Sometimes the Music City Roots stage looks like a gear warehouse or a Guitar Center with drums, keyboards and amplifiers all over the place. And on some recent weeks, back stage has felt more like a traffic jam than a jam session. But tonight, just when some of us needed it, there was a zen garden quality in the Loveless Barn. The stage held but a single snare drum and only one amp – a vintage Fender so beaten and road-scarred that it had to belong the Pine Hill Haints. Two of our artists needed nothing but a guitar to do their thing. And there were but four artists on the bill, (as God intended). It had a serenity and calm that fit the moist but breezy July night.
So in context, the top of the bill felt like a veritable extravaganza, what with a whopping five finely made instruments. They belonged to The Boxcars, a new group that we’ll all feel lucky one day to have seen in just its first half year of existence. This is one of those bands that shakes out of the bluegrass scene periodically that gives anyone a renewed reason to listen to the music. Adam Steffey, Ron Stewart, John R. Bowman, Harold Nixon and the translucent voice of Keith Garrett make up this new outfit, and if you follow the music, you know about the bright, shining trails left by all five guys. Steffey is one of the finest mando players ever — a huge influence on the likes of Chris Thile and younger players everywhere. It was an honor to have these guys roll out some of their best material well in advance of their debut album release.
Ernie Hendrickson hit cleanup in the Vietti Chili slot. He’s a fine and solid singer songwriter with a reassuring midwestern equanimity. “Not Much Time” offered a quiet prayer for sanity and progress. Nice stuff. David Jacobs-Strain came next, and here’s the thing. It is rare when a guitarist/performer comes along who truly has no deficits whatsoever when playing utterly alone, with no rhythm section to enlarge the groove. Jacobs-Strain is one of them, and he’s still a freakin’ kid. DJS’s attack is overwhelming, and it’s more than just the fact that his acoustics are plugged in. He stretches his measures gracefully and uses rhythm stunningly. He uses the entire neck and scope of the guitar. I had to tell him that his tune “Hurricane Railroad” reminded me of maybe Sonny Landreth, had Landreth been from Oregon instead of Louisiana. And he said he wrote it while opening for Sonny, stealing few licks here, making them his own there. Cool. I don’t want to gush, but he’s got a gobsmacking voice too, and he writes really sweet stuff. I think he’s going to cause craned necks for a long time.
Finally, the Pine Hill Haints came on to make use of their spare back-line. Jamie Barrier plugged an old archtop into the derelict looking amplifier, and Matthew Bakula stepped up to the washtub bass. And out came spooky, punchy magic. This decade-old band from northern Alabama has a fascination with the macabre, but they don’t wear it like kitsch. They take the ancient balladry about life and death and turn it into an onstage romp. Bakula nailed his washtub – right smack in tune, and Barrier has a grand voice with which to sing about ghosts and graves. After a couple of songs, Bakula picked up a banjo and sang in a ringing, old-time voice, while Katie Barrier bowed an eerie and effective saw blade. Yep, nothing like a beautiful woman playing a saw with a band singing about poisoning a lover to cap off a night of folk music.
Well, actually the true conclusion came in a fine Loveless Jam, as a strange amalgam of bluegrass all-stars, Alabama undertakers and solo singer/songwriters played a spirited “Darling Corey.” Barrier seemed more than at home singing about digging a hole in the meadow to lay Darling Corey down. Being good country music fans, this cheered everyone up completely and we were sent into the night full but not stuffed, ears satisfied but not ringing. Believe me I’m looking forward to the return of Jason and the Scorchers or Dex Romweber, but this lean and never mean show felt like the right dose of medicine.
We’re off next week, but back on August 4 with a killer lineup. Preview coming soon.