Spend enough time around a real-time production like Music City Roots and you’re bound to hear someone involved drop the phrase, “that’s why they call it live.” Last night, it was easy to see why. With attendees pared down to just a few hardy souls undeterred by what passes for a serious winter storm in Nashville—reports of drives typically requiring fifteen minutes being stretched into three and four hour ordeals were legion—the Loveless Barn could have become a pretty lonesome venue, were it not for the spirit that down-to-earth music can (and did) engender. Crew members took attendance, made note of the missing (like scheduled guest host Peter Cooper) and the delayed (our heroic announcer Keith Bilbrey) and parcelled out substitute assignments even as they decided to give every audience member brave enough to get there an automatic upgrade to VIP status.
So when the show kicked off, and producer John Walker gamely stepped up to the MCR mike to greet listeners and viewers with an apologetic “I’m not Keith Bilbrey”—only to be interrupted by the man himself, who surprised us all by stepping up behind John with a perfectly timed “but I am”—it was just the right sign that the night was going to be something special, with every rough edge smoothed over by an abundance of good cheer and the same improvisational spirit that makes for so many magical moments in the music itself.
And so it was that, while the night outside was cold, the music and the mood inside the Loveless Barn were plenty warm. Two Man Gentlemen Band started out by reminding us why, while the “hokum” style of the 20s and 30s may wax and wane in popularity, it doesn’t disappear; they did it up just right, blending hot, nimble picking and rapid-fire humor on a set of mostly original songs like “I Like To Party With Girls” and “Chocolate Milk” that ride the line between pre- and post-modern irony with nary a misstep. “Two man music” is what they call what they do, but there were times when it sounded like “ten man music” instead, and they endeared themselves to all later in the show when they affably stretched out in their interview to cover for a late-arriving colleague. And then the Carter Brothers, filling this week’s Vietti Chili Emerging Artist slot, made their way down the treacherous road from the north side’s Highland Rim to lay some nifty acoustic-electric fusion on us, full of jangling guitar, wailing harmonica, funkgrass banjo and gritty vocals that laid out stories as straight and simple as a train track. Their new album looks to be like a real winner.
John Michael Rouchell, who mostly fronts a six-piece band called MyNameIsJohnMichael, served up another surprise by showing up on his own—a bit nervous, maybe, but quietly determined to get the job done by himself, which he surely did. MyNameIsJohnMichael serve up a brassy and exciting sound, but listening to John Michael stand and deliver was every bit as exciting, and in an equally exciting way, for there are few things more riveting than watching an artist grow to fill the stage he’s on. He previewed songs from the album that the group’s been working on, and while from what he says, it’s going to be one bodaciously horn-driven affair, it’s hard to believe that they could be any more affecting than they were on the MCR stage with just a guitar and a voice, a singer and a song.
Band Of Heathens are Music City Roots favorites, and listening last night, it was easy to see why. Everything you can think of that’s good to say about rootsy rock, about Austin, about meaty songs given extra drive by the full sound of a tight band, they’ve got it. And when Ed Jurzi’s keyboards gave him and the crew a little technical trouble, not only did the band keep their composure, they turned it into one of the set’s sweetest moments, as Ed sashayed around the stage to keep up with the rest. Midway through a tour that’s got them on a classic Tennessee-Kentucky-West Virginia circuit, they’re dishing up songs from a new album that comes out in just a few weeks—though they bowed to popular, if unspoken demand by closing with a signature song from their last release, “L. A. County Blues,” and then providing most of the muscle for the closing Loveless Jam on Lowell George’s “Willin’”—and this time, not only the whole cast, but half the crew looked to be out on stage joining in.
And in the end, while the challenge of the weather set up a rather unique show, what made it work was anything but unique: it’s the sense of community, of pride in a job well done, of joy in getting it all to work out, that’s born of a world where music isn’t just another commodity used to sell stuff or be sold itself, but something deep and something shared. That’s what we’ve been going for at Music City Roots, and we seem to be getting there just fine. It’s been a privilege to be a small part of it.