Are you following #Tomatogate? The latest face palm from “country” radio came last week when powerful consultant Keith Hill told a trade paper that his data proved that if country stations play two songs by women in a row or more than 20% songs by women overall they’ll lose ratings. And in an agonizing metaphor that will become part of history, he said that if country music is a salad, the guys are the lettuce and the female artists are the “tomatoes.” We suspected that women in country were held back by a glass ceiling. Who knew it was the sneeze guard on a salad bar? The backlash has been intense and hilarious and heartening. The Saving Country Music blog wrote: “the radio industry is failing the public by following preconceived notions based on metadata, as opposed to looking for the best songs.”
We don’t think this way at Roots, as I trust you know by now. We seek out the best artistry, period. Not every show winds up gender balanced, but over the long haul I feel like we’re as close to parity as the talent pool itself. This week’s sure was. It was a boy-girl-boy-girl night that was by turns thought-provoking, enchanting and uplifting.
I speculated that Ryan Culwell had a bit of kinship with MCR alums John Fullbright and Parker Millsap who’ve busted out of the same part of the country with fervent voices and scorching songs. And as these things go, it proved true – to a point. Culwell grappled with big arching themes, like hubris in “I Think I’ll Be There God.” And he painted rusty, realistic pictures of his Texas panhandle home in “Amarillo” and “Flatlands,” the title track on his acclaimed debut album. With a superb band that included electric ambient guitar from Ethan Ballinger and spot on vocals by Lacey Brown, the feel was leather-strong, classic Americana with an emotionally intense and fiercely intelligent auteur up front. He’s garnering interest beyond roots music circles for good reason.
You may know I’m not all that patient with singing children. I support their singing, but elsewhere. When kid singers and pickers present themselves on stage, more kindly souls than myself hear spirit and innocence, where I hear little but the (perfectly understandable) inexperience with the music and emotion. But I have to admit 10-year-old Emi Sunshine has a gift and a love for country music that she’s translating into a personal style with uncanny speed and effectiveness. She came on wearing a kind of a hippie do-rag and knitted poncho, looking too cool for elementary school. Then with a proud East Tennessee drawl and a voice that’s already got lonesome tears in it, she sang really good songs with honesty and phrasing beyond her years. “Johnny, June and Jesus” is her own anthem to heroes. “I Am Able” was another original that slowed things down and showed off her clarity and purity when she wants to shift into that gear. There’s Dolly, Alison and Emmylou all in there just busting to grow up and bust out.
If our team behind the scenes was double-taking over Emi’s performance, our next performer Andrew Duhon had the ladies on our team a little swoony. “Like butter” said one. “I loooove him” said another. Okay tomatoes, get a grip. He’s just a guy who writes elegantly crafted songs, sings with the liquid ease of James Taylor and fronts a band rife with New Orleans soul. Well hell, now I’ve got a crush. Ahem. Seriously, the musical cream coming from this three-piece (Myles Weeks on upright bass and Maxwell Zemanovic on drums) is so rich you get caught by surprise by the penetrating lines Duhon writes. “She wore her bible belt a little too tight,” he sang in “Beautiful Girl.” And “Cecelia” was another rumination on a lovely creature, in this case inspired by a photograph from small town America in the 40s. For his final song, Andrew grabbed his acoustic guitar but twiddled the funk and grit knobs on his pedals to get a dirty slide thing going for “Sidestep Your Grave.” Do you love the Wood Brothers? Then this is for you. And for our crowd, who gave the ADT a standing O.
The energy level seemed to build gradually all night up to the closing set from Ashley Cleveland, who came on with a hot fuchsia acoustic guitar and a red hot Nashville band, featuring loving husband Kenny Greenberg on guitar, iconic shaman Michael Rhodes on bass and drummer Nick Buda. A few riffs from Kenny was all it took to get Ashley fully engaged in opener “Born To Preach The Gospel” with its closing line “and I love my job.” We know how you feel friend. When the band kicked into the double time snap of “You Got To Move” it was chill bump time. There was a cool chiming Richard Thompson feel to “Don’t Let Me Fall” and AC and company reworked Jim Lauderdale’s “Halfway Down” with twists on the groove and the chord changes. And finale “Walkin’ In Jerusalem” surged with big beats, big swing and a big voice.
Our high impact Nashville Jam was “If I Had A Hammer” and it hammered out justice and warnings and love all over this land. Mine would be swinging in the direction of certain country radio programming executives.