It’s impossible to imagine – even for the historians and curators who researched the Night Train To Nashville exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum – the accumulated experience of the artists who graced our stage Wednesday night. Between them were hundreds and hundreds of life years full of roads, crowds, hotels, shacks, joints, clubs, drinks, dalliances, disappointments and delights. We basked in the company and the artistry of more than a dozen senior performers whose lives could each be a novel, full of muscles and scars, families and friendships, ecstasy and discrimination. We hear a lot of young artists on Roots who enjoy the optimism and advantages of living in a wired, comfortable world. But the Night Train epic show this week was a study in seasoned professionalism and entertainment that won’t be easily reproduced or matched.
The show, thank heaven, didn’t lapse into that stilted terrain of a “tribute” to something passing away. It was as vital a display of artistry as we’ve ever seen. It provoked standing ovations more efficiently than Kim Jong-un’s dreams. It overflowed its schedule and spawned its own unexpected encore, when soul classic “Sunny” segued into a jubilant cover of new pop/R&B hit “Happy.” The blues were banished. Our room had no roof. Our night of Night Train, ambitious and long in the planning, was even bigger and more fulfilling than we’d hoped.
In the era that shaped most of our performers, one of the most frequent formats for popular music was the package show, with big bills of diverse performers in medium-length sets. Sound familiar? Our approach made the night feel like it came advertised on one of those rainbow show posters from 1971. And when The Valentines came to the stage, it was the 70s incarnate. In sport coats and bow ties the color of Creamsicles, the four gents delivered meticulous moves and carefully interlocked vocals on the Lou Rawls hit “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine.” The sweet flow continued as the amazing Frank Howard (cover guy on the Night Train Vol. 1 CD) sang his greatest hit “Just Like Him” with his group in support. Then Charles Myers, a very tall man with broad shoulders and gold earrings, surprised by jumping to thrilling falsetto voice on “You Make Me Feel Brand New.” This group reunited (adding Howard) when Night Train shone the spotlight on them in 2004, and they took months to get their act polished. That certainly showed on Roots.
The McCrary Sisters aren’t just polished, they are gut bucket funky too. The band created such a thicket of James Brown grooves on opener “Come On” it was hard to imagine how they’d top it. So they eased up and poured on beauty in “Skin Deep” and then roared back with punchy force on “Let It Go.” That bright, life-affirming song featured a breakdown with a blazing tambourine solo (yes you heard me) by Regina McCrary, a Roots first.
How remarkable it was to contrast the luscious and shimmering chorale of the McCrarys’ voices with the deeper, more viscous harmonies of The Fairfield Four. This internationally renowned Nashville group sounds at times like an organ playing impossible chords in a vast cathedral. “It’s okay to have church this evening,” one of them told the crowd, and many in that crowd exhorted them on with shouts and praise. “Rock My Soul” had snappy tempo. “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” started ever so patiently, drawing out the sentiments and making space for contemplation. Then it perked up into an a cappella dance of voices. Levert Allison, who was closest to me and who did much of the lead singing and speaking, let fly some great vocal effects and rhythmic tricks on the upbeat finale “Dig A Little Deeper.”
I think we’ll always look back with a kind of disbelieving wonder that we were able to hear two of the very best gospel groups in the world – two groups tied together by family history – in back to back sets.
With our sacred benediction out of the way, it was time to sing about delicious ladies and man’s overwhelming need to love, hold and never be abandoned by them. This, dear friends, is Charles “Wigg” Walker’s wheelhouse. His passionate exhortations of devotion earned him a standing ovation by merely the end of his second song, and he was just warming up. He cried, growled, howled and shook with emotion. All while wearing a silver suit that distorted light. Walker’s band is one of Nashville’s greatest units, with slippery, funky, jazz guitarist Pat Bergeson, organist Charles Treadway and drummer Pete Abbott. By the time Charles and band got to the set closer “I Like ‘Em Like That” the only commentary I was capable of in my notes was ‘good gawd amighty’. So that’ll have to do.
