A great storyteller can make you care about characters you’d overlook or dismiss or disdain in your daily rounds. A great songwriter conjures that empathy and sets it to a smoking groove and a tasty melody. We witnessed this play out magnificently on Wednesday night as Oklahoma artist Parker Millsap delivered a clinic in precocious, literary truth-telling. It was a superb (and surprisingly cohesive) night all around, with four flavors of manly country rock. But Millsap’s “Truck Stop Gospel” was for me the night’s branding iron moment. It’s about an audacious and eccentric trucker/preacher who paints a cross on the side of his rig “to remind the Devil that he ain’t so big and scary” (which Millsap rhymes sneakily with “Tucumcari”). Then the tune is evangelically catchy, as its rhythm shifts back and forth between a half-time stride and double-time rockabilly. I’d already fallen hard for the song on Parker’s self-titled new album. It jolted me in a way that reminded me of hearing “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” for the first time. So it was something to hear it live. I could easily see it pop up this Fall as the Americana Song of the Year.
With that out of the way, here’s how the March 5, 2014 edition of Roots unfolded. Jim Lauderdale stepped out on the proverbial limb and performed an opening song tentatively titled “The Ghost Is In The Castle” that was fresh off the yellow legal pad after a spontaneous Belfast co-write with Chip Taylor. It was a mystical courtly tune with various royalty and somewhat ambiguous meanings – a snapshot of artists letting the spirit move them. Then it was on to Josh Daniel, whose natural positive energy and passion infuses his eclectic acoustic music. Opener “Festival Blues” extolled the wonders of the “high lonesome sound” and “Salt Shaker” had overtones of Sam Bush in reggae-grass mode. There was fabulous harmony support from Reeve Coobs and fleet fingered, powerful mandolin from Mark Schimick. The floral folk/pop of “Beat Up Radio” with a happy “la la la” chorus rounded out a strong set.
Then it was Parker Millsap’s turn, and he immediately orchestrated a study in contrasts. Opener “You Gotta Move” was a super-spare blues with careful guitar lines and minimalist accompaniment from his trio of Michael Rose on bass and Daniel Foulks on fiddle. Yet Parker let it rip vocally with a sandy howl that evoked Charley Patton and Robert Plant. The audience was divided between those pinned to the backs of their chairs or sitting on the edges or their seats. Millsap displayed remarkable maturity, phrasing and vocal control on “The Villain” and then “Disappear” was a slick, liberated road song that put a fresh coat of paint on a venerable subject. And then, with fortitude and borderline fury, he wrestled dramatically with his Pentecostal upbringing in his final two songs, about two different servants of Jesus. “Old Time Religion” is unsparingly dark in its portrait of a man who inherited violence along with his quote-unquote salvation. “Truck Stop Gospel,” described above, ended the set to explosive applause.
I finally got to listen to the new album South by Blackie & The Rodeo Kings in the day or two before the show, and it’s just fantastic. So with musicians of this caliber executing those songs on stage, the excellence and celebratory uplift of the set was predictable, but no less enjoyable for it. “I Gotta Stay Young” was a twisty rocker with sage advice for how to grow old gracefully that featured the first of a bunch of jaw-dropping guitar solos by Colin Linden. He played burnished mandolin on “Everything I Am,” a slinky blues. I’m growing addicted to the song “South,” which soars on a three-part vocal chorus that sounds like Bruce Springsteen joining The Band. It’s just epically colorful and sweet. The closer was a long, jam-heavy song by the band’s initial inspiration Willie P. Bennett, and it showcased Linden’s touch on an electric resonator guitar. He’s one of the most underrated guitarists in the world, truly a peer of Sonny Landreth, with propulsive rhythms, clean swoops and dives with the slide and tons of ideas.
Big guy Hayes Carll played a lower-key set by comparison, with several ballads and a heartfelt tribute to his son Elijah in “Magic Kid,” a co-write with Darrell Scott. “Don’t Let Me Fall” was as lonesome and end-of-rope as I’ve heard Carll sing. But he lightened things up with “I Got A Gig” as he sang in his chapped voice from his knowing and jaded point of view about the hard road up the performing ladder. It rocked along with the help of instrumentalist Scott Nolan and percussionist Mike Meadows. His last scheduled song was the feisty “Stomp and Holler” but that earned him an encore, and he chose “Beaumont,” a subdued, romantic song from his 2008 album Trouble In Mind. There’s no formality in Carll’s set at all, just a faded jeans-and-boots comfort that keeps you smiling, thinking and nodding along.
Jim wasn’t about to let Tuesday’s Mardis Gras go (especially since we spent it in airplanes and airports coming back from Ireland) so he arranged the Meters’ shuffling beauty “Hey Pocky A-Way” for the assembled to sing. Between Rodeo Kings drummer and the brilliant voices on stage, it was one of the most satisfying, danceable jams in a while. It wasn’t all gospel music, but it was nearly all truth.