Generally my early November review comes with a snarky sidebar about the CMA Awards, which shares our our Wednesday evening time slot. But this year, I’m nonplussed. I’m gobsmacked. Somewhere during our second hour, rhapsodic tweets started flooding in about the televised duet with Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake. So back home I FF’ed through some whatever whatever (pausing to check out and cheer for the wonderful “Girl Crush” which netted song and single of the year for Little Big Town and some awesome female writers) and I watched Mr. Memphis and bearded bearlike Mr. Nashville perform “Tennessee Whiskey” and “Drink You Away,” and yes, it was probably the best performance on a TV awards show I’ve ever seen. Commanding, expressive voices. A basically perfect performance by band and singers. And more than that, an extended arrangement took its time and let the artists have fun together and rip the roof off the place. Did you see Jerry Douglas’s priceless wide-eyed devil smile in reaction? Did you see the baffled incredulity of just about everyone else, including performers who make millions who knew right then and there they’d never pulled off anything that powerful in their careers? Oh it was delicious, and especially so since Stapleton, who’d already earned a Best New Artist trophy went on to win album and male vocalist of the year. A sea change in the trajectory of country music? We don’t know yet. But for a shining moment, authentic roots and soul left the radio-driven establishment slack jawed and confused.
We’re proud to say that Stapleton is an MCR alum. We didn’t get to hear him during his pivotal time with the Steeldrivers (though they did play Bluegrass Underground with him), but in February 2011 Stapleton closed our show leading his southern rock project The Jompson Brothers. We’ve been on board as fans for so long, and his Traveler album is indeed great. So let me give credit where it’s due and salute whatever forces in and around the CMA led to a triumphant night for some great artists. That said, we had a dandy show too! It had fewer flash bombs but loads of great music AND with writing that can only be described as literary. That’s the wonder of roots music – its capacity to make great language sing.
Our first wordsmith was Minton Sparks, armed with her purse on her arm, her hyper-cool backing band and a bunch of new stories for us. She versed about creepy carnies in “Carnival Ride” and her dad’s penchant for letting it all hang out in “Streaker.” As they say, you can’t make this stuff up, and Sparks swears she does not. She has a vault full of memories that come spilling out with verve and vividness and delicious language. In “Desperation” she rhymed “fender bender” with “state defender” and in the heart breaking “Harrison” she said “Our headboard became a headstone.” And these were just the lines I had the presence of mind to jot down. It was a flood of beauty and truth and character, as it always is with Minton. Again, kudos to guitarist John Jackson, bass player Dave Jacques and drummer Megan Jane Carchman who made moods and grooves that perfectly suited the spoken words.
Here’s a fresh idea for how to make your audience remember you in a crowded field of folk ensembles. Bring big peach crates with the name of your band painted on the side. Then stand on them to perform. That’s what Fort Defiance did, arraying themselves so that the “Fort” box was stage right holding up multi-instrumentalist Laurel Lane. Jordan Eastman was on his “Defiance” box on the other side. Drummer Dave Martin played in between. The music had bounce and blues and emotion, with songs like “Love As Strong As Doubt” which addressed a big relationship paradox head on. Laurel let her keening voice shine in the lead on the minimal “Let Love Grow” while the set closer “Grace” defied its title by rocking pretty hard. Boxes make for good foot stomping too.
Brent Johnson proved to be a quirky, funny interview, and that smiling spirit infused the music of his band Hope Country. On opener “I Need Grace,” he began with acoustic quiet but the quartet swelled up to a full roar for the latter choruses. The intensity continued on “Your Love Is Rich” as guitarist Josiah Christian and bassist Lucas Anderson slashed around with skinny jean rock and roll fervor. I enjoyed the fusion of power pop and alt-country in “Let Love Grow” and then Johnson wrapped things up with a tender waltz delivered solo with spare electric guitar backing. Thanks for bringing your wiry, hard rocking band and the cow jokes too.
Kevin Gordon is the steadiest of artists. Mr. Consistency. He looks like a guy about to start his shift down at the docks, and then he’ll don his electrified arch top guitar and turn on the song spigot and out will come golden moonshine. “Walking On The Levee” is one of the quieter songs from his new Long Gone Time album and this beauty became the opener of the set. It’s a reminiscence that includes a former flame who died by lightning. Again, you can’t make this stuff up. Kevin’s band of 20 years came on to lend smoldering slow jam grooves to his bouquets of words. “Letter To Shreveport” was a molasses sweet and slow blues. Then “Church on Time” and closer “GTO” brought the spanky Louisiana funk that enlivens so much of Gordon’s hookiest songs. Paul Griffith laid down the time with his unique lefty underhanded style and Joe McMahan, Gordon’s guitarist and producer, offered his tasteful glowing lines fretted and slid.
The Gordon band distinguished itself in the Nashville Jam as well, which was a slow and easy take on “Goodnight Irene.” Tyson Rogers’s keyboard solo slid into Joe’s slide electric in a way that was just as powerful as anything that was sung. Music and words. Words and music. We need them both.