Picker Shock

Submitted by Craig Havighurst on November 8, 2013 – 15:21

One of our most loyal Roots regulars approached me after the show Wednesday night and observed that even more than usual, I’d had a giant smile plastered on during pretty much the whole affair. Yes, guitars make me happy even when nobody’s playing them. But to have four brilliant artists making such a wide range of absorbing, original music on Nashville’s MVP of instruments was truly special. Guitar Night always is, and being up against the CMA Awards, where I knew guitars would be doing little besides eight-second warmed over Van Halen style solos amid songs about hot girls and trucks, made me feel like we were offering a bit of redemption for Music City on a rainy night in November.

It felt a little strange listening to Jim Oblon’s biting, rolling, polyrhythmic country blues at the start of our 7 pm show. He’s for sure an after ten pm kind of musician, and his playing really blossoms in the presence of dim neon lighting and night people. That said, by the time he flowed into the unison vocal and guitar lines of second tune, Muddy Waters’ “Can’t Be Satisfied,” the Oblon vibe was established, and that’s something very special – down home but a little psychedelic, precise but emotional. Against a Mississippi gut bucket backbeat, he skated up the neck and rendered stinging, mournful and colorful phrases. His instrumental ballad “Nancy” (an allusion to the Telecaster played by a conspicuous Oblon influence, the late great Roy Buchanan) was juicy and lush, with lines that harmonically conjoined Jim’s guitar with pedal steel by the great Bucky Baxter. “Streets of Gold” was a new vocal song that had a fresh form and a seductive swampy quality that reminded me a little of Sonny Landreth. He closed out with a percussive boogie blues that featured Oblon’s gift with multi-string tone clusters and country slurs. I’ll be heading back to one of his Tuesday night FooBar shows in East Nashville soon to catch Jim’s brilliance in its natural habitat, unconstrained by time limits.

From rock and roll to an Earl Scruggs roll we went, as David Andersen took the stage solo in a natty suit and a gorgeous arch-top guitar, which he used like a banjo to play a speedy version of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” If I tried that I’d break down for sure. Then it was “Mr. Sandman,” a tune I love, popularized on the guitar by David’s Nashville mentor Chet Atkins. Just as that was receiving its ovation, I strolled out on stage and got David to share a little of his story while strumming changes. It’s an impressive skill he’s honed visiting with thousands of folks at his day job playing the atrium at the Country Music Hall of Fame. He rounded out the set with a tricky pick-and-fingers arrangement of “Day Tripper” and a pure jazz rendition of “How High The Moon” with a dazzling moving bass line and great chords. Andersen’s the quintessential cool cat, with a lot of depth behind the suave exterior.

More Beatles, and extremely difficult Beatles at that, marked the opening of Ethan Ballinger’s set. His vintage electric guitar, channeled through cathedral scale reverb, made a grand watery sound, and he patiently sketched “Because” on his own, before drummer Jon Radford and acoustic bass player Rich Brinsfield joined in with smoky jazz texture. That segued into a nice grooving jam that didn’t seem to have or need a name. Ethan stuck with the dirty toned juke joint electric guitar for “Caravan,” one of my favorite all time tunes. He handled the flying carpet chord changes with ease and freedom. It produced a nice drum solo too; the tune is made for one. Then Ethan shifted gears thoroughly by pulling out a tenor guitar, an instrument rarely seen outside of a few old time country groups. Usually a rhythm instrument, Ballinger flatpicked it beautifully through fiddle standard “Kitchen Girl,” a slow and lyrical Djanjo-feeling tune (supported beautifully by bonus guitarist Austin Fillingo) and a fast and high boogie woogie in classic Nashville style. It could have been Hank Garland, Buddy Harman and Bob Moore up there.

The six string shootout reached its final act with a set by Guthrie Trapp’s hyper-efficient and brilliantly in-synch trio featuring Nashville bass legend Michael Rhodes and drummer Pete Abbott. They played some of the same tunes they did when they last visited a year and a half ago, and I’m glad they did, because original instrumental music this good merits burrowing into a bit. Hearing smooth-as-silk “Commodity” and Latin-tinged “Patricia” and off-kilter “Monkey Bars” played afresh is for me like having my favorite dish again at a great restaurant. One hears new things in the themes, and they’re all fantastic vehicles for improvisation, at which Guthrie is a Jedi master. He and Rhodes get into a physical and sonic dance that’s so deep and fascinating, responding to each other’s ideas and dynamics.

A swinging, guitar-friendly blues was called for to close out the night with all of the players on stage, and Jim Lauderdale and the gang settled on the mid-tempo shuffler “Bright Lights, Big City” from the Jimmy Reed catalog. We got to hear four different guitarists in conversation with one another, and it was an ideal coda to a night of slick playing. Over the horizon, back in the big city, the lights were indeed bright. But I think our shockingly good pickers proved once again that the really good stuff is often out on the edge of town.

Finally, thanks once again to guest emcee Kyle Cantrell for your expert work at the podium. Always glad to have you.

Craig H.

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