“You really can’t go wrong when there’s biscuits and music in the room,” said Ashley Cleveland from the stage of the Loveless Barn, summing up the situation elegantly and giving me my lead. Thanks also, Ashley, for the performance, which did not pussyfoot around. I asked her on stage to talk about the category where she’s won three Grammy Awards – Rock Gospel – and yeah, it was a dumb question. Nashville’s very own Ashley is the very definition of rock gospel, about which I’ll have more to say.
Tonight’s rangy lineup actually began with a fellow who has had an analogous career to Ashley’s – Will Kimbrough. Both are artists who make great albums and write songs. They have done tons of backup work for insanely distinguished others. They are quintessential Nashville A-listers. And while they’ve both been involved in plenty of commercially successful projects, they both feel the roots of their music deeply.
Kimbrough showed it with such finesse. I don’t think I did a very good job paying him a compliment on stage, but what I was trying to get at is his finesse, which I guess you could say is like grace without excessive polish. Will kicks out crazy amounts of energy without straining. There have been Olympic athletes on television all week that give off the same vibe, which seems to say: I’m great at what I do and I’m completely not even going to consider being a jerk about it.
Will opened with the heartfelt and very new “Three Angels” from his album called Wings, which just came out yesterday. (Are we not timely?) The amazing backing vocals of Lisa Oliver Gray elevated the already wing-y song. “Love To Spare” showed Will’s Sam Cooke side, and he wrapped with one of his honest-to-diety-of-your-choice masterpieces, “Piece of Work.” He wrote it in about 2001 and recorded it on his second album. Jimmy Buffett, his new buddy, recorded it, because it’s got all of that smart wordplay that Buffett was always good at. But Kimbrough’s version is IT, with its Bo Diddley-visits-New Orleans groove, delivered beautifully by drummer Paul Griffith and bassist Tim Marks.
DJs should dream of segues as smooth as Kimbrough into The Vespers. I think I may be saying this band’s serene name with reverence before long. These guys are great. Their CD debut arrives in two weeks, and they’re inviting EVERYBODY to their release party at the wonderful and large Belcourt Theater on March 11 at 8 pm. I feel a strong need to be there, because I will get to hear “Not So Nice” again, with its bewitching ukulele and the sibling harmonies of the Cryar sisters. This quartet, a duo of sibling duos actually, is kicking out songs that are catchy but not predictable, and they’ve got a cool sense of structure. “Pick A Fight” somehow morphed from a droning modal awesome thing into an a cappella gospel clap-along. They finished with their title cut: “Tell Your Mama,” and they’re entering big time tell everyone mode. We wish them luck and want them back.
On a night that was otherwise devoid of the country music so much at the heart of WSM’s legacy, we were thrilled to have a late-arranged visit from Amber Digby. She’s emerged as superb neo honky-tonker. Last night, backed only with an acoustic guitar, her songs tended more toward torchy balladry. “Silent Night After The Fight” would sound great produced by Billy Sherrill.
Then we enjoyed the Hot Seats, comprising five funny and whimsical gentlemen from Richmond VA. As promised, they mixed up their attack with ragtime, early jazz, old time and jugband hokum. They took “Pretty Polly” into rave-up territory and offered some originals that included a lyric rhyming “bed-wetter” with “argyle sweater” and thus were we all impressed.
And in another segue to die for, from the slightly zany to the uplifting, Ashley Cleveland took the stage with a band to impress any Nashville insider. We were not surprised to see her husband Kenny Greenberg, who’s one of the city’s top-call guitarists and producers, take the stage. But we also got studio legends Chad Cromwell on drums and Michael Rhodes on bass. Hello? How do we live so well? They laid down the track and Ashley rode it like a rocket train, singing “Rock In A Weary Land” with huge vocal focus and “You Gotta Move,” which everyone did. Kenny shredded on a couple of different guitars, sharing loving looks with Ms. Ashley.
And that was a setup for all our champions to gather on stage for Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” Josh Bearman of the Hot Seats turned in a daring and fabulous mandolin solo, and Greenberg and Kimbrough traded smokin’ guitar licks.
It was a Mount Olympus moment. With biscuits.