That radio countdown never sounded so sweet. Not since our first night on WSM in October 2009 did the top of the show – with its shot of Rob Ickes dobro and our emcee’s stentorian voice proclaiming us on the air from the Edge of Music City – have so much electricity for me. Yes, I know we send a video feed of MCR out over the internet across much greater distances than the footprint of an FM signal. But in my opinion, radio will always be the most refined and exciting and substantial medium – the one that matches technology and content in the most timeless and spiritual way.
I mean, think about it. The voices and instrumental sounds of Nashville’s finest musician and distinguished visiting talent went into microphones on stage, imprinting their nuances and truth onto a current of electricity. That signal went to a mixing board and then over an internet line to a studio in Murfreesboro where it was processed for broadcast and then sent a few more miles to a tower west of Percy Priest Lake where it was sent rippling across the land, reaching all of Middle Tennessee with rich analog fidelity. During the second set, I went out to listen in my car for a bit just to make sure it was real. After a number of months without that official radio home, we were back, and not on just any station, but a new Nashville-centric Americana station programmed by my friends and teammates, now known as WMOT/Roots Radio 89.5. It was a moving thing to hear.
Such elaborate hardware deserves top quality software and our guest artists brought it on this night dedicated to previewing the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Festival and celebrating the 1927 Bristol Session, as updated on the double album Orthophonic Joy. We started with the Church Sisters, the poised and genetically communicative young siblings from Virginia. With only one acoustic guitarist as accompaniment, their clear, cooing voices charmed and moved us through a four-song set. Their song “Radio Silence” proved totally unprophetic (thank heaven), and their cover of U2’s “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” was the most pure and elegant take on the song I’ve heard.
Carl Jackson brought the soul and sound of the Station Inn Monday Nights to our stage for the next set, complete with Val Storey on vocals (swoon) and Larry Cordle on acoustic guitar and vocals (wow) and of course Carl’s own incredible voice and instrumental skills. Val opened with the Chuck Berry country classic “C’est La Vie” and Cordle picked up the thread with “Black Diamond Strings.” The soft and heart-rending “Pathway of Teardrops” ended with one of the most tender and perfect three-part-harmony-on-one-microphone moments we’ve ever had. And they headed for the side stage with a swinging “Makin’ A Life.” But they’d be back.
Meanwhile, on came Ashley Campbell for her MCR debut and I was really curious what we’d hear. She opened with a banjo instrumental that featured some tricky bends and flowing up-and-down-the-neck licks. Then it was “Remembering,” her tribute to her dad Glen and his battle with Alzheimer’s. This could so easily have been sappy, but boy it’s well written with real images and stories and lovely language. It’s emotional and loving, and while she’s going to battle to carve out her own thing as her own artist, this couldn’t be a nicer all-family calling card and musical coming out. Ashley’s own “The Lonely One” includes some chords that imply that Glen’s musical outlook has influenced her. She wrapped by singing “Witchita Lineman” with Carl Jackson playing guitar and singing harmony, the very role he played for Glen Campbell in the 70s.
Jesse McReynolds is 87 years old and he does not mince mandolin, or tempo. His six-piece band tore into “The Midnight Train” at a good clip, while twin fiddles by Corinna Logsdon and Buddy Griffin surged in high bluegrass style. Jesse played Chuck Berry style licks on a Bill Monroe song. He did the catchy as all get-out “I’ll Love Nobody But You” from his Jim & Jesse days (an original), which was on the very first cassette compilation that won me over to bluegrass in the first place. “Deep Elem Blues” was a nod to McReynolds’ skill with Grateful Dead covers. “Okeechobe Winds” the set closer should be an instrumental standard.
Carl Jackson directed a magnificent Orthophonically inspired final set of songs from the Bristol story and project. An a cappella church house “I’m Redeemed” flowed fluidly into “Bury Me Beneath The Willow,” with touches of autoharp and Ashley Campbell on mandolin. Val Storey sang it like she was living it on stage. “Where can he be?” Cordle and Jackson sang one of the sharpest arrangements on the album, setting Bill Monroe’s “In The Pines” in a whole new light, with a new groove. Jesse McReynolds came to the stage to play a fiddle that belonged to his grandfather (and one that was played on the Bristol recordings). Ashley returned with her banjo to do her riveting version of “The Wreck of the Virginian” about a train collision that killed two fellows just weeks before the song was first recorded. And the Church Sisters did their heart-stopping gospel number from the project. It’s about heaven and it sounded like it.
Jim Lauderdale hit the stage with everyone for a blazing final jam on “Black Eyed Suzy,” which is a primo track from the Ortho album done by Marty Stuart. We loved our Larry Cordle take though, and the whole night ended feeling like it would have ripples for years to come.