Was it a weird coincidence or a sign? I left the Factory Wednesday night on proverbial cloud nine, with “Amazing Grace” (our Nashville Jam chosen by Billy Joe Shaver) echoing in my head. Then on the car stereo was RadioLab, with a story about a guy who suddenly loses his faith in God. But he loves “Amazing Grace” and he sings it twice in the piece. This song follows me around. But of course I’m not alone.
“Amazing Grace” confronts me with a mystery. By Tennessee standards (and Billy Joe Shaver’s certainly), I’m an unbeliever. I don’t “sing God’s praise” and I’m dubious about the concept of salvation. Yet “Amazing Grace” fills me with light, love and emotion every time. Joining my voice with others a cappella as we did at the end of the show in Liberty Hall, there’s truly no song I’d rather sing. It’s my ultimate lump in the throat song. Yet it’s a gospel song through and through.
I think the connection for me is the second line: “how sweet the sound.” Why would songwriter John Newton identify grace as sound – not as something God does or gives but as something we can feel and hear? I don’t know, but it fits my philosophy. God doesn’t chat with us or trade favors. God’s the deepest hum of the universe and all its infinite overtones – the endless echo of creation. And the way I get closer to it is with music, feeling the resonance of everything. Sound is my anchor and my gyroscope, and while this week’s Roots was more about great songwriting than deep sonic excursions, there was music aplenty about which we could sing praise.
We got started with a global handshake, welcoming Tomi Fujiyama back to our stage. She’s the remarkable, joy-exuding star of country music in Japan and the subject of a new documentary filmed in part at Roots that’s screening this week at the Nashville Film Festival. Tomi looked sweet in full Patsy Montana regalia. Solo, with electric guitar, she regaled us with bilingual versions of “Shenandoah” and “Help Me Make It Through The Night.” Charming through and through.
Scott Miller knows of Shenandoah, the river valley where he lives, farms and writes songs. He began with the dulcimer-like guitar part and country lilt of “Ciderville Saturday Night.” Then it was a mournful Civil War story, coming just days after the 150th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox. As always, Scott’s banter was funny and sharp, bringing the audience closer and our friend Bryn Bright’s league-leading acoustic bass playing kept things solid and energetic. I’d never heard Scott’s song “People Who Rule” before, which brilliantly eviscerates the supposed divides between liberals and conservatives – with a kazoo. It’s the instrument that will ultimately bring us all together. Scott Miller for President.
We’ve had big brassy funky vintage soul-meets-country-blues bands before, but none has had more chair-by-chair excellence in musicianship, showmanship and vocal power than The Dustbowl Revival out of Los Angeles. They kicked off with a bit of Beale Street rumba blues then slid into a sharp and funky film noir vibe built on the acoustic bass of James Klopfleisch. He and the other instrumentalists showed incredible polish and schooling. But the band’s signature vibe radiates from lead vocalists Liz Beebe and Zach Lupetin. He is stylish and charismatic, with great rhythm. She’s a vocal powerhouse with shaky-shaky seductiveness. Her brassy, bluesy lead on “Feels Good” was one magnificent moment of many. The band wrapped with “Lampshade On,” in which our cooperative crowd made in-chair lampshade donning gestures along with the lyrics.
Tulsa’s John Moreland moves without moving. Without much obvious sparkle in his eye or activity beyond the flexing of his heavily tattooed arms and hands on his acoustic guitar, he projects forceful visions, characters and situations. And with titles like “You Don’t Care For Me Enough” and “Nobody Gives A Damn About Songs Anymore” you can tell they’re not exactly bouquets of pick-me-ups. John’s gale-force voice carries the musical burden, and even stronger is the lyrical craft. “We read all the right books, we sang songs we misunderstood / And with or without any reason, we did rebellion what justice we could,” he sang in “Blacklist.” And there were many other threads to follow. The audience sat stone silent and paid John back with a rousing standing ovation at the end.
We’ve done about 240 shows and featured more than 800 artists at Roots, but not until last night did I feel compelled to ask for an autograph. Billy Joe Shaver kindly signed my Tramp On Your Street CD, one of my Rosetta Stone albums that unlocked roots and real country music earlier in my life. It just had to be done. I couldn’t have been happier to see the 75-year-old on our stage, frisky and ornery as ever. He opened with the song that opens that album, “Heart Of Texas,” and he sang my favorite song from it as well, the amazing, resilient and uplifting “Old Chunk of Coal.” I could see a Star 129 campaign featuring Shaver’s sparkling eyes and cagey voice singing “I’m going to be a diamond some day”, couldn’t you? With a tight quartet, Billy Joe scarcely touched his own acoustic guitar, signing hands-free with a kinetic stage presence. He punched the air, spread his arms in exaltation, played a little air guitar and danced a bit. Electric guitarist Jeremy Woodall cranked up the rock and roll feel on “Ride Me Down Easy” toward the finale and Shaver ended with an encore of his happy worrier anthem “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ.” You know where you stand with this guy.
“Amazing Grace” followed and while I was concerned it would be too slow for a jam, it found just the right three-quarter time, and everyone took on their verse with feeling. Dustbowl’s Liz and Zach sang such awesome old-time country harmony on their verse I’m waiting for their old-time country album. It was spiritual all around. Grace can be found in this world, but don’t look for it. Listen.