Priceless Sound

On Friday, the same day we enjoyed our return visit road show at Monteagle Assembly on the Cumberland Plateau, I had a remarkable experience just 6 miles down the road at The University of The South. The William Ralston Listening Room on the second floor of the campus library has a fascinating story and inspired leadership; its mission is to expose young people to serious music and provoke musical epiphanies. The space, a million dollar investment custom-built around a shockingly great sound system, took me as far into the music as I’ve ever been. A small group listened to Tammy Wynette, J.S. Bach, Oliver Nelson, Sarah Jarosz and more with goosebumps. It’s a sweet stereo, but it’s more than great gear; it’s a shrine to musical truth and beauty.

Listening experiences like that (I’ve had just four or five such opportunities in my life) invite comparisons to live music. After all, a few days before in Liberty Hall and later that night at Monteagle’s stunning wooden shed, the musicians were right there, breathing and vivid. It’s the “real” thing versus the mega-stereo’s “reproduction.” But they are two different takes on musical revelation, each with advantages. Clearly live performance is more accessible and essential. The world wouldn’t end without audiophile gear. But partaking of both in one magic day inspired me deeply.

Two shows in three days was quite a way to wrap an epic Spring season. One featured swinging, grooving bands at our annual Dance Night. The other had dancing fireflies just outside open barn doors. The Monteagle atmosphere and the community’s generous loan of a house let the Roots team hang out together after it was all wrapped up, taking pride in each other and a great run of shows.

Wednesday night opened with the Music City Doughboys, a Western swing and classic country band featuring the superb vocals and fiddling of front man Billy McClaran. The talent’s abundant here, so James Mitchell’s Telecaster and Danny Muhammad’s steel guitar solos were sweet, especially the wide open jam on closer “Alabama Jubilee.” A different take on swing came from 50 Shades of Hay where the vocal leads came from Aaron Till and the charming Wendy Newcomer. As expected, Rory Hoffman smoked on accordion in both foreground and background roles. Twin fiddles from Till and Eamon McLoughlan were lush and colorful. Wendy’s take on “Rose Colored Glasses” was timeless and “The Girl I Left Behind Me” had an Irish lilt. The solo swapping on closer “Old Fashioned Love” (a phenomenal hillbilly jazz number) was stirring.

Usually on Dance Night it’s a bit of a struggle to get folks to gin their courage up to be the first out on the floor, but this year a bunch of expert and graceful couples were twirling from the first measures of the first band. Also typical is a traffic jam during the square dance, but this was backwards this year as well. But we had enough folks to have plenty of fun, with Tennessee Bill calling and the incredible Uncle Shuffalo and his Haint Holler Hootenanny making the old time pulse. They were really fine, with spot-on fiddling from putative leader Austin Derryberry and surprisingly powerful clawhammer banjo from young Connor Derrryberry, his curls framing his head and his expression as neutral as if he was waiting for a bus. What an unassuming talent he is. With seven people and expert musicianship, the Hootenanny earned its name.

And to close the night, we brought in Minneapolis up-and-coming band the Lil’ Smokies, and wow, I’m signed on for the long haul with these guys. There’s the loose hippie vibe of Yonder without the rough edges. They are really fine players and singers. Andy Dunnigan has an engaging voice and the harmonies are intense. They know how to build a great song around powerful riffs and they get a lot out of the rhythmically insistent, four-beat bass lines in the style I call “pulse-grass.” Jake Simpson played some spankin’ fiddle, surprising everyone with a wah-wah pedal on the fun instrumental “Tooth.” Matt Cornette’s banjo was edgy and precise. They made more than a little smoke up there.

On Friday, our crew worked extra hard to set a stage for a one-off edition of MCR at the Monteagle Assembly and it was a charmer. From backstage the old fashioned footlights made the bands look like something from the 1930s, as my pic above suggests. The audience strolled in around sundown and we enjoyed summer breezes and shafts of sunset light filtering in to the very large shed as guest host Scott Simontacchi sang an opening song and Wood & Wire took the stage. This band was good when we met them three years ago and they’re a whole lot better now, with super tight harmonies and graceful grooves. Their own material is clever and yet they got to the heart of bluegrass in a tribute to the departed Ralph Stanley, “Stone Walls and Steel Bars.”

Bill & The Belles delivered more of the sweetness and old-time authenticity that we fell for on on their first MCR appearance this winter. Special notice for Kalia Yeagle’s fiddle, which played exquisite blues and answered vocal lines with a light touch. Then our host took on the mantle of Sheriff Scott and led his Deputies through a rousing set that makes something hard to pin down with bluegrass instrumentation. Simontacchi writes really interesting songs. And the closer featured Annie Sellick and her husband Pat Bergeson in their newly minted duo. I knew we’d hear some kind of jazz standard but in unstandard fashion, and that’s what we got with “Exactly Like You.” But there were also fascinating songs that put this duo in sort of a Tuck & Patti mode (remember them?) with virtuoso guitar on one hand and gorgeous singing on the other, matched together like lovers. “Wild One” was just fascinating musically with a trippy minor guitar figure. Then Annie played a rich and complex acoustic guitar part, which let Pat do his other thing, which is harmonica, as good as it’s ever been played.

After a farewell jam on the Stanley Brothers inspired “Little Maggie” we enjoyed the rest of the night with literal back porch music from some of our artists, up close and true to the repertoire and spirit of the Tennessee hills. It sounded at least as good as a million dollar stereo.

Craig H.

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