I bought a pair of overalls once and wore them out on just a couple of occasions. And look, I grew up near a golf course with a law professor dad, so I fully acknowledge this was a lark and a pose. But when in Rome, you know? And having seen how comfortable folks like Mike Bub and Leroy Troy look in their Tennessee Tuxedos, I had to give ‘em a try.
And see, here’s the funny thing that happened. I went to the Station Inn (where else?), and I don’t even remember the show specifically, but somehow I found myself behind the bar helping out
Ann Soyars, the dear, badass bluegrass den mother who just recently died of cancer. I answered the phone a couple of times and I carried a beer keg from point A to point B when Ann needed it done. I felt bonded with the Station Inn in a new way after that. It was one of the more rewarding and exciting nights of my life. And I think the overalls had something to do with it.
So on a Station Inn-like evening at Roots this Wednesday, my overall impression was that it was a night appropriate for overalls. Leroy Troy sported ‘em during his banjo/guitar set, and guitarist Jared Green wore a pair as the Howlin’ Brothers closed out the night with old-time jam. The first half of the show was less rustic, but the Western swing of Johnny Appleseed and the 100-proof Americana country of Caleb Caudle showed craft, soul and vision. And as a bonus, the whole thing raised money for the Nature Conservancy.
Nature showed her force with an 11 degree night that scared off a few otherwise warm and smiling patrons. And I’m not trying to get a dig in here or anything, but with respect it would have been like 45 degrees in the Loveless Barn, so we were grateful for the climate control. Heck, Caleb Caudle made me want to take off my sweater as his five piece band got underway with tobacco-stained North Carolina folk rock. Steel and Telecaster twisted up the country knob a bit, but the baseline here was a calm, steady songwriting about relationships and the road. A pair of lonesome songs – “Trade All The Lights” and “Miss You Like Crazy” were highlights. Caleb’s got a bold, clear voice that draws on country croon and weary folk rasp in equal measure.
Western swing is an enduring tradition because it feels so good, but the world’s not overfull of musicians willing to develop the bewitching combination of instrumental chops and laid back sensibility it takes to do it well. But man, new Nashville ensemble Johnny Appleseed is on it, with a sound that’s original yet true to its influences. The first few tunes were comfortable swinging band-penned numbers. They lent some rockabilly tone with a cover of a Carl Perkins song called “Dixie Fried” that jumped like BR549 on a Lower Broadway Saturday Night. But the show stopper for me was “What Would You Say.” It started as a lush ballad with brilliant pedal steel from Brett Resnick and pretty jazz doodles from electric guitarist Mark Sloan. The impressive voice of lead singer Andrew Hunt really glowed with baritone beauty on this one. And the song grew with savvy arranging into a kind of burlesque romp with complex lines blending fiddle, steel and guitar. How did we like them Apples? A whole lot.
Leroy Troy was definitely under the weather, poor guy. He had a bottle of actual cough syrup in his banjo case, where usually a Goodlettsville picker would have “cough syrup” in his bottle. But he stepped up and put on a set worthy of a medicine show with his banjo, his brazen country voice and the help of his friend guitarist Mike Armistead. He sang of unrequited love for the “aggravating beauty Lula Walls” from the Carter Family repertoire. He offered the old, old version of the song I know as “Meet Me In The Moonlight” which he calls “The Prisoner’s Song.” But it was on “Charming Betsy” that he got folks riled up by spinning and flipping his banjo. I think his coolest trick came in “Grandfather’s Clock” when he made the banjo swing like the clock’s pendulum while chiming the hour somehow with his fretting hand. Troy is the essence of Middle Tennessee traditional music for me, and it’s so rewarding to see somebody who’s my age and not twice my age dedicated to this folk art form and legacy.
I wouldn’t endorse the Howlin’ Brothers are virtuoso instrumentalists, but as an ensemble that works together and raises the excitement level in the room, they’re hard to beat. They understand the blues and they set up a rhythmic drive (starting with Ian Craft’s strategically placed bass drum) that embraces boogie, punk and rockabilly all at once. “Monroe” was a bayou themed song with Cajun touches that Jared Green sang with an ever-present smile. “Sing A Sad Song” was magnificently mournful. Closer “Night And Day” was a real thumper with dark harmonica from Green. This is definitely a band that can turn your scowl into a howl.
Jim Lauderdale led the troops through a Nashville Jam of Hank’s “Lost Highway,” which is a great song, though perhaps not a perfect benediction to a bunch of people who have to get to their cars and find their way home. But ours is a resourceful and keen audience. We think they and many more will find their way back next Wednesday when we’re pretty sure it will be a bit balmier outside.