The highlight of my otherwise uneventful drive down I-65 to Roots each week is passing the WSM broadcast tower at Concord Road. This iconic 1932 construction is so symbolic of Nashville’s rise as Music City that I spent tons of time studying its history and put it on the cover of my book. It’s also beautiful – a stretched out, four sided diamond of iron balanced on its tip, held up by carefully engineered cables that are almost invisible in the sundown light. Every week I see the tower against a different sky, sometimes azure blue and sometimes rippling with golden hour light against puffy clouds. This week it was a streaky watercolor wash of mellow pink and blue. It makes me think of our show, inspired by the WSM tradition and, ideally, held up by four artists who bring balance and harmony. This week’s felt that way, with talent and soul equally distributed in our carefully engineered broadcast.
Opening was Lee Harvey Osmond, the onstage persona of Canadian renaissance man Tom Wilson, who seems actually like the same guy either way, which is to say warm but tough, formidable but funny. “Blue Moon Drive” encapsulated the molten, mysterious feeling that stands out on the new Beautiful Scars album, with silvery slide guitar from Tom’s old colleague and friend Colin Linden. Lee Harvey introduced the band, ending with the bass player who turned out to be his son, and the two of them got up close to one microphone and sang a powerful duet over a fingerstyle country blues number. Then came a righteous stomper and a set-closing, sexy slow walker called “Freedom” with Linden playing righteously reverby Gretsch electric guitar. Lee Harvey’s low whisper and rumble of a voice was thrilling and the mood was consistently in a minor key. It was like opening the show with a modern day film noir soundtrack.
Ben and Suzanne of HoneyHoney are super smart and funny people who produce a lot of music with a few well tempered tools and who construct impeccable country rock songs that play in welcome loops in my mind. Their sense for memorable melody was on display right away in “Whatcha Gonna Do,” and Suzanne’s ability to sing while playing twin-noted fiddle adds a lot of color to their overall harmony. Unlike last time they brought a drummer, freeing Ben to focus on guitar, and his solid body electric threw buckets of tone on the rocking “Big Man” and jazz arpeggios opening the calmer, Dylanesque “Burned Me Out.” When Suzanne picked up her banjo for the closer “Back To You” and launched the tune with a hard marching beat, it was full of feeling and fervor. Suzanne is basically the lead singer with a voice that is truly honeyed twice over, and Ben is so spot on with his harmonies that he draws attention away from himself – not to her but to a larger something that transcends their individual parts.
From one duo to another we went as Peter Cooper and Eric Brace took the stage, drawing on the cream of Nashville’s side musicians, as they always do. With Thomm Jutz stage left on acoustic guitar and Andrea Zonn stage right with fiddle and voice flanking them, Cooper and Brace let fly with a vocal blend as rich as I’ve ever heard from them. The songs came from their new album C&O Canal, which honors the D.C. folk legacy. The Seldom Scene’s “Blue Ridge” is so not easy to nail but so gorgeous through these guys’ pipes. If there’s anything more challenging than that it’s “Wait A Minute,” but Peter and Eric have been doing this one for years and it’s a staple of their very identity as a duo. Everything felt not just well performed but core to their musical journey.
Michael Martin Murphey rocks Cowboy couture like few people I’ve ever seen. His pre-show and during show outfits were both were elegantly layered and textured. His hats seemed carved from marble. He wore a vest and kerchief on stage that made you want to feel the fabric, and all this under a leather beaded long coat with fringe for days. The sheer solidity of his presence came through in the music as well, which was incredibly well sung and tightly performed. I regret my error in flagging the wrong “new album” in Murphey’s life in the preview. It’s actually High Stakes, and the five piece band came out with the title track, a totally twangy country song with a boom chucka chucka drive. “Campfire On The Road” was a wistful prayer for a free way of life. And he steered toward a finale with his indelible hit “Wildfire,” played on acoustic guitar with deftness by young Nashvillian Sean Richardson and by his son Ryan on mandolin. Lauderdale rewarded the standing ovation with an encore and I was so glad to hear “Geronimo’s Cadillac” to close out the set. Murphey offered a wise, meaningful story to set it up and the song from the early 70s is an obscure masterpiece of outlaw country.
The gang gathered around the mics to sing “Working On A Building” in the Nashville Jam. In six plus years of doing this show I’ve never seen any artist be too proud or too self-centered to play with others in the jam. That’s how everybody pulls the weight to keep the whole thing standing.