As of this writing I have not yet seen the premier of the ABC drama Nashville, but the reviews from friends and critics are strong. And it sounds like the producers and writers have tried to tell stories of the whole Nashville and not only the glammy big time country music industry. Even so, I find it hilarious and cosmically weird that they would select Wednesday night, of all times, to air the show, up against our little old barn dance. Well Music City fans, you have a DVR and you know what to do. Tune in to Lightning 100 or the Livestream and hang out with us in real time and save the network melodrama for snuggling in bed afterwards. And hey, we’re glam. At last night’s season-opener, we showed off our brand new lighting rig, installed in cahoots with the great folks at the Loveless Cafe. It’s the biggest production upgrade we’ve ever made, and last night looked and felt amazing: a golden glow worthy of our golden artists.
Up first, girls with their own glow. Della Mae is a band I fell for early this year, in about 30 seconds, on first listen, as I related in my preview post. Their bluegrass has particularly lovely ease and flow, capped off with spectacular voices that catch harmonies like updrafts. They hit it from their opening song “Letter From Down The Road” and the quintet caught in the footlights looked like a painting. “Paper Prince” from their scheduled January 2013 Rounder Records release came from a slightly more modern place, with a bit of Mumford meets Punch Brothers pulse and craft. But then they played the deep bluegrass “Turtle Dove,” which has joined my all-time faves list. A bold melodic statement from lead singer Celia Woodsmith is kicked up by a high-harmony chorus that just slays. Plus there was guitarist Courtney Hartman, whose flatpicking solo on the song earned applause when she was only about a third of the way through. I declare 2013 will be the year of Della Mae.
Next came a lone troubadour called Tom Yarbrough. I’ve come to discover he’s a favorite of some friends of mine and with good reason. What a calm, commanding voice. Such tender, insightful songs. Sporting a bit of a Depression-era meets East Nashville hip fashion statement, he massaged his guitar and mixed devotion with vulnerability on “I Need You.” Then he flipped roles to the other end of a relationship, longing for somebody gone in “My Good Thing.” It’s clear that a song from Yarbrough is a good thing indeed. What followed was a major contrast, with shaggy, happy folk-grass from The Johnny Possum Band. In our interview, I learned that even the founding members got hip to old-time country only a few years ago via Old Crow Medicine Show, and some of them had only come over from rock and roll as little as a year ago. But they put together fine vocals on songs like “Last Train.” This New Zealand band should share a bill with the Defibulators some day. They’d get on well.
Our booking/social team in the front office had been buzzing about Carolina Story, a married duo from East Nashville, and yes, they were on to something. Lovely people Ben and Emily Roberts showed off a sound honed by years of intense touring – an edgy but sweet harmony of locked in country vocals that recalled the brother bands of the 30s. Ben blew some Neil Young-ish harmonica before launching into “Gold” a poetic rumination on endurance and optimism that is said to be their newest single. They were joined for a couple of songs by a rhythm section from our friends and theirs Humming House. But I have to say that I think their songs by themselves were the most powerful. Ben seemed to channel all his energy into “Someone Else” and Emily’s clear voice was strong on the mournful “Lonely Without You.” They finished (again with band) with a wonderful take on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” with an assertive tempo and great phrasing, making it their own.
For our finale, a band that took its name 25 years ago from a literary character whose dead specter torments the waking dreams of a greedy, grasping banker. Have current events caught up with Marley’s Ghost? As amusing as that was to think about, the sextet’s set was non-partisan and fantastic. They kicked off with “Hank And Audrey,” an homage to the upside of that troubled country music couple, with appropriately bluesy country twang. “Rollin’” was a nice ramblin’ song that featured superb trade-off solos from steel guitarist Ed Littlefield Jr. and keyboardist Jerry Fletcher. I loved the cooing background vocals and hearty swing of “Should I Be Singing The Blues,” an original written and sung by guitarist Mike Phelan. In fact vocal duties swung all over with everyone but the drummer singing leads, and when Littlefield donned acoustic guitar to sing “Old Dirt Farmer” he offered a credible raspy homage to Levon Helm. Raising that performance up even higher was a guest walk on by the great Larry Campbell of Levon’s band and Americana all-star status. The band’s near a cappella “Working On A Building” was a distinctive take on the old warhorse, and they wrapped with a little classic rock and roll via “It’s All Over Now.”
Jim Lauderdale, looking slick in black, led a particularly full stage on a rambling, shambling “Going Down The Road Feeling Bad” and they all faked it pretty good, because that ain’t how anybody felt. That’s the Nashville I want to see on prime time TV every week.