I recently got to work up a story for WMOT about songwriter Jon Byrd’s final shows at Charlie Bob’s, a Dickerson Pike diner in Nashville that’s being torn down, and my emphasis was on the special beauty of country music at “human scale,” when the singer is just a few feet from the audience and there’s a palpable connection that elevates the emotion and the stories. Country music is a chemical fusion of that ethos with sounds and genre signifiers that bond us with each other and with the past. The blue notes and the sonorous and plaintive voice, the twang and yearning of steel guitars are all signals to the heart and mind that all is well, that you’re in familiar territory, if not home. This week’s Roots looks stellar all around but especially because we have Jon Byrd himself, one of Nashville’s greatest country writer/singers and a duo double dose of world-class Three Chords + Truth in the show-closing duet of Daryle Singletary and Rhonda Vincent.
So imagine you’re a wine connoisseur and your palette is trained and experienced and you make a long-planned pilgrimage to France and some wizened vineyard owner takes you to his deepest darkest cellar and pulls out something he thinks is the last thing you should drink before the Earth-ending meteor hits. That’s my tortured metaphor for how rarified and substantial the vocal blend of Daryle Singletary and Rhonda Vincent is. In country singing, this is the top shelf reserve. He’s a journeyman country star, minted in the 1990s, who’s never wavered from his pure adoration of traditional music in the vein of Keith Whitley and Randy Travis. She’s a bluegrass lifer who’s always kept a toe or a foot in hard core country. I’ve not been able to track down the full story on the origin of their vocal partnership, but it goes back at least to 2007 when she appears on his Straight From The Heart album singing the George/Tammy song “We’re Gonna Hold On.” They’ve appeared on stage as a duo more and more frequently, and they’re getting ready to drop a duo album called American Grandstand. They gush about each other’s voices and what fun it is to sing together. We agree and think you will too.
Jon Byrd’s take on country isn’t quite as linked to the sound of the Travis-era neo-traditionalists, but he is an old school believer. If anything, his gentle touch and emphasis on story is reminiscent of Willie Nelson, Mickey Newbury and the soothing heartache sound of the 1970s. Mr. Byrd, who’s graced our stage in the past, honed his stage chops over years in Atlanta. And he says with humility that he came to Music City to be a sideman and blend in, but we’re quite grateful that he started his own band, Byrd’s Auto Parts, and began making delicious albums that feed the brain and the soul in equal measure. Happy to say there’s a brand new project hitting the streets in mid June. Maybe Jon will have a few copies for us on Wednesday. Meanwhile, as for his live residency, he’s moved on from the lamented Charlie Bob’s to play early sets at the re-constituted Radio Café on Tuesdays and Betty’s Grill on the West Side on Mondays. I call him the King of six til eight.
If you love country music you must love guitars, and we’ve got a stellar guitarist from another country on the bill this week. Beppe Gambetta is a cat I got to know as an obsessive fan of flatpicking in the 1990s. A native of Genoa, Italy, he got excited about bluegrass and founded the band Red Wine, a band that still exists today in another form. As a soloist, Beppe mingled Doc Watson’s style with a Mediterranean folk feeling for a truly wonderful hybrid that found favor with Doc and many other greats, including David Grisman and Dan Crary. He’s collaborated with them all. I saw him play many times at Merlefest and enjoyed a romantic twist in his style, which was a bit more delicate and airy than the standard. Among his many projects as an evangelist/artist, he brings great American musicians back to Genoa for an annual Acoustic Night. This year’s roster was Pat Flynn, Bryan Sutton and David Grier. So that’s the company this guys keeps. Plus he’s a warm and delightful man.
Rounding out the bill this week will be some feisty, dance friendly bluegrass/newgrass from The Wooks, a quintet from Lexington, Kentucky. With band fans like the Travelin’ McCourys and Town Mountain, I’m surprised I’ve not been able to experience this tight, exciting band before. One typical bit of professional praise comes from Compass Records owner and banjo boss Alison Brown, who says she “loves” the Wooks. “With one foot in Kentucky bluegrass and the other in a galaxy far, far away, they are post modern grassers at heart, delivering song after song full of infectious energy, tremendous musicality and flat out joy.”
No need to go to France for the good stuff in country music. We’ve got it at Liberty Hall.