There were a lot of warm fuzzies flying around the Barn on Wednesday. Creative people need (and deserve) affirmation, and there’s nothing like an award nomination announcement to amp up the supply. When Sam Bush and Jim Lauderdale read the lists of nominees for International Bluegrass Music Association Awards at our special late afternoon press event, word rippled out via posts and tweets and texts as dozens of worthy musicians and producers learned they were in the running for the crystal obelisk trophy. Quite a few nominees were right there with us at the Loveless, along with cheering teams of supporters and loved ones.
Most of those named on Wednesday won’t win of course, but this wasn’t the time for that cold fact. It was an annual celebration of the artists whose work motivates the rest of us to push on, to promote, to share and explain and advocate. For first-time nominees, this is especially sweet, and the gratitude spilled over on our stage once the show began with Emerging Artist of the Year hopefuls Flatt Lonesome. Mandolinist and singer Kelsi Robertson Harrigill began to extemporize between songs about the nomination, being on stage in front of a packed Roots crowd and the contributions of their manager – and in so doing strolled right out onto Main Street in Weepy Town. It was totally sweet. And then a bit later, when Album of the Year nominees and all-around badass band The SteelDrivers were on stage, fiddler/singer Tammy Rogers said playing Music City Roots felt like a “home show” for them. And that made US feel all gushy.
Even with all the good will and family reunion atmosphere, the first theme that emerged (besides it being a gorgeous cool August night and Keith Bilbrey’s birthday) was ladies in bluegrass with guns. Jim Lauderdale kicked off the show with a new song in which the ghosts of Pretty Polly, Little Maggie and the Knoxville Girl plot revenge for being offed so tragically in bluegrass songs. Then The SteelDrivers did their blistering Tammy-led song “When You Don’t Come Home” in which an aggrieved woman confronts her unfaithful man with a .45. Hazel Dickens would approve methinks.
Flatt Lonesome actually opened the show and did so with angelic harmonies sung in that familiar bluegrass three part harmony of high, higher and highest. The old Johnny and June Cash number “Jackson” came first, and the crowd proved just how charged up it was with its surges and cheers. Then it was glorious slow lovelorn country with the ballad “My Favorite Memory.” “I’m Blue” met the bluegrass challenge of sounding cheerful and sunshiny while actually conveying deep misery. This band has a lot going for it, from its tight vocals to its great name.
The SteelDrivers feel like home for us too. With their roots in Music City songwriting, production and studio work, they’re just so very Nashville, even as they’ve spread out across the country to reach an ever wider country and the bluegrass/roots music fan base. Their hard-edge, blues-drenched style was vividly on display from the opening measures of “Reckless Side Of Me,” and singer Gary Nichols wasted little time cranking up the amplifier that seems to be in his throat. Tammy played complex and silky fiddle on the band’s honky tonker, “Wearin’ A Hole,” whose conclusion made me want to ring the bell at the Station Inn (ding!). The haunted harmonies of “I’ll Be There” came off beautifully, and the pickers in the band stretched out on finale “Ghosts Of Mississippi.” Musically and metaphorically speaking, steel was driven.
As Donna Ulisse’s set took flight, the sheer diversity of the night (not to mention bluegrass music in general) became clearer. With Donna, it’s less growl and more purr, less grit and more glow. That said, opener “One Way Rider” and closer “Let It Rain” were speedy, banjo-driven songs with proper bluegrass bite. But I do think “Hand Me Down Home” is more the quintessence of Donna Ulisse’s style, as comfortable musically and vocally as the theme of the song. She also did “Black Snake,” one of my favorites of hers, about a crooked road in the mountains and moonshine runners trying to out-drive the cops thereon. In this one and others, Donna shows how effective she is with melody, making no wasted gestures or over-wrought statements. She’s pure without being a purist, and that’s an impressive line to walk.
Sam Bush has been so good for so long at every kind of bluegrass and newgrass, that the purists don’t begrudge him a thing. Moreover, being this much fun on stage also tends to undermine anybody who wants to be a cranky-pants about ‘how Mr. Monroe done it.’ Sam (on fiddle) and company (the regular band subbing Jon Randall on guitar for a traveling Stephen Mougin) opened with John Hartford’s gorgeous “Vamp In The Middle” featuring icy harmony singing on the chorus. That flowed into the energetic (and cute) instrumental “Puppies ‘N Knapsacks.” Sam offered his sincere and sentimental ode to the late great Roy Huskey Jr. and closed out the set by blazing away (with freshly minted Banjo Player of the Year nominee Scott Vestal) on the Jeff Black song “They’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone.” Indeed we would. Please don’t go anywhere.
And that led to a concluding set by Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, the longest-running band of the night by a long stretch and the very quintessence of today’s main-line, straight-ahead bluegrass style. And that’s true even if they did reach out of the genre just a bit to feature songs from their recent album of influential cover tunes. “Gentle On My Mind” opened the set with its patient groove and meandering verses. Russell, basking in his umpteenth Male Vocalist nomination, proved his worthiness with “Farewell Party,” that Gene Watson epic that might be the most misery soaked country song of all time. Boy can Russell Moore sing and soar. I think every one of us bluegrass freaks in the barn loves “Old Home Place,” so we got a great version of that tune, followed by a swingier number from the Bob Wills world, “My Window Faces The South.” It was either their IIIrd tyme or IVth tyme playing the show, but they’re welcome back any tyme.
And with that it was on to the Loveless Jam, and there hadn’t been a signature Flatt & Scruggs tune all night, so it was pretty easy to settle on “Rolling In My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” No better sing-along than that one. So between the raised voices, the friends and family in the house and the warm fuzzies, it was a night for feeling good about ourselves, each other and bluegrass music itself. Ding!