By guest blogger Larry Nager. Photo by guest photographer Butch Worrell.
On any given Wednesday, Music City Roots is the Americana version of a classic radio barn dance – a variety of artists, some old, some new, some famous, some less well known. Like that show at the Ryman that you may have heard of, there’s a sense of family, of continuity, of traditions being passed on at the same time new sounds are created.
But those connections were never more clear than at our March 25 show at The Factory in Franklin. Five bands, featuring several dozen musicians from their 20s to their 70s teamed up to create a panoramic view of American music – Tennessee soul, Texas swing, Colorado bluegrass, Georgia rock and East Nashville singer-songwriter cool. Call it Pan-Americana.
Under normal circumstances you wouldn’t think these bands could share a ZIP code, let alone a stage, but no one ever claimed Music City Roots was “normal.” And like Nashville Jam’s habanero-peach preserves, widely contrasting flavors can make everything taste better.
The night began with the classic soul of The Valentines. Resplendent in red tuxedos, Frank Howard, James Moon, Charles Myers and newest member Billy Gaines immediately heated things up with “On a Summer Night.” Backed by a seven-man band led by guitarist/songwriter Mac Gayden, The Valentines’ lilting rhythms and soulful harmonies had the near-sellout crowd grinning and grooving through a set of new soul classics from their just-released CD, Old School Knew, a project written by Gayden. Like Hayes and Porter with Sam & Dave, Gayden and The Valentines are a match made in Southern Soul Heaven.
They could have stayed onstage all night as far as the audience was concerned, but there was lots more ground to cover. It was time to go from Hall of Fame veterans to talented rookies, as our Vietti Chili Emerging Artists took the stage. Daphne & The Mystery Machines got their start last fall but already have a sound all their own, focused on the original songs and powerful vocals of Daphne Culver and Jenn Palmer. With no drums, and featuring the guitars of Adam Taylor, Josh Preston and Culver and the string trio of violinist Maria Kowalski, cellist Courtney Blackwell and bassist Jess Perkins, the Mystery Machines are a band like a bantamweight boxer, light on its feet but packing real punch.
Then it was time for a surprise, as Asleep at the Wheel, a last-minute addition, arrived onstage. Almost 43 years after its debut LP, AATW is an American institution, as Ray Benson has led the band longer than Bob Wills led his legendary Texas Playboys. They opened with Wills’ “Texas Playboy Theme.” from their latest Wills tribute album, Still the King, and played an all-too brief set that included “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” sung by Emily Gimble, granddaughter or former Texas Playboy and longtime Nashville session fiddler/mandolinist Johnny Gimble. They closed with their reworking of the old fiddle tune, “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” with Gimble and fiddler Katie Shore harmonizing like Wills’ featured female duo, the McKinney Sisters.
Next up, another band that has helped define its genre. Hot Rize got its start in 1978, but called it quits 20 years later shortly before the death of guitarist Charles Sawtelle from complications due to leukemia. Mandolinist-fiddler Tim O’Brien, banjo player Pete Wernick and bassist Nick Forster reunited in 2002 for some all-too-rare sporadic shows, completing the lineup with guitarist extraordinaire Bryan Sutton. But 2015 marks that band’s return to a full-time performance schedule, and from the adoring crowd response, they’ve been truly missed.
This will be no sagging, dragging reunion tour. The quartet took the stage and cranked up the Hot Rize Time Machine, going straight back to their hiply traditional signature sound. O’Brien led the band through “Blue Night” and another Hot Rize classic, “Nellie Kane” before they did three songs from their first studio project in more than 20 years, When I’m Free. A great band reunited and sounding better than ever? That is something to celebrate.
And then that bluegrass festival morphed into an arena-rock concert, as the MCR crew scrambled to set up for Drivin’ N’ Cryin’. In their 1990s heyday, DNC was always hard to pin down and they haven’t gotten any easier. With longtime rhythm section, bassist Tim Nielsen and drummer Dave V. Johnson, backing mercurial frontman Kevn Kinney and rock-star lead guitarist Warner E. Hodges, on loan from Jason & The Scorchers, DNC compressed all the ragged majesty of a great rock show into a short set, touching on as many of their various styles as possible. The self-effacing Kinney remains a compelling singer, whether gently singing a folk tune or belting out a full-tilt anthem. He met his match with Hodges, whose flamboyant fashion sense makes Keith Richards look like Mitt Romney, and whose blistering solos bring all the passion and drama of great rock guitar with none of the empty pyrotechnics of post-Eddie Van Halen noodlers. They were joined for a double lead attack by the band’s regular guitarist Sadler Vaden (currently touring with Jason isbell).
The crowd seemed ready to let them go all night, but they apparently had had their say. When Jim Lauderdale asked Kinney if they wanted to do one more, he replied, “Nah, we’re good.”
But not quite done. DNC stayed in place as the rest of the almost three dozen other musicians from Wednesday’s show packed the stage to its legal limits. That wildly diverse crowd found common ground in the Nashville Jam, singing Bob Dylan’s hymn-like “I Shall Be Released,” soulful harmonies blending with rock guitars, Texas fiddle and sweetly tremoloed mandolin, closing an evening that should stand in the MCR record book of special nights for a long time to come.
For me, it was a bittersweet end to my two-week stint as MCR’s substitute “interview guy.” April 8, Craig Havighurst returns tanned and ready to resume his duties at The Factory, while tomorrow, I head 333 feet underground for a weekend at Cumberland Caverns’ Volcano Room, where we’re taping Season 5 of the Emmy-winning PBS series Bluegrass Underground. Those tickets are long gone, but you can catch our regular 2015 concert schedule at bluegrassunderground.com.
But before I go, I’ll be sending Craig a bunch of travel brochures so he can start planning his next vacation.
– Larry Nager