Time’s funny. One minute, the 1970s feel like the recent past represented by pop culture talismans like John Travolta striding along with his paint can to “Staying Alive” and the original Star Wars. Then suddenly, the 70s are a fascinating historic era ripe for scholarship and museum displays. One is tempted to feel old. But more fun than that is to re-visit and re-consider the era of my childhood to discover the cultural and musical tides that were too sub-surface and interesting to make the hit parade then or the oldies stations now. What happened in Nashville around 1970? The answer proves so provocative and wonderful that it became a long-running and popular special exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame And Museum.
This week, MCR partners with the Hall to bring a few elements of that exhibit – formally called Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City – to our stage in musical form. It’s a mix of vocalists and instrumentalists and those who were there in the day with current Nashville Cats too young to have been part of that first wave.
Tracy Nelson is a dynamo with a low profile. She lives out in the country and has no web site, though she occasionally posts video clips of outstanding blues and gospel singers on her Facebook page. And that’s okay. She was never a showboat singer, just an outstanding one who assimilated deep American roots as meaningfully as any star of the late 1960s. Her idols were deep catalog artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Irma Thomas and Charlie Musselwhite. The Wisconsin native got famous in San Francisco on the same circuit as Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. Record companies courted her but all made the miscalculation they were landing “the next Janis Joplin.” Nelson was too indie for all that. She moved to Nashville and pursued a soul/country sound with her band Mother Earth. And in those years, she worked with some of the musicians featured in Nashville Cats. I did a feature story on Nelson in 2010 for NPR when her house burned just as she was finishing a traditional blues album. I’m eager to catch up and find out how the recovery went and how she’s satisfying her deep and unpretentious artistic impulses today.
Our other star veterans this week are Lloyd Green and Jay Dee Maness, masters of the pedal steel guitar, an instrument with the emotion and nuances of the human voice. Maness made his name and career around Los Angeles, working with Gram Parsons and Buck Owens early on, then later the amazing Desert Rose Band and Vince Gill. Lloyd Green, a MCR alum, was a southeastern guy who became one of Nashville’s top studio musicians. Their worlds overlapped at a distance when both cut sessions for the Byrds’ magisterial and essential Sweethearts of the Rodeo album of 1968, which was recorded in both Nashville and LA. The pedal steel requires incredible intelligence and finesse, making it a superb tool for instrumental music. And that’s what Green and Maness have arranged - songs from Sweethearts as instrumentals. This should be country jazz of the highest order.
On any other occasion, the debut of Charlie Worsham on MCR would be my lead, because it’s an appearance I’ve hoped for and recommended for quite some time. He is comprehensively and extravagantly talented in all the ways a country artist can be – a singer, songwriter, guitar player and band leader. When I featured him recently on The String (he’s an amazing conversation by the way), I learned about his boyhood obsession with Marty Stuart and his years of quiet striving in Music City before the chance to make major label albums and get out on large scale tours. We got the full story of making his excellent new album Beginning of Things. I observed then and will again that Worsham is one of those guys who gets penalized for making commercial country music that happens to be exceptionally good, in that he doesn’t get the love and airplay he deserves on either country radio or Americana. But that’s immaterial to us at MCR. If you’re this good and love the roots, we want to hear you, and we think Charlie will blow you away.
I’ve also noted that Charlie Worsham is to the 2010s in Nashville what Jon Randall was to the 1990s and 2000s – an undisputed mega-talent who’s winning the long game but who suffered in the hit radio game. Never mind that. We know the real deal. Jon is true MCR family, a veteran of shows early and often on our stage with his amazing band 18 South. But long before that he was a member of Emmylou Harris’s Nash Ramblers who played on the legendary Live at the Ryman album, a solo recording artist, a badass songwriter who penned “Whiskey Lullaby” with Bill Anderson and so much more. It’s high time JR made a new solo album and maybe we’ll lobby him about that while we’re back stage.
These Hall of Fame partnership shows have a history of making incredible memories, and we’re filming as always so we’ll get cat videos out of it too.