking up their Americana family band torch.
There were a LOT of musicians on stage for the Nashville Jam, but Jim Lauderdale and company sang “Take This Hammer” as if everything looked like a nail. They were a clan with a plan.