Guitar Faces

In between tunes, during his jaw-dropping set of masterful bluegrass guitar music, Bryan Sutton made a joke on stage this week about “Guitar Face,” the scrunchy, pouty, squinty guitar-gasm visage familiar across the guitar universe, from heavy metal shredders to acoustic bluegrass mashers. Guitar Face is mostly involuntary and delightfully embarrassing when caught by still photographers. Guitar Face seizes listeners as well as players. “None of us are immune to Guitar Face,” Bryan said to the crowd. Certainly anyone who there for our fourth annual Music City Roots Guitar Night came down with a case of Guitar Face – the chronic kind that left us just a little bit twisted for nearly three amazing hours.

Pat Flynn opened with a nod to Jimi Hendrix, somebody not closely associated with Roots but who is forever tied to Music City and the guitar. The acoustic version of “All Along The Watchtower” began with some delicate flatpicked arpeggios before the tune snapped into bluegrass time. Flynn put together a superb small unit for this show that featured Tim May on various stringed instruments and Troy Engle on fiddle. Vocalist Heather Lawson stepped on stage for the middle stretch for some lovely harmony singing on “Wayfaring Stranger” and Pat’s Garth Brooks cut “Do What You Gotta Do” (though I can’t help but hear John Cowan’s version ringing in my head). Pat and Tim paired off for a superb acoustic guitar duo that really showcased their tone and selectivity, followed by a guitar/fiddle duo that hewed to Celtic themes. The final funky “Mother Lode” brought Lawson back for a full-bodied finish.

Nobody’s going to listen through a Rory Hoffman set without some crazy face-making. He’s an absurdly complete and technically gifted player who’s resurrected the vital and fertile hybrid of country and jazz (see heroes Hank Garland and Chet Atkins), adding crushed and complex chords to his hillbilly and twang to his uptown. He opened utterly solo, singing proudly and very well on the swing standard “Just As Long As You Love Me” while “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” was guitar only, with luscious chord substitutions. Only then did Rory invite on his drummer Ray Von Rotz and keyboard player Charles Treadway. After joking about being the blind guy with a band made of Ray and Charles, they roared into a rushing, gorgeous “Avalon” that our photographer Tony proclaimed the best six minutes of music ever on Roots. He’s excitable that way. Showing crazy range, Rory then shifted from acoustic to electric to offer a George Benson sort of ballad and then a hot wired country blues ripper called “Fast Lane.” And all this was done overhand, with guitars flat on his lap like he was playing a little piano.

We love variety on Guitar Night, and Megan McCormick brought that with her transcendental, ethereal folk pop. She started, however, in an acoustic vein with a flatpicking duet with her trusted side-guy Ethan Ballinger, himself a Guitar Night alum. Their traditional medley flowed and sparkled. Then as both donned electrics, they matched watery and lush tones for atmospheric songs written by Megan, including the title track of her new EP The Real Me. In her tasteful minimalism I hear shades of Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton and Bill Frisell, but she also pushed the volume and noise factor up in “Anywhere You Want To Go” to a great audience reaction. With set closer “In The Kitchen” she and Ballinger exchanged powerful solos on a tune that was older with more drive and pop and tons of great musical ideas. Megan’s got a rich and enveloping voice too, and she brought along fab East Nashvillian Molly Martin to lend some luxurious support.

And then came Bryan Sutton to take some of the bluegrass hints of the night and really head down that road, opening and closing with Doc Watson inspirations “Way Downtown” and “The Train That Carried My Girl From Town.” I’m always excited when sets like this bring together ad hoc bands of talented colleagues, because it often produces such attentive, enthusiastic playing with unique chemistry. Here it was bass veteran Todd Phillips (who Sutton said was on most all of the albums that inspired him as a kid) and younger cats Casey Campbell on mandolin and Jim VanCleve (Mountain Heart) on fiddle. So the traditional instrumental “Cricket on the Hearth” had smooth momentum and the exotic and complex “Overton Waltz” oozed with Grisman-esque character and sophistication. The tune I can’t get out of my head was bluegrass driver “Swannanoa Tunnel” which Sutton said was a cover of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, a hero of Western North Carolina folk music. What a sweet melody and pick-me-up flow. I found this page with deep background on this fascinating song.

Worth mentioning before I go is the huge growth in Sutton’s stagecraft and poise in front of a crowd. He’s gone from kindly and shy to authoritative and funny, evidence the riff on Guitar Face. This is great for bluegrass music because Sutton is a generational ambassador for this gorgeous art of flatpicking.

The finale Loveless Jam borrowed from the Will The Circle Be Unbroken influence that had been discussed on stage several times. They took “I Am A Pilgrim” at a moderate tempo and let everyone stretch out. Rory’s electric guitar solo, again with smoldering jazz chords, was a thing to behold. Gutar Faces ensued.

Craig H.

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