And even after all that, a cavalcade of stars awaited, but only once the Jimmy Church Band had a chance to get a song under its belt – or should I say under their cummerbunds, since it was six guys plus leader Church in white tuxedoes. However these gentlemen were merely a canvas – an Amazon-patented plain white background – for the leggy ladies known as Sugar and Spice who entered stage right with red sequin dresses and moves that could wound weak men. They were the vocalists for the opening number “I’m So Excited,” and suddenly it was 1982. But then it was time for a singing clinic from a more experienced point of view. Folks, I think of all the surprises and reveals at this special show, the explosive vocal performance of Marion “Queen of the Blues” James will stand apart. She was rolled out in a wheelchair and let us know that she’d been “shut in for a year” as if she needed to offer a disclaimer. But not so much. Her song was “24 Hours” and with not so much as two minutes to warm up, she simply smoked it. On a night packed with soul, R&B and gospel, we needed a shot of the blues, and this was it.
Levert Allison peeled off from the Fairfield Four, changed from overall tuxedo to a blazing-orange suit to sing his late brother’s smash “You Can Make It If You Try” with tenderness and emotion while Jimmy Church conducted his band. Maggie Lewis was a tiny lady rock and roller a la Wanda Jackson who sang the essential Night Train song “Soul Shake.” The young generation of Nashville soul music was confirmed to be commanding and sexy as 20-something artist Bailey shone on the Fabulettes’ amazing “Screamin’ and Shoutin’”. Bailey’s being produced by mystical veteran guitarist and songwriter Mac Gayden, who played subtly in back much of the night as a special guest musician.
Jimmy Church introduced his colleagues as “this young man” or “this young woman” whomever they were. And Clifford Curry, though a bit slow up the stairs, had the same twinkle and charm and graciousness to the crowd he had as a young man at the dawn of his career. He urged the crowd to join his enthusiasm, certain he said that there were some “Baptists in the house” who were under-enthusing. He got ‘em going with his fervent take on “She Shot A Hole In My Soul.”
I hardly have words for what happened next. The 1967 hit song “Everlasting Love” is one of Nashville’s greatest non-country gifts to the world. Yet Robert Knight is not a figure we see in the media or on local stages. I don’t think any of us knew what to expect. So when this enigmatic figure emerged on stage in a slick suit and badass shades, he brought with him a rare aura. His skull looked to be carved out of ebony. His hair was razor short and eminently gray. None of us will EVER look that cool. His voice was not commanding, but it was beautiful and in touch with the music. Sugar and Spice played counterpoint with their harmony vocals. The song soared. Time collapsed. It was I think the finale our musical curator – the Hall of Fame’s Michael Gray – hoped for.
And yet it was not over! We have a Nashville Jam tradition at Roots of course, and with so many artists the usual format didn’t seem practical. Besides, Jimmy Church needed to kick out a lead vocal, so with everyone assembled on stage, he led the band in what’s probably the most recorded song in Nashville’s R&B history, “Sunny” by the late great Bobby Hebb. Jimmy killed it, riding the song’s wonderful modulations – sliding up a key with every verse. And just when we thought we’d cue the Roots theme song, Jimmy called an audacious audible. He asked us if we were happy. And well, yeah. That’s when the snap-crackle rhythm of that wildly popular and wonderful song punched the air. One of his sparkly singers took charge, and a few dancing, clapping minutes later, we’d wrapped an epic show that never dragged.
It was also a show that in truth, would have been near impossible at the Loveless Barn. The space afforded to the older artists (who chummed it up like a family reunion) made for a relaxed atmosphere. I think the whole thing will be a landmark in our show’s journey. We owe the Hall of Fame a lot of thanks for the co-production and media support. But it was the artists of course who brought it. This train was bound for glory, and we were lucky to be along for the ride